The following is a conversation between Deborah Bial, Founder and CEO of Posse Foundation, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: For those who are old enough to remember and watch Westerns on TV, there were times when the sheriff would form a “posse” to help find someone and bring them to justice. A more contemporary meaning might be a group of people who have a common characteristic, occupation, or purpose such as going to college together. And an organization that has done that with remarkable effectiveness is the Posse Foundation, and it’s a pleasure to have with us tonight, their Founder and CEO Deborah Bial.
Good evening, Debbie, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Deborah: Hi, Denver.
Denver: So you’re working with the CityKids Foundation back in the 1980s. Where did this idea of the Posse Foundation come from?
Deborah: Well, the story, which has become a legend for us organizationally, is that there was a student who had dropped out of college, and he literally said, “I never would’ve dropped out if I had my posse with me.” At the time, the word “posse” was a very hip word in the youth culture. It meant “my group of friends,” just as your intro suggests, the people who back me up– my team, my crew.
So we thought, “What a great idea! Why not send a team of kids together to college?” In that way, if you grew up in the Bronx, and you end up in, say, Middlebury, Vermont, you’d be a little less likely to turn around and go home.
Denver: What a smart idea! The organization has three major goals; so let’s ground the listener a little bit and tell us what those goals are.
Deborah: Posse is a national college success and leadership development program that tries to address the disconnect between leadership and diversity in the United States.
Our first goal is to expand the pool from which the top colleges can recruit great kids. We sometimes too narrowly define merit, and Posse is saying merit should cast a net and find lots of kids from lots of different backgrounds. So, we expand the pool.
The second goal is to help our college partners build a more integrated diversity on their campus, build community in a way where everybody feels like they belong.
And the third goal is to make sure our kids graduate, obviously, so that they can take on leadership positions in the workforce. That’s really the ultimate goal – to build a leadership network for the United States that looks more like the demographics of the population.
…we are the only national program addressing issues of diversity through access and higher ed that is merit-based. We don’t screen for race; we don’t screen for need; and yet, we address these issues of diversity.
Denver: Debbie, we’ve had a number of people on the show, and we talk about college access programs, and almost all of them are looking to provide opportunities for the poor and underprivileged. In what ways does your organization differ from that model?
Deborah: I’m glad you’re asking that question. As far as I know… and there may be something else, but we are the only national program addressing issues of diversity through access and higher ed that is merit-based. We don’t screen for race; we don’t screen for need; and yet, we address these issues of diversity.
It’s so important that people understand that that’s the goal of Posse – that we are finding young people who are outstanding and deserve this opportunity and win the scholarship on their own merits. We see them as the young people who can become senators and CEOs and college presidents, who can lead movements, who can be entrepreneurs, and we select them for that.
So, this year, and really almost every year, we have about 17,000 kids who are nominated, and we pick 730. Super-competitive!
Denver: So you’re a strength-based organization as opposed to that deficit mindset, which we usually begin with. Would that be fair to say?
Deborah: And those programs that focus on at-risk, poor, minority, needy, underprivileged, underserved, you can fill in the blank – those are very important programs. We need them. We always need programs like that.
But if that is the only way that we address the diversity challenges that we have on our college campuses, we start to create an unfortunate division between those students who are meritorious and deserve to be there and those who are students from backgrounds of color or who come from some kind of disadvantage. And that’s not a good division to make.
Denver: No. That’s a great distinction that you bring up there.
Well, before we get into discussing these young scholars, let’s focus for a minute on the colleges and universities who are involved. Now, the first one was Vanderbilt University. But what other schools now participate, and what do these institutions do for you?
Deborah: They are extraordinary in their partnership. Posse today, in its 31st year, has 58 college and university partners. Fantastic schools. Vanderbilt is still a partner after 31 years; schools like Brandeis, Bryn Mawr, Hamilton, Northwestern, and Cornell; University of Wisconsin- Madison, which actually takes four cohorts a year. They have 160 Posse scholars on their campus.
Denver: Wow! That’s something else.
Deborah: It’s fantastic! The universities commit to providing these full-tuition merit scholarships every year. So, any given institution is providing about $2 million in scholarships per year.
Denver: Not being a poverty or low-income program in the very strict sense of the word – has that caused you any challenges with some of your partners who are defining their scholarships along those lines… and the fact that you are merit-based and not based strictly on need?
Deborah: I think that this country is facing in its Higher Ed system a challenge when it comes to financial aid, and we have very limited financial aid dollars. So, merit programs are a real commitment. You’re saying that “even beyond the need that students exhibit, we’re going to commit these dollars to honor the students that we’re admitting.”
