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The Power of Collective Action, Jenny Portillo, SLP'21

The Intellectual Contribution Award recipient for School Leadership reflects on her time at HGSE and looks toward the future.
Jennie Portillo

Jenny Portillo: "This was my last weekly Zoom meeting with Juman and Justine (who graciously agreed to be featured on my computer screen). This semester, we worked together as a school design team for Linda Nathan’s Building Democratic Schools Design Workshop (we were the three Js)."

Photo courtesy of Jenny Portillo

The Intellectual Contribution Award recognizes 12 Ed.M. students (one from each Ed.M. program) whose dedication to scholarship enhanced HGSE’s academic community and positively affected fellow students. Jenny Portillo will be honored with the Intellectual Contribution Award for the School Leadership Program (SLP) at HGSE's Virtual Commencement on May 27.

Senior Lecturer Mary Grassa O'Neill, faculty director of SLP, comments on Portillo's selection: “Jenny is an exceptional leader who is deeply committed and passionate about excellent instructional practice, equity, and inclusion. She is insightful and has a very strong work ethic. Her intellectual power and wisdom are balanced with sincere humility. She’s a clear communicator, a terrific teacher, and holds high expectations for herself and others.”

We spoke to Portillo about her time at HGSE, her future plans, and how the pandemic has changed the education landscape:

What does this photo mean to you?  

This was my last weekly Zoom meeting with Juman and Justine (who graciously agreed to be featured on my computer screen). This semester, we worked together as a school design team for Linda Nathan’s Building Democratic Schools Design Workshop (we were the “three Js”). We had the opportunity to work with an elementary school in Cambridge on a redesign proposal.  In working with stakeholders, we designed an instructional vision grounded in stewardship, advocacy and place-based education. The school recently got a small grant to continue with this project next year which is very exciting for our team.

In this year of remote learning, what were some of the ways you were able to connect with your peers?

Initially, I worried that online learning would keep me from connecting with others. Thankfully, many of my professors prioritized community-building in class and created spaces for us to get to know our peers. These initial connections made it easier to reach out to people outside of class. I’ve gotten to have Zoom coffee/happy hours, good old-fashioned phone calls, and even did a few virtual workout classes with friends I met in class.

Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School?

I came to HGSE with the goal of learning more about what it takes to build schools that employ equitable practices at all levels of operation. While there is no magic solution for making schools more equitable, three courses and professors helped shape my thinking about this work. A608 with Uche Amaechi helped me understand schools as organizations and developing sustainable social impact ventures. Jen Cheatham’s Equity in Action showed me how systems-thinking and a coherent strategy centered on explicit racial equity goals can combat systemic inequity and racism in schools. Linda Nathan helped keep me grounded in communities and kids-school design and systems work don’t mean anything if we don’t center the voices of the people we serve.

"If there is anything positive to have come out of the last 14 months, it is seeing the power of collective action and coalition building. We must continue leveraging collective power and build networks to keep the public focus on the real challenges facing our students and communities."

What are your post-HGSE plans?

I had the wonderful opportunity to intern with MAEC, Inc. throughout this year and I will get to join the staff full-time in June as a senior equity specialist. In this role, I’ll conduct technical assistance work and trainings for MAEC’s Center for Education Equity, a regional equity assistance center funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

What is something that you learned this year that you will take with you throughout your career in education? 

In one episode of the A608 After Hours Podcast, I remember Uche saying it is important to “fall in love with a problem, not a solution” when working towards social impact. As leaders, we want to have the answers, but this can lead to alienating the communities we want to support. Developing effective solutions, particularly to adaptive problems requires being responsive to your context.

How has the pandemic shifted your views of education? 

The double pandemic facing this country has created a greater sense of urgency around making fundamental changes within education. The glaring inequities many of us were already aware of were suddenly thrust to the forefront of the public discourse. My hope was that this newfound urgency would serve as a catalyst for listening to marginalized and oppressed communities, students, teachers, organizers and others who are often left out of the conversation of education reform. Unfortunately, I am already seeing the urgency die down as students go back to in-person learning with the public conversation shifting back to pre-pandemic topics like accountability measures. We can’t expect to make changes in education if we revert back “business as usual.” If there is anything positive to have come out of the last 14 months, it is seeing the power of collective action and coalition building. We must continue leveraging collective power and build networks to keep the public focus on the real challenges facing our students and communities.