Donna Davis is on a mission, literally. In her role as a community mobilizer, this mother, grandmother, non-profit professional and former military wife travels throughout Arizona on a quest to rally community support for public schools and “grow more education advocates.”
On Wednesday, Davis, senior community mobilizer for Expect More Arizona, a statewide nonpartisan organization dedicated to ensuring a world-class education for all Arizona students, was honored not only for growing advocates, but for being one herself. Children’s Action Alliance named Davis the 2015 Phoenix Champion for Children for her commitment to improving children’s health, education and security.
“While I feel honored to receive this award, I want to share it with all of my friends and coworkers who inspire me every day with their commitment to education,” Davis said.
On her travels throughout the state, Davis said she has met people and witnessed programs that are models of excellence, but she also has seen tremendous challenges.
One of them is building support for public education among older Arizonans, who no longer have children in school or at home.
“People my age vote, yet we do not have children in school anymore,” Davis said. “As a result, we tend to vote based on what we hear on cable news networks, or read in the newspaper or online, or talk about with our friends and neighbors of a similar age.”
To do so, Davis focuses on “helping people my age understand how the world we live in has changed and how education must change as well.”
For the past 20 years, Davis has worked in the non-profit sector, devoting her time to organizations that focus on youth, education and workforce development. She coordinated the Jobs for Valley Youth program for Valley of the Sun United Way and Greater Phoenix Leadership and also worked with Communities in Schools. Before that, Davis was responsible for fund development for the Future Farmers of America Foundation and coordinated a teacher training program called Partners Advancing Student Success for the Arizona K-12 Center.
For 23 years, Davis traveled the world as a military spouse. Davis came to Phoenix in 1990 from Yemen, where she taught reading improvement at a community college, three-year-olds at a pre-school, outdoor skills to Girl Scouts, and English to Yemeni military members. She also worked at the American Embassy in Sana’a Yemen as the community liaison officer and was awarded a meritorious honor award for improving post morale and quality of life.
Q: What makes your work mobilizing community members so meaningful to you? How did you first get started doing this?
A: I want parents to understand how voting impacts their child’s education. School board members, as well as other public officials, have a lot of influence on education and we all need to know who they are and where they stand!
My husband would say I’ve been involved with education for a “thousand” years. More than 25 years ago I taught reading improvement to young airmen who were entering the military unable to read at a fourth grade level. That really opened my eyes.
Since then I have always been involved with education – as PTA president or volunteering in classrooms or teaching myself.
Mobilizing community members and organizations to support education is a natural evolution of my passion for ensuring young people are successful. I am proud to be one of Expect More Arizona’s initial staff members.
Q: What are some of the important programs you’ve seen as you’ve traveled around the state working for Expect More Arizona?
A: Washington Elementary School District’s business advisory team is a great example of rallying the community in that district. Peoria Unified School District hosts amazing patron tours so the community can see education in action.
At Avondale Elementary’s last Parent and Community Leadership Liaison Council, they asked attendees for suggestions for cutting non-instructional expenses – an exercise I know was an eye-opener for community members.
Experience Corps and Experience Matters are both programs that bring seniors into schools to act as reading tutors or student mentors. Paradise Valley and Litchfield Elementary both have robust volunteer programs.
ACQE (Arizona Coalition for Quality Education) recently organized a day at the Capitol to encourage citizens to communicate with their legislators. In Tucson, Expect More Arizona and Tucson Values Teachers successfully partnered to increase the number of teachers who vote using a peer-to-peer model.
Q: What has surprised you the most?
A: The amount of funding and time that goes into local campaigns these days.
When my own children were in school, I was never asked to be part of a political action committee to pass a bond or override. I think we just naturally supported education. I am amazed and grateful for companies that contribute to bond and override elections and others who contribute to school board member campaigns.
In addition, social media, email and other forms of communication have dramatically increased the amount of information available to Arizonans, but has also resulted in lots of misinformation and contributed to a lack of trust in the system.
Also surprising and disheartening is how often someone’s political agenda trumps what’s good for students. And finally, the lack of resources in rural Arizona.
Q: Who are some of the inspirational people you’ve met as you’ve helped mobilize community members?
A: My latest inspiration is a Canadian, Dick Whittington, who is President and CEO of Golden Vertex Moss Mine Project in Bullhead City, Arizona. When former Governor Jan Brewer visited the area a couple years ago, Dick issued a challenge to the local school and community. Within 10 years, he wants the general manager of Moss Mine to come from Mohave High School (in Kingman).
In support of the challenge, Dick contributed funds to the school to build the earth science lab. He facilitated a partnership between the high school, the community college and The University of Arizona to create curriculum so students have a well-defined path to become a mining engineer.
In addition to Dick, there are many inspirational champions for education in our state.
Jane Strain serves on the First Things First Regional Council in Sierra Vista and is a Cochise College governing Board member and an active member of her political party. Julianne Hartzell is a community champion for education in the Flagstaff area.
Lynn Parsons with the Coolidge Chamber educated her members about the Coolidge School override and rallied them to get involved.
Superintendent John Warren in Topock partnered with First Things First to start a preschool program for his district and has become a huge champion for early education and its impact on academic success.