It exists in athletics. Students are winning football scholarships or basketball scholarships. You find a great kid who’s going to be a quarterback, you give them a big scholarship. It exists in music. We give scholarships for great violinists.
Denver: Oboe players is what they’re looking for, I hear.
Deborah: Oboe players, bassoon players.
We give scholarships for many different reasons, and we are among those – these scholarships that honor kids for what they bring to campus.
Denver: Well, as you mentioned a moment ago, this selection process is rigorous. I was just doing the math here; it’s under 5%. That is incredible. And you use a Dynamic Assessment Process. How does that work?
Deborah: DAP, we call it, for short. It’s a fantastic process. Historically, college admissions has focused on tests – SATs, MCTs, GPA, high school ranking. Those things are important, but if they’re the only way we assess a college application, we miss a lot of kids.
Denver: You sure do.
Deborah: So the Dynamic Assessment Process brings in students who’ve been nominated by a college counselor, a principal, someone who says, “Oh, I believe in this young person,” and this young person might not show up on the radar screen. Maybe she doesn’t have a top SAT score. Maybe she doesn’t go to a highly-ranked high school. And we bring in 100 students at a time into a room all together. Can you imagine that, Denver?
Think about it. You’re 17 years old; you’ve been nominated, and you walk in and there’s 100 students in a room. Our staff comes into the room and says, “Hi everybody! We’re going to run you through…”
Denver: I’m getting nervous just listening to you, you know what I mean?
Deborah: Yes, I bet.
Imagine if we then said, “We’re going to run you through a series of interactive games and activities so that we can see things that don’t show up on a piece of paper.”
Denver: Well, give us an example of what are those things or activities.
Deborah: So imagine you’re in a small group of 10, and you’re building a robot made out of Legos, and you have a certain time frame, and you have certain rules and parameters, and we say “Go.” Now, our staff is watching. We’re looking for leadership ability, communication skills, ability to work in a team – we look at things like that throughout these activities – public speaking skills, problem-solving skills, and it’s in real-time, and it’s fun.
So, the young people that are there get a great experience. They get exposed to all these different colleges that we work with, and we get to see the real person, the whole person, the things that can show up in a way that they can’t show up on a piece of paper.
Denver: And you also ask these candidates some very interesting questions. Share a few of those, if you would.
Deborah: The questions that we want young people to engage in, not just in this interview process, but in our society, are related to the issues that concern us as a country: What do you think about science and how we approach science? What do you think about the way we are building our education system? The way we address issues of race and class and gender? How do politics and religion intersect? If you had to think about the future you want for your children, what would that future look like? What is something you wish our government would do? Are you afraid for our democracy?
If you ask young people to engage in questions like that on the spot, in a small group, we get to see how they think. And that’s important.
…all of our colleges and universities, with or without Posse, believe that it’s important to look beyond a test score.
I think people make a mistake when they think that the admissions process should be objective. It is not an objective process. It’s a subjective process.
Denver: This is not rote learning, is it? It’s not going to help you in those particular cases.
As you said a moment ago, our country is overly reliant on these test scores when it comes to admitting young people into college. Is there anything that you’re doing here that could be replicable on a much, much larger scale in trying to improve that process across the board?
Deborah: Yes, and there’s so many levels to that answer. But all of our colleges and universities, with or without Posse, believe that it’s important to look beyond a test score. There’s not one college admissions officer or VP for enrollment who would say, “No. We don’t want to focus on anything but a test score.” But they don’t have the luxury of interviewing students the way Posse does – these thousands and thousands of students across the country.
So I say that because I think it’s important for the country to understand that it’s not easy to be in admissions, and we need systems to screen the thousands of students, the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of students that are applying every year.
I think people make a mistake when they think that the admissions process should be objective. It is not an objective process. It’s a subjective process. The head of admissions is trying to create a class every year, and when she thinks about that, she thinks about diversity. She thinks about interest. She thinks about talent. She thinks about what these kids are going to bring to a community. It’s okay to do that. That’s what a college is. It’s a group of young people who come together to study, to learn from each other.
So what can they learn from Posse? I think they can take some of the activities that we use and see if that’s applicable on a larger scale. They can look at the qualities and traits that we evaluate and build them even more into their own application process when they read essays and do interviews.
Denver: When you’re talking about building a class at a college, you reminded me of a great metaphor, is that it is a lot like a desk drawer. And in a desk drawer, nobody needs 12 scissors. You need a scissor and a stapler and some Scotch tape and different things along those lines. When you’re dependent just on an SAT score, you’re going to get 12 scissors more times than not, and you’re obviously trying to get the full complement of what you need to “function in the office,” so to speak.
Deborah: It’s funny. You just thought of that analogy on the spot?
