Alumni Stories: Erika Halstead
For Erika Halstead, organizational and systemic change starts with giving voice to those on the front lines.
As both a proud Latina and proud alumna of the University of Texas at Austin, Erika Halstead (CPRL 2014-15) was thrilled when her alma mater recently admitted its largest-ever cohort of students from under-represented groups. Then she went on LinkedIn to see what others were saying about the news.
“The first comment I read said, ‘This is nothing to be proud of—meritocracy is dead,’” recalls Halstead, who currently serves as Executive Director of Minds Matter NYC, the local chapter of a nonprofit whose volunteers help prepare low-income high school students for college. “It was a painful reminder that so many Americans can’t or won’t see that our society doesn’t provide equal resources.”
Halstead’s father was born in the United States into poverty, and his family couldn’t support his dream of becoming an engineer. He left home, worked his way through college one course at a time, and after serving in Vietnam, finished his education courtesy of the G.I. Bill.
Halstead’s mother grew up in Colombia and was encouraged by her parents to get an education. She became a petroleum engineer and the first woman hired at Getty Oil at a time when her worksite lacked a women’s bathroom.
“I’m the daughter of two first-generation college students, and seeing the difference in the life they gave me versus the way they grew up is the thing that drives me in my work,” Halstead says.
That work has centered around giving voice to marginalized groups and working to level the playing field—goals that she says her time at CPRL, more than any other educational experience, equipped her to realize. She came to the Center after serving as a senior program officer for Humanities New York, a nonprofit that uses the humanities to foster inquiry and dialogue around social and cultural concerns. She was also earning a master’s degree in sociology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College but knew from her previous work as an elementary school teacher and adjunct professor at Hunter College that, rather than being an academic, she wanted to work toward systemic change in education.
“CPRL provided hands-on, real-world experience doing consulting that wasn’t just hypothetical or fake or under ideal circumstances—and also the opportunity to work alongside non-educators and learn from their skills and expertise,” she says. “It was really the best thing I did in graduate school.”
As part of a year-long cohort, Halstead participated in two projects that immersed her in CPRL’s Evolutionary Framework and reinforced the Center’s emphasis on learning to solicit and engage stakeholders.
In the first project, developing an evaluation tool for a major foundation that funded charter schools, Halstead said she learned “the importance of being able to pivot, understand the client’s needs, and read between the lines.” In the second project, Halstead and other members of her cohort helped an urban school district address the high rate of dissatisfaction and turnover among caseworkers in the district’s special education programs.
“We spoke to people about perceived inefficiency in the system, and in particular, we brought the caseworkers’ views to the fore, presenting deliverables that honored what they had told us,” she says. “Ultimately, we helped the district listen to the frontline workers in a new way and understand what the pain points were. Sometimes, leaders don’t want to ask those questions, because they’re afraid that the answer is going to be, ‘We need to hire 50 more people.’ But just asking the questions builds trust. And often the answers turn out to be something much simpler and more straightforward. In this instance, people said the district needed to hire just one new person—someone expert in identifying kids with learning disabilities rather than in following a kid through their entire time in school.”
"CPRL provided hands-on, real-world experience doing consulting that wasn’t just hypothetical or fake or under ideal circumstances—and also the opportunity to work alongside non-educators and learn from their skills and expertise."
Like many CPRL alumni, Halstead has repeatedly applied those CPRL experiences throughout her career. Unlike many CPRL alumni, however, she was presented with her first opportunity to do so while she was still in the program. That same year, Minds Matter NYC, where she had previously served as both a board member and a volunteer, tapped her to serve as its interim executive director.
“They turned to me because the organization was having difficulties, and they needed to make some significant changes, particularly to ensure better communication from the front line to management,” she says. “We have incredible volunteers who act as mentors and coaches for our students. We call them our ‘community of opportunity.’ To give you an idea of how dedicated they are, a few years ago a former volunteer called me and asked for help securing a job for a former student. I said, ‘OK, what year did your mentee graduate from high school?’ And she said 1998! Her mentee was now a seasoned mid-career professional, and this mentor was still out there advocating on behalf of her student!”
But the volunteers are not education professionals, and, as Halstead quickly learned, they didn’t know what to do when a student stopped showing up, or how to help students choose a college, or how to advise students on whether or not to take on debt to pay tuition.
“The problem was that our volunteers had written the curriculum we were using with students, and they had based it on their own school experiences, which were very different from those of our students. So, I was able to bring some professionalization to that process, and to say, this is what you should be teaching, and here is where you can still have freedom and flexibility.
“And I was so fortunate, because I was able, on Day 1, to implement Evolutionary Learning techniques. I asked the volunteer leadership about what they felt was going well, what they wanted to change, and what the low-hanging fruit were, and we would not have been able to score some of those early wins without that framework.”
Now in her seventh year at Minds Matter, and with the “Interim” long since removed from her title, Halstead has continued to apply the same approach.
“We’ve used Evolutionary Learning to develop our 2025 strategic plan,” she says. “We did surveys of alumni and interviewed our volunteers. Then we brought it to the board and continued to iterate. It was all based on bottom-up thought. I didn’t just think of it all by myself one afternoon.”
The plan calls for the organization to expand its services to support students while they’re in college and in pursuing their careers.
“We have exceptional students, and they all attend four-year colleges, but while they’re surviving, they’re not always thriving. One student recently got a prestigious scholarship at a great college, but when he left Minds Matter, he told me that he felt like he fell off a cliff. And so many excellent students stumble when they get out of college. It’s not a question of merit, but rather, do they have the resources?”
Halstead loves her job, but down the road, she can see herself working to help yet another marginalized group: teachers.
“I used to go to parties, and people would say, ‘Oh, you’re an elementary school teacher, that’s so cute,’” she says. “So, we really need to turn teaching into a revered profession, as it is in Finland, where teachers are at the top of their classes, rather than being a field where people land sometimes because they don’t know what they want to do. So many good people are leaving the profession – but if we can attract and retain them, the education of each student will improve.”
In Their Own Words
Our alumni network now includes more than 500 leaders, advocates, and champions dedicated to improving school systems and other public sectors. Some alumni work directly with teachers, families, and students, ensuring access to high-quality education. Others work indirectly—supporting improvement from inside private sector organizations. In Their Own Words captures the many and varied ways our alumni lead and improve organizations in education and other public sectors.
About the Author
Joe Levine writes about education, law, science and medicine, and health care. His work has appeared in Time, LIFE, Money, Newsday, and many university magazines.