#12: Responding To A Crisis — Dr. James Dabney, Director of ThePosse Foundation, New Orleans — A Series Documenting How New Orleans Educators and Schools Are Reacting To COVID-19

In this edited Q&A, we continue our updates on how youth-focused programs in New Orleans are responding to the COVID crisis. This is an interview with Dr. James Dabney, Director of The Posse Foundation, New Orleans. The Posse Foundation partners with colleges and universities to provide young people with full-tuition leadership scholarships.

Dr. James Dabney

How is Posse New Orleans supporting current scholars during COVID?

Posse New Orleans is using a virtual platform to provide pre-collegiate training to our newly selected Scholars in preparation for their matriculation in the fall. (Prior to the pandemic, these new cohorts would have come to our offices to participate in weekly workshops designed to build camaraderie and help develop their leadership skills.) In response to the challenges presented by COVID-19, we’ve also developed workshop activities around the pandemic and its implications for college students.

With regard to our college-enrolled Scholars, Posse staff hold virtual one-on-one meetings to ensure their persistence toward graduation and to help with any issues they may be facing. Scholars also meet virtually with their assigned faculty mentors in bi-weekly individual sessions and weekly group sessions with their Posse.

Through an emergency fund, The Posse Foundation has supported Scholars facing COVID-19-related challenges, such as the impromptu and immediate transition from campus to their homes.

Posse has unique in-person interviews designed to identify leaders. How is that process changing in light of stay-at-home orders and social distancing?

Our Dynamic Assessment Process (DAP) — the method by which we recruit and identify Posse Scholars — is an essential and unique part of our framework. DAP is one of the factors that makes Posse so compelling to our university partners. Our 2020 interview season doesn’t begin until late August. In the event that we have to conduct this vital part of our work virtually, we’ve developed an online model that preserves the integrity and effectiveness of the process.

Some potential Posse scholars will have limited access to technology. How is Posse working to help ensure those students can participate in the interview process?

Posse has grappled with the issue of limited access to technology with both our current pre-collegiate and college-enrolled Scholars. We have provided a number of our Scholars with needed technology and connected others to community resources that provide support and access.

With regard to scholarship nominees heading into the interview process, Posse New Orleans plans to work with our local educational partners to support these efforts. In early March, we held our annual Educational Executive Awareness Lunch & Informational for superintendents, CMO (Charter Management Organizations) executives, and other educational leaders in our recruiting region. During the lunch, we spoke about ways to support optimal student engagement in the Posse scholarship process. One idea is for educational partners to provide their student nominees access to technology throughout the application process. We want to make sure every deserving student has a fair chance at the Posse Scholarship.

What are the key challenges Posse scholars are facing? How are you all responding?

Two key challenges faced by Scholars are adjusting to “doing college” at home and securing summer internships. Posse Scholars are accustomed to being away at school and, particularly in their first two years, living on campus. The adjustment to remote learning has been a major shift for many of them. Posse staff meets with Scholars to provide social-emotional support when necessary and to help them continue to develop the hard skills needed to persist in a virtual learning environment. Posse mentors are also essential supports in addressing this challenge.

Additionally, our students have experienced increased difficulty in securing internships and other meaningful summer experiences due to the pandemic. Our staff, in collaboration with the career services offices of our university partners, are working with Scholars to help them navigate this issue. Posse is also developing special programming and supports to address this challenge.

What lessons have you learned during this time? How might this shape your work going forward?

One of the biggest lessons has been about the importance of flexibility. The pandemic has forced us to develop, almost overnight, virtual models of each of our program components. These will undoubtedly continue to be useful in the near future and beyond.

In addition to the need for flexibility, the pandemic has underscored the steep price we pay for inept leadership and strengthened the argument for our mission: to create a leadership network that more adequately reflects the diversity of our country. In New Orleans and other cities across the country, COVID-19 is taking an extraordinary and disproportionate toll on under-resourced communities — the very communities most Posse Scholars call home. The leadership network Posse is building will help to ensure that when important decisions are made — around matters such as healthcare, immigration, global warming, and education — the voices of the people affected by those decisions will be better represented. The pandemic has demonstrated well, in an unparalleled way, why diversity in leadership is critical.

Are any Posse scholars reconsidering their decisions about going to college next year given the unpredictability with COVID? If so, what are they considering to do instead?

Because of the pandemic our Scholars and their families are being forced to make difficult decisions, just like everyone else. As of now, we’re expecting all Posse New Orleans Scholars to be enrolled in the fall; none of them have notified us otherwise. However, if this changes, we will serve as thought-partners with our Scholars and their families where appropriate. Our goal is to be a resource for them as they look to make informed decisions about what to do come September.

How are colleges communicating with Posse scholars?

Our university partners are communicating with Posse Scholars in the same way that they are communicating with their other students. However, Posse’s formally-structured, on-campus support system for Scholars adds an additional layer of communication — namely, from Posse mentors and campus liaisons, who serve as critical additional resources.