Leadership program helping DC’s lower income students

The Posse Foundation helps boost the college graduation rate while making college degrees more accessible for lower income portions of the Washington, D.C. region.

The Posse Foundation partners with 57 partner colleges and universities in 23 states with chapters in Atlanta, the Bay Area, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York City and Washington, D.C.

Tamara Wilds Lawson is the D.C. Director for the college access program that sends students with leadership potential to college in groups of ten.

“That cohort model is responsible for helping them navigate the culture of campuses,” Lawson said, because 50 percent of those who participate are first-generation college students. In Posse, this model has compelled a 90 percent persistence and graduation rate.

“So in addition to the cohort piece, we stick with the students. They get the scholarship in January, they are with us in something called pre-collegiate training for eight months,” she said, as well as a series of check-ins and an on-campus mentor. “So when I say comprehensive, I mean really wrap-around support,” she said.

Despite much focus on getting the students through college, “the ultimate goal is to get them into the workforce so they are transforming it,” Lawson told What’s Working in Washington. She hopes that the workforce can become more reflective of the country’s makeup, and infuse it with diverse talent.

“We’ve got young people graduating from, in D.C. for example, Lafayette College, and going on to Google. We’ve got folks who are going to Deloitte. We’ve got folks in Harvard Medical School. You name it, they’re doing it,” said Lawson. “What that says for the corporations who want to partner with us, is that beyond providing internships, what we are is a pipeline of excellence to them, and for them,” she said.

Posse recently expanded to its tenth city, which Lawson said “opens up diversity within each of these posses. We’ve got young people from under surge communities. We’ve got people from some of the top public schools in the area all together, getting to know each other, forming this bond that enables them to get to campus and have each other’s back in a really meaningful way.”

“It’s one of the reasons the program is so successful. Because it’s not based on the deficits or deficiencies of a community, it’s based on their strengths,” she said.

There’s been more attention recently paid to the high price of living in the area, but Lawson said that this came about only “because it’s starting to impact young, white professionals.”

“As a result, I think fixes are coming. But for the time being, the same folks who were suffering significantly when I was growing up in the city in the 80s and 90s are suffering now,” she said.

Lawson hopes that Posse can do something for the D.C. area.

“There is so much talent here, and one of the most important pieces of our mission is that we are shining a light on young people who might otherwise be overlooked by the traditional college admissions process,” she said.

“In so doing, we are reaching into Ward 7 and Ward 8 and finding these phenomenal leaders, and sending them off to elite colleges where they are transforming those campuses.”