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Q&A with La June Montgomery Tabron

The President and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation shares how her Detroit schools education set her up for success and offers advice on helping the next generation of Detroit students.

Content brought to you by Excellent Schools Detroit

This year, La June Montgomery Tabron became the President and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the first African-American to serve at the helm of one of the nation’s largest philanthropies. Excellent Schools Detroit Vice President Nicole de Beaufort talked to Tabron about growing up and going to school in Detroit – and how that helped her achieve great things. She is an example of what can happen when you dream big and work hard to make those dreams come true.

La June, you were one of 10 kids. What role did your family play in your education?

I was the ninth of 10 kids! I grew up on the east side and attended neighborhood schools. I went to Howe Elementary and (then) Foch Junior High, followed by Cass Tech. Education was always key in my family. There were very high and very clear expectations around remaining in school. Getting an education was the foundation. There was a level of security and certainty about what education meant for our future success that kept my siblings and me on track.

Tell us about what school was like in Detroit then?

All my brothers and sisters and everyone I knew went through the same schools, which built a sense of belonging, accountability and community in the neighborhood, as well. I had the same teachers who’d taught my sisters and brothers. When I walked in the door, they knew you were a Montgomery. And most of those teachers were teachers of color who knew the neighborhood, knew the culture. They could get right in your face, in your language, in your way. They had credibility, and they demanded excellence. They would just not accept failure. Period.

Give us an example about how your teachers demanded excellence from you.

I was a straight-A student in every subject but one! I still admire and feel frustration about my sixth-grade teacher who never gave me a grade higher than a B in handwriting no matter how hard I tried. One day I asked her, “Why don’t you ever give me an A?” “Because I just don’t ever want you to stop working hard,” she answered. That is a lesson that’s never left me.

What kinds of things outside of school nurtured your leadership and helped you grow?

Enrichment programs and leadership opportunities in my high school years exposed me to experiences, careers and ways of life far different from what I saw in my own neighborhood – and that support and exposure is too often lacking for today’s families and children. When I think of children today, they need people who are invested in sharing new experiences with our children, who believe in our children. And it’s up to all of us to rebuild those networks of believers in every child’s neighborhood or life.

Tell us a bit about your professional life.

I was backed by family, school and neighborhood support, attended Cass Tech High School and then the University of Michigan (in) Ann Arbor, where I graduated with a degree in business administration. I then acquired a master’s degree from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. I served in a variety of roles at the Kellogg Foundation for the last 26 years – from controller to executive vice president of operations and treasurer – before taking on the top leadership post. Each new experience and position offered me an opportunity to grow as a leader and as a champion for kids.

What are your plans now that you’re CEO?

First, we have to help people learn how to dream big and broaden their perspective of what’s possible. I also want to see us cultivating new local leadership talent that can help rebuild the supportive networks that will improve children’s lives in faster and more measurable ways. What we need is collective leadership, not individual leadership. We cannot do this work in isolation. And we can’t just say that because communities have broken down that this work isn’t possible. If we can hold fast to those same elements that gave me a foundation for my success and help families reconstruct those elements, we can create a different way of thinking about how you build communities.

How does education fit into that mix?

Quality education is central to those efforts. In the next decade, the majority of school-aged children in this country will be children of color. As a society, we have to figure out how to attract more people of color into teaching and ensure that all teachers, whatever their background, are competent and culturally aware. We have to figure out how to rapidly assess and implement what’s working and then, using those successful models, scale and implement at a faster pace than we’ve done.

What advice do you have for young people in Detroit?

Look for mentors and adults who can help (you) see clearly. Work from a space of hope. What I would ask young people who are graduating and looking at Detroit is to have faith. There are opportunities. They will become more visible, and we need you to be part of that rebuilding.

Parting words?

Dreaming is a skill that can be taught. And it’s up to us to rebuild the networks, neighborhoods and communities that make big dreams possible for every child in Detroit.

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