Wouldn’t it be great to be able to live your dream? Well, this lady is actually living her dream of leading a boarding school for low-income students. It’s been a dream since she wrote about it on her entrance essay for the University of Virginia. Autumn Adkins Graves is the first African-American woman president of Girard College.
That’s significant because the school is the legacy of Stephen Girard that in 1833 established a school for white orphan boys and only admitted African-American males in 1968 after years of legal battles and picketing and admitted the first girl in 1984.
Autumn was born in Monongahela, Pa., right outside of Pittsburgh. The youngest of four children, she was seen as her mother’s “special project” as there are 16 years between her and her closest sibling. She came along when her mother was in her forties and her parents were planning to adopt.
The family moved to Richmond when she was in the fourth grade and her first career goal was to be a teacher. She later considered something similar to managing a hedge fund so she could make a lot of money to open a private boarding school for inner city children or a sports agent.
A sports colleague advised against the latter saying that she was too nice and cared too much about others rather than about the money the athletes would make more for her as a sports agent.
She says that her father worked a lot and her mother was the primary caregiver and messenger for the family. They encouraged their children to be positive, loving and to work hard. For the family, school was not an option, it was expected. There was not a question of if, only when one would go on to higher education.
Her mother stressed doing your personal best, following your passion, and being a lady…how a lady behaves, sits, walks, talks and conducts herself.
When “AJ” (family nickname for Autumn Joy) was dating as a teenager, her mother would lovingly admonish her “don’t embarrass me and don’t ruin my last name.” Some of her best advice came from her father who told her “don’t take yourself too seriously.”
An avid history buff, she’s currently reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, which relates the story of an African-American woman from Virginia who died at the age of 31 and whose cancer cells provided for major medical research without her knowledge. It’s a story of cancer, racism, scientific ethics and crippling poverty.
A defining moment for Adkins Graves was when she applied for job to head a New England private school. She was a finalist and felt it was good fit after a long interview process. However, in the end, it was traumatic.
It was, she said, “the first time I really felt racism.” She was informed that they “must go with a safe choice in these uncertain economic times.” For Adkins Graves, it was raw and painful. She says that she actually wailed for a moment because it took the wind out of her sail and she thought, “What’s the point?” However, two weeks later, the headhunter for Girard College called.
In retrospect, she believes she needed to have that experience to have the drive she has now in preparing students at Girard College.
“Without question I make sure they know they have skills and abilities and that it’s okay to hurt and to not be paralyzed by it. They should be aware that there’ll be another opportunity and to always be prepared for it and not think all people are like (the interviewer for the New England School). I was tempted to call him and tell him…but I didn’t.”
Just three days before her Girard interview, she met her husband-to-be, R. Vann Graves, and discovered that they had a Virginia connection. It was a blind date about which both parties were reluctant. However, Adkins Graves says now, “he’s my dream and he’s so cute.” She really enjoys being a wife and looks forward to starting her own family.
She notes, “I want to be a good wife; I’ve been a career person for so long. It’s very different to have another role that I play in a family, and I take it very seriously. It’s important to have balance between my job (which is such important work and good work) and my family life.”
Spending time with her husband and with family and friends relaxes her. Travel and great restaurants bring her joy, noting that Philadelphia has many great choices. She deems herself a magazine junkie and while she will read a book using a Kindle, she doesn’t want to give up the pleasure she gets from turning the pages of magazines and seeing the many pictures and reading the many interesting stories they contain. She wants to integrate technology into a reading program at Girard.
Before she turns 50, she wants to visit all 50 states (she’s been to 39). Someday, she’d like to get a Ph.D. in something other than education, possibly history or psychology. At different times and phases in her life, she’s had different theme songs. Her battle cry used to be the Gloria Gaynor anthem, “I Will Survive.”
Since she got married, she now favors the Bill Withers tune, “Just the Two of Us” as her relationship with her husband is both tender and special. Her two all-time favorites continue to be “His Eye Is on The Sparrow” and “All Hail the Power.”
With respect to mentoring, “for me, it’s not formal. I think mentoring is about wisdom, knowledge and experience. I’m just getting to that point where I feel that I have something of significant value to offer to someone; I talk to young people and gently raise questions about where they are in their careers to help them lesson themselves.”
Adkins Graves is a graduate of University of Virginia (BA), and Columbia University Teachers College (MA). She was assistant principal at Friends Seminary in Manhattan, dean of the Upper School at Sidwell Friends (Washington, D.C.), director of special programs at Mercerburg Academy (Pennsylvania) and upper school counselor and community service coordinator at the Breck School (Minneapolis).
Adkins Graves views education as much more than books. “One has to work smart and be able to have a practical education, to use it as a vehicle for access to family sustaining jobs so one will know how to feed them selves; how to take care of one’s body; how to restore one’s soul; how to make good choices for you and your partner, and how to be good parents.”
She has enjoyed teaching history and found it exciting to watch children learn about how “dead” people impact their lives today and figure how they will impact the future and why we do what we do.
In this position, she is an employee of the board of directors of the City Trusts, and reports directly to attorney Bernard Smalley, chairman of the Girard College Committee of the Board of City Trusts.