Denver: No. I’ve thought about that once before because I think about things like that, and it just kind of is the way we do things. We look to hire, so to speak, or bring in more of the same, but you miss so much by doing that.
Deborah: That’s right. We make the same mistake in corporate or when we hire people. We tend to lean towards hiring people that are just like us.
Denver: Yes. We hire ourselves.
Deborah: Yes. And that’s not a great idea.
Denver: No, it’s not. It’s not a great idea at all.
So I’ve been one of these lucky or chosen, that 4% or 5%, and I’m at school. How do scholars become acquainted with one another in this cohort? I think it’s 10 people, as you said before. What’s it like when we’re all together at the University of Wisconsin at Madison?
Deborah: Posse has a pre-college program. Students are selected in December of their senior year in high school; there’s an award ceremony in January, and then for eight months, they come once a week after school with their Posse. They’re participating in workshops that help them think about their own leadership, what they want to do with that leadership. It helps them think about the team, about how they interact cross-culturally. The training is really intense and wonderful. And by the time August rolls around, they’re a posse, and they go together to a college.
Deborah: So imagine you’ve been with your group for eight months, and now you’re going to go together to the University of Wisconsin.
When you get there, there’s a community on campus, all these Posse Scholars that are second- and third- and fourth-year students welcome you. It’s a beautiful, diverse group. You could be Black, Latinx, Pakistani, Jewish, gay, straight. It is a real representation of the diversity of the population of this country, and it’s a community of leaders. So they don’t stick together. They engage in all of the different activities on campus. And that, in and of itself, creates not just a model of diversity but a way for other kids to be part of this beautiful fabric that’s being woven on the campus.
Denver: Very cool. Debbie! Are there onsite support services for Posse students?
Deborah: When you’re on campus?
Deborah: So there’s a mentor. It’s generally a tenured faculty mentor who is trained by Posse, along with all the mentors from the other universities. That mentor meets with the kids once a week as a group, and then individually with each Posse Scholar once every other week. That lasts for the first two years that they’re on campus.
There’s also something called the PossePlus Retreat, which – and I think this is pretty fascinating, and this can be applied even outside of Posse through our Posse Consulting, which we offer to any institution.
Every year, Posse scholars identify a social or political issue that they think is important. When Barack Obama was elected president, the topic they wanted to talk about was race. “Is America post-racial?” was a question that was going around throughout the country.
Denver: I recall.
Deborah: And young people were saying, “Really?” So the retreat was called “Do we still need to talk about race?”
They’ve had retreats on class and power and privilege. Last year was The State of Our Union. And just like the President of the United States gives a State of the Union Address, they wanted to talk about what they thought was going on with the #MeToo movement and education and healthcare and jobs in the country. And they did, and they reported back to the country through Telemundo.
Denver: A different speech, I would guess.
Deborah: A different….their perspective. This year, it’s the state of political discourse: What’s happening with how we talk to each other? Why can’t we talk to one another? Why are we so resistant to hearing each other’s views? And when we feel passionately about something, why is it that we can’t persuade others to understand our own passions? And that’s what the retreat is about this year. So that’s a big thing that happens on these campuses.
Denver: Yes. Why do we make it so personal all the time? If you don’t agree with me—
Deborah: It feels very personal, doesn’t it?
Denver: It does. It’s not that I disagree with you, it’s that you are morally bankrupt. There’s something…you have a character defect. That’s where the discussion has come, which is really quite alarming.
Give us a sense of the breadth and depth of this program. How many young people have been part of the Posse program? How many are currently in colleges now? And maybe a couple of your notable alums.
Deborah: Since 1989, we’ve sent close to 10,000 Posse Scholars to college.
Deborah: It’s really exciting. And they have won an astounding $1.5 billion in scholarships from our partner colleges and universities. They graduate at rates of over 90%.
Denver: That compares to about 59% nationwide?
Denver: Wow. That’s pretty impressive.
Deborah: And then they become leaders in the workforce. We’re watching Posse Alum do incredible things. They’re journalists. They’re attorneys. They are doctors. They are researchers. They’re getting their PhDs. Fulbright told us once that if Posse was a college, we would be ranked in the top 10 for Fulbright winners. They’re really wonderful.
Denver: Debbie, you’ve also created some specialized Posse programs. What would those be?
Deborah: The Posse Foundation established a science, technology, engineering and math Posse program, a STEM Posse Program to identify young people who specifically were interested in research and science and math. We recruit them and send them in teams to institutions of higher education as well. That’s really important because we see a tremendous lack of diversity in the STEM fields, so this is one way of helping to address that.
