Reflecting on the year at BEAM

It’s been over a year since I’ve posted about BEAM and my own work—of course things have been busy, and I’ve had little time to pause and share. These times have genuinely taught me a lot about myself and about BEAM, and I’m glad to finally write some of that down.

So how has BEAM been doing?

Actually, as an organization, BEAM has been doing remarkably well considering the state of the world. Although diminished by the distance we’ve all felt from each other while working from home, the team has done amazing work and really stuck together in powerful ways. We all miss being in the office, but we still have such a strong sense of camaraderie. It’s an amazing team.

BEAM has also been succeeding in lots of other ways. Most notably, we’ve really gone the extra mile to support our students. We’ve run online summer programs and classes (including delivery of over 400 laptops, individual provision of internet, and more), provided emergency relief funds to families in need, and supported students through the chaos that has been schools trying to respond to the pandemic, college admissions, colleges going remote, and so on and so forth. I could tell you more, but the link above, to our regular donor updates, does a better job than I could. I’m so proud of what we’ve done.

We’ve also hit our fundraising goals, likely raising enough to make some much-needed infrastructure improvements as we grow from “small startup nonprofit” to something approaching mid-size and more professional. (For example, we will soon have an actual HR person, rather than the hodgepodge of roles we’ve all been keeping so far!)

We’re launching a new national program that will begin working with students in elementary school and support many of them through college graduation. The program, which will use donated licenses of Art of Problem Solving’s Beast Academy, could be a real game changer in terms of reaching a lot of students with interesting math and finding students nationwide who can most benefit from BEAM’s work. (By the way, we’re hiring an Executive Director and I’d love your help spreading the word. See below for more details.)

In other words, from an organizational standpoint, BEAM has honestly excelled. It’s a testament to our team.

What that doesn’t capture, though, is the exhaustion. Can I tell you for a moment how hard it is to arrange internet access for families that don’t have it? At first our plan was to get tablets on cell phone plans. Those tablets could act as hot spots to connect to the laptops we provided. However, we discovered (after ordering 80 tablets!) that, while our plan was 50GB/month, the fine print said you could only use 10GB/month for connected devices. After the first week of LA’s programs, students were running out of bandwidth on Zoom.

So then we switched to trying to get wired internet access. But setting aside the coordination of so many different installs, that doesn’t solve the problem for families who had wired internet but fell behind on payments (and thus can’t reinstate it without first paying back charges), families that might live in unregistered housing setups (e.g. basements), or families that live in shelters where such installs aren’t allowed. We had to get a hodgepodge of devices together, including some expensive wireless access points with higher limits, and for some families we simply delivered a new tablet every week so they’d have a fresh 10GB!

Then there was designing a new online program, training our staff, setting up our technology (I can’t thank the tech volunteers who designed the student portal enough), running student registration online instead of by mail, etc. etc. etc.

All of which is to say: the staff were exhausted. (Have I mentioned the personal tolls of the pandemic and the historic, and still horribly unresolved, racial reckoning in the US?) Meanwhile, while I am proud of the new National program and we’ve been planning it for years, I was working to set it up exactly when we were designing our online summer programs. So at the time that everyone was at their busiest, my attention was divided. It’s a hard balance to strike; after all, those plans really had been in motion for years.

So BEAM is doing great, but our staff are tired! Fortunately, once we got past the summer, we were able to return to a much more normal workload, and we’ve put in place the structures to succeed working remotely. I think everyone is also deeply energized by what we accomplished. Nonetheless: I have a lot of reflecting to do as a leader, especially for future times like this. It’s one of the reasons changes such as creating an HR department are so important: it will put us in an even better position to weather the next unexpected challenge.

Leadership reflections

I think that 2020 would have been an interesting year for BEAM no matter what. We’re now at 45 full-time-equivalent people (counting summer staff, part timers, etc.) and that means we need to transition to stronger systems and more refined processes. Communication that used to be easy when we were a three-person office now needs to be structured. Sometimes I just think everyone can read my mind! One key asset as we evolve is the hire of our new Chief of Staff, who started in May and brings experience with exactly the kind of structure BEAM needs so badly. She’s been guiding us to a place where we can have the structure we need while maintaining the flexibility we want.

Moreover, the events of the summer have really brought forth a problematic truth that has been at play throughout the life of BEAM: I’m a white man leading an organization that serves primarily students of color. I don’t share the experiences of the students we serve. I worry, also, that there’s an extent to which BEAM’s priorities impose additional burdens on students already managing their own values, lives, and achievements.

My answer to this has always been to listen a lot and elevate the voices of our staff and students. While I am ultimately responsible for BEAM and the choices we make, it’s my priority to build staff consensus whenever possible, and to make sure I have thoroughly listened to and understood everyone’s point of view when consensus is not possible. That’s my way; I try to really know the bounds of what I know and what I don’t know, and to use the wisdom of others whenever possible.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work when you’re supposed to be a leader and the country is going through the kind of events it’s gone through recently. I don’t think I appreciated how much the staff want to know where I stand, not just know that I am listening to their opinions. This is a side of leadership that I had never really considered before, but especially in a mission-driven organization it’s so important.

(It is also, perhaps, complicated by the fact that my own views are more activist than many of my friends, driven in large part by my BEAM work, but less activist than many of the BEAM staff! It can be quite a journey going from friends where I am explaining why I think that addressing systemic racism and white supremacy is so important right now, only to go to a staff meeting where I can feel like I’m playing catch-up in parsing the events of the day. This tension has been profoundly stressful to me personally, especially whenever I feel like I’m not living up to the leadership the staff need.)

Anyway, there’s a lot to think about. My podcast feed has had a lot more about leadership, and I’m so grateful to the two programs I was a part of that provided me with leadership coaching in the past year. It’s made me wonder if I want to find another coach going forward.

Wrapping up

So where does that leave me at the end of the year?

I’m so proud of the work that BEAM has done. We’ve done really important things for our students, while continuing to grow the organization and move into new areas that position us so well for future work. BEAM is stronger than it’s ever been, despite the events of the world.

I’m tired, but also energized in my way. Sometime soon, I am going to take a true and restful vacation, although I don’t know what that means. Historically, I haven’t found rest very restful! Maybe I’ll take a break to write a novel. :)

I’m learning so much about myself, the world, and leadership. I feel like I’ve grown more as a leader in the past year than in the five years prior. It’s also shown me just how much more growing I still have to do.

Regardless, I am excited for 2021. There’s so much work to do, both at BEAM and in society at large, but I feel so energized to see that progress and growth.

Oh, and…

There really wasn’t a good place to put this, but hey, we’re hiring an Executive Director of National Programs to lead that national program I mentioned. Finding the right person is so important. We are especially looking for candidates whose background represents our students, who have experience scaling an educational program, and who can work well with partners at the school and district level. If you’re reading this, can you spread the word to your network? It’s a great job leading a growing new program!

Author: danzaharopol

I am a math geek. I love doing math, learning math, and teaching math. Nothing excites me more than working with young people who are discovering new and amazing things. Professionally, I founded Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), a program that makes it possible for low-income and underserved students to become scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and programmers. That's where I spend most of my time geeking out about math these days. Prior to BEAM, I was a math graduate student (studying algebraic topology) and taught math in places all around the country. I also co-founded and served as the founding CEO of Learning Unlimited, an organization that mentors college students to create enrichment programs for local middle and high school students. In my non-existent free time, I love board games, great plays, frisbee, and reading.

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