Notes Smalley, “she has completed her second year and has worked extremely hard given the challenges she’s faced with the overall school environment as an outsider coming in and learning the ways of Philadelphia — and [there are challenges] with the decreased budget at a time when there are multi-plans for the future of Girard College and its vision. She still has a bit to learn, as do we all.”
Girard currently has 185 employees, down from 260 due to budget cuts. One of her priorities is to make the school open to the Philadelphia community and to break down the “wall.” As such, Girard hosts the MLK Day of Service, works with the Fairmount CDC, hosts many different events and serves as a rental facility for special events including weddings, receptions and corporate meetings.
Adkins Graves is building relationships with the alumni association which consists of a group of people who are committed and supportive. She loves her job!
She is active on the boards of Shipley School, the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, the Library Company, the NY Branch of Children’s Defense Fund and is a member of The Links-Philadelphia Chapter.
She describes her leadership style as one that is open, direct (maybe too much), wanting staff to understand why she’s doing what she’s doing, wanting staff to take some direction and mix it with their own expertise and check in with her. Keys to success for this driven lady have been lots of prayer, faith in the unknown, surrounding herself with good people (who are smart and have good souls) and having the ability to grow.
Her heroes and sheroes are the everyday people from whom she’s learned so much. Many of them do extraordinary things that often go overlooked. She believes that unfortunately, young people underrate the value of work — they have a sense that everything should come instantly because they’ve made “any” effort. They’ve seen too many experiences of the flash and glamour and get rich quick messages and not enough of how to be a regular person — which is so meaningful and rewarding. She encourages young people to “Work Hard! Play Hard! Pray Harder!”
A FEW OF HER FAVORITE THINGS:
Book: “Green Eggs and Hair”
Movie: “The Shawshank Redemption”
Color: Royal blue
Food: Her mother’s macaroni and cheese and good Italian food
Autumn Adkins Graves, the outgoing president of Girard College, has a bit of advice for her successor.
“Make sure you spend time with the kids, because that is what gets you through the difficult moments,” she said. “They’re amazing.”
Graves, 39, will leave the post she’s held for three years on June 30. She plans to return to New York City, where her husband recently got a promotion, making his four-hour commute to Philadelphia unsustainable.
Nevertheless, Graves will continue to be a presence in Philadelphia.
“I will continue to have connections here,” she said, noting that her parents and two siblings live in the city, and that she’s taking part in an executive doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania. “I love Girard and what it represents in terms of changing the lives of children in our city. Once Girard becomes a part of your life, you never really leave, and Girard will always be a part of me.”
The college, once closed to Black students, was a key battleground in the city and nation’s civil rights movement. It was integrated in 1968 when the first Black student was admitted. Female students would gain entry in 1984.
Now, minority students make up the majority of the student body.
Graves, who was appointed in May 2009, was the institution’s first Black and first woman president.
“That was not a new experience for me,” she said, running down a short list of other schools where she had been the first African American or first woman in a leadership role. “But, here at Girard College, it was amplified in very different way because of the history of the school — and because of that I received a number of different supports. A lot of women in Philadelphia reached out and were incredibly kind and supportive of me. I’ve enjoyed a lot of hugs and prayers from freedom fighters.”
Still, when she stops to reflect on her tenure as president inspires a note of gratitude.
“My grandmother was a domestic. She was the help. She didn’t go past seventh grade,” Graves said. “So there is a lot of significance to this role because of where I’ve come from. My other grandmother was college educated, but her mother was a slave. So, I find that my story, my history here, is another thread in the fabric of the American story.”
The school has faced financial problems recently as a result of the recession. Enrollment has been pushed down from over a high of more than 600 students to 465.
Graves said she hopes school officials find a way to reverse the trend.
“I wish that Girard had the capacity to have more students here,” she said. “Girard has made progress, but the financial and programmatic challenges it faces today will force us into a period of change, and Girard requires a leader who can devote all of his or her energies to that challenge, to see it through from start to finish so that Girard can grow and thrive in the years ahead.”
The school’s trustees are planning to appoint an interim president then launch a national search for a permanent replacement for Graves, who said she would work with the board to ensure a smooth transition.
Trustees lauded Graves for her work.
“It is with enormous respect that we have accepted Autumn’s decision to step down,” said Bernard Smalley, the head of the Board of City Trusts’ Girard College Committee, in a statement. “Autumn has spearheaded the effort to make Girard one of the pre-eminent urban boarding schools in America, and she has performed her duties with skill and devotion. All of us in the Girard family — students, faculty and staff, parents and leadership — owe her a debt of gratitude, and we look forward to continuing to work with her in the future.”
Thousands of students and educators attended a People of Color Conference (POCC) held by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).
This event, which spanned three days in two different locations in the city, included 3,313 adults at the POCC conference held at the convention center Friday and 1,500 students who attended workshops at the Marriot hotel. While adults and educators held their workshops at the Convention Center, the youth simultaneously held student workshops at the Marriot.