And then we also established a post-9/11 United States Veterans Posse Program. There are a couple of million vets in the United States right now, post-9/11 vets, who many of them have not gone to college. I got a phone call from, at the time, Cappy Bond Hill was the president of Vassar, and she said, “Do you think we could apply this concept, this cohort model concept to vets?” They had one vet on their campus. We loved the idea, and the board immediately said, “Let’s do this.” We raised a couple of million dollars then—
Denver: Instantaneously. That’s so great.
Deborah: Yes. Just so quickly. We now send vets to colleges and universities, and Posse’s Vassar – they had one vet – now has 40 vets on their campus. Tonight is the award ceremony for the newest class of Posse Scholars who are post-9/11 vets. It’s a great program.
Denver: Yes. It sounds it.
You have 10 offices around the country. You’re getting close to 200 employees. Tell us a little bit about your corporate culture and anything specific that you have done to make it a great place to work.
Deborah: Posse is probably one of the most beautiful organizations. I know I’m biased.
Denver: You should be.
Deborah: We have a very diverse staff. If you come into our organization, I think you’ll see that right away. It should be the gold standard for how diversity looks on a staff. There are eight people on the senior, the executive team; 50% of them are Posse Alum, just to give you a sense of that. It’s very collaborative. It’s very warm and fun. We hire people who are really, really smart, but also who are team players, and you feel that—
Denver: Smart and nice is a great combo.
Deborah: Smart and nice. Smart and positive.
Denver: It’s a good combination.
Deborah: Right. I know you like to have ideas. We now operate out of 10 cities, and as we grew, it became harder and harder to get consensus on every decision that would be made for the program or for the organization.
So we established something called “Koosh rockets,” where if a city or a staff person in the city has an idea for changing the program or changing something in the organization, they send a missile, a ball – they throw it figuratively – to the national office where our training and evaluation team, our strategic planning team looks at the idea. If the idea is a good one, we pilot test it. And if we like the results of the pilot test, we roll it out to all 10 cities, and it becomes an institutional change.
It’s kind of a nice way to include people. It’s not as fast a process, but it works.
Posse Scholars are going to be out there leading, understanding that when we do think about race and class, when we think about religion, when we think about gender when we make decisions, we’re going to make better decisions.
Denver: Yes. And there’s different expertise in each of these 10 cities, and if you can take one of those experts and apply it to all 10 with a great idea, that is a smart thing to do.
You founded and have led this organization now for over 30 years. What are the secrets for staying fresh, not getting stale, and keeping you motivated every single day?
Deborah: It’s easy. For me, if we are engaged in our society in a meaningful way, Posse is contributing to improving the state of …literally… of politics, of the social fabric of our country, then that’s going to keep me engaged.
I am very worried about our democracy right now. I’m worried that we are taking for granted the rights and privileges that are granted to us through the Constitution. I am worried that we don’t talk enough in a way that’s respectful. And Posse Scholars are going to be out there leading, understanding that when we do think about race and class, and when we think about religion, and when we think about gender when we make decisions, we’re going to make better decisions.
So Posse Scholars are going to sit at a table in government, in higher education, in healthcare, and they will make a tremendous difference. That keeps me engaged. That keeps me excited.
Denver: Well, it’s always great for a leader when they’re not thinking about the past, but have their eyes squarely on the future, which you do.
Let me close with this, Debbie. Share with us a story of one of your scholars who was part of this program, what it meant to them, and what they’ve been able to go on to do as a result.
Deborah: There are so many stories. I think one story that is most wonderful is the story of a member of the very first Posse that went to Vanderbilt, Shirley Collado, who grew up in Brooklyn, a Dominican kid; her dad drove a yellow taxi in the city. She didn’t have the best SAT scores, and she certainly wasn’t thinking about Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, but she is in the first Posse.
She graduates from Vanderbilt with honors, gets her doctorate in clinical psychology from Duke University. She becomes the Dean of the College at Middlebury, a Top 10 school. A couple of years ago, Shirley became the President of Ithaca College. She is the first Dominican American to be president of a four-year college in the entire United States.
It’s a story that captures what we’re trying to do with our partner schools at Posse – Build opportunities so that these leaders who are right there before our eyes can take advantage of the opportunities that exist at these institutions of higher education and go on and become leaders.
Denver: Well, now, I better understand what keeps you going.
Well, Deborah Bial, the Founder and CEO of the Posse Foundation, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website and how people can help if they’re inspired to do so.
Deborah: Well, we would love help. We need help. We have a $26 million budget this year, so we need help. Any donations are helpful. Our website is www.possefoundation.org, and there is video and information on the website. If people want to get involved, we’d love to have them get involved.
Denver: Thanks, Debbie. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Deborah: Thank you so much, Denver.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.