“The NAIS represents more than 1,400 independent schools and is located in Washington, D.C. Our goal is to promote and protect independent education, the conference has the purpose to protect people of color who might experience independent schools differently,” said Gene Baptiste, vice president for school consultancy services and equity and justice initiatives for the National Association of Independent Schools in Washington.
It was Baptiste’s job to coordinate the conference at both sites.
Independent schools are those which have free standing boards, are tuition driven and possess their own governing structures. While some might argue that race is dead in America and will use the election of President Barak Obama as an example. However, Baptiste disagrees.
“We’re living in more hyper-racial society today than we have ever lived in before,” says Baptiste “We have a Black president but it has actually caused some of this hyper-racialization to occur and so there is even more of a need for such conferences to occur.
Over the three days of the conference, students and educators will separate and form workshops and some of these workshops strategically divide participants into groups characterized along racial and gender lines.
This is the third time that the conference has been in Philadelphia, and it was the city’s strong support and significant number of independent schools, which were strong factors in the decision to hold the conference here again this year.
“We are really proud of the partnership that we had with Philadelphia independent schools in both planning for and delivery of the conference,”
The People of Color Conference began with 150 independent schools 24 years ago and have since grown to 2300. According to Baptiste, the conference is for “people of color and diversity practitioners as well as supporters of People of color of all backgrounds in all independent schools.” Representatives from 36 states and three countries attended the conference.
While school practitioners held their workshops at the Convention Center at Downtown Philadelphia, students led their own workshops at the Marriot and the NAIC and POCC purpose for the youth and student involvement was to train and prepare them for the next generation of diversity leadership.
During the conference there were two personal development workshops and diversity workshops. It was during the diversity workshops where participants were divided into groups according to their race and gender.
“Our belief is that, just as we believe in lifelong learning we also believe in lifelong development of racial and ethnic identity,” said Baptist.
On the final day, Sunday, the students and adults will merge with students facilitating the workshops as the adults listen as they display what they have learned.
“The adults will be the learners and the youth will be the teachers,” said Baptiste.
With over 1,400 independent schools represented in the association, Baptiste describe one of their goals as to “Preserve, protect and promote independent education,” and the mission of the conference to “is to provide sanctuary for people of color who may experience independent education differently, how to promote and encourage the careers of people of color within their schools and to provide opportunities for people of color and other backgrounds to network with other independent schools around the country and throughout the world,” said Baptiste.
Organizers and volunteers eager to participate in community activities honoring Martin Luther King Jr., gathered at Girard College on Monday for the 17th annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service.
The organizers at Girard College hosted 150 projects and workshops with more than 4,000 volunteers determined to serve and impact the community. The event kicked off with the opening of the MLK365 Civic Engagement Expo and Health and Wellness Fair, followed by entertainment. As the crowd settled, the opening ceremony began with the introduction of guests Vice President Joe Biden, Dr. Jill Biden, Mayor Michael Nutter, former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford and Girard College President Autumn Graves. Biden discussed the importance of the Martin Luther King holiday and reflected on the day he learned of King’s assassination and the impact it had on him.
Maria J. Walker, project manager for Freedom Rings Partnership and a volunteer organizer for the event, was pleased with the turnout and with the overall enthusiasm of the participants to conduct community service.
“This is definitely the most exciting event because of the presence of the vice president and the fact that they’re tying an economic aspect to it − with the digital job fair, and the actual job fair,” Walker said.
In an effort to empower the community economically, the event held its first-ever Jobs and Opportunity Fair, featuring 20 local employers and representatives of several AmeriCorps national service programs. The purpose of the fair was to provide more than 500 prospective employees with skills in resume writing and interviewing techniques, give information on restoring credit, offer tips for dressing for success, and providie paths to work for ex-offenders.
“They also assist people in setting up email addresses, which is appropriate to bridge the digital gap in Philadelphia,” Walker said.
Another significant project was for the volunteers to package up to 100,000 meals through a partnership with the international relief program, Stop Hunger Now. Volunteers and organizers joined to put together care packages.
One of the many workshops was held by the Cecil B. Moore Philadelphia Freedom Fighters, a group of civil rights activists who fought for integration with King at Girard College and for civil rights throughout the nation. One of those civil rights activists was Karen Jordan. Jordan brought her parents to take part in the day of service and to reflect on the past.
“We were the original demonstrators here at Girard College, so it is a wonderful experience being here today,” she said. “There’s so many volunteers out here, and I love seeing so many kids involved.”
With a combination of various workshops, expositions, a kids’ carnival and job fairs, the participants and volunteers were active in honoring King.
“Today was really about connecting the importance of economic empowerment as a civil rights issue.”
PHILADELPHIA — The president of a noted boarding school for underprivileged students in Philadelphia is stepping down.
Autumn Adkins Graves announced Tuesday, April 3 that she will resign from Girard College on June 30. She cited family reasons.
Graves was the first female and first African-American leader at the school, which once excluded both Blacks and girls. She became president in 2009.
Despite its name, Girard College serves students in first through 12th grades. It opened in 1848 as a boarding school for fatherless white boys, funded by the estate of banker Stephen Girard.
Protests and legal challenges eventually led the school to integrate and admit girls. It currently serves about 465 students. -- (AP)