As a mentoring organization, Minds Matter serves more than 500 low-income high school students in 10 cities across the country. Started more than 20 years ago as an individual chapter in New York, the organization is working to strengthen its national presence, and hired Chymeka Olfonse as executive director of Minds Matter National Inc. in February 2011.
Olfonse herself benefitted from a similar program — the Oliver Scholars Program — and has been giving back and working at nonprofit organizations with an education focus for more than 15 years.
“I’ve always had instilled in me the need to give back to the community so my career has been built around that,” she told Madame Noire. “I’ve worked in nonprofits and tried to work with organizations that were aligned, for the most part, in education and addressing those issues.”
Olfonse spoke to Madame Noire about Minds Matter, her goals, and how being an African-American woman has shaped her experience.
Madame Noire: As executive director, what do you do within Minds Matter?
Chymeka Olfonse: My day-to-day is coordinating a national organization — we have 10 chapters serving 520 students — and my job is to support our chapters. We have five staff persons, soon to be six, and we have more than 1,400 volunteers, nationally. My job is to coordinate everyone, work to educate the group and also make sure we have the resources available so everyone can effectively serve the students we have in the program.
MN: Wow—1,400 volunteers. How do they play a role?
CO: Volunteers are the lifeblood of the organization and that comes from the passion of the individuals who are involved in Minds Matter. Volunteers play various roles including on the ground, serving directly with our students as mentors or instruction leaders, like test preparation or writing and critical thinking advisors. They are a valuable corps of people who help us execute with excellence in serving our students and making sure they actually have college success.
At the same time, they also serve in leadership roles. We have a structure at each chapter where we have an executive committee that is able to execute the Minds Matter model at various levels and cities. We’re in 10 cities, and hopefully we’ll be in one or two more next year. And these individuals are fundraising, they’re managing operations, they’re marketing. They’re approaching [the issues] saying, “How best do I serve my students on the ground?” The positions can range from director of marketing, programs, or fundraising, to chapter president. These are individuals who are not only excited about leadership, but they care about the students they are serving.
MN: How has your experience as an African-American woman shaped who you have become, especially related to your desire to get involved through education?
CO: I take it as a privilege and an opportunity for me to be an executive director. Honestly, I used to be disappointed not to see individuals of color, male or female, leading at nonprofits. Now, I feel like I see lots of leadership in a range of colors, which is very exciting. For women, a lot of these organizations are run by men, and that’s not a bad thing, but women need to find their place here as well.
Being a black woman, it’s important that we find our voice and come prepared to take on these larger roles. I look at my entire path and if it wasn’t for some of these experiences that I went through — all the programs and even working at younger nonprofits with an entrepreneurial spirit — I don’t know if I would be prepared for this position or this type of position, which I was very fortunate to experience. Being executive director is a heavy feat, but if you are ambitious and want to get a lot done, you need to build a strong team.
For black women in general, one of my mentors, who actually is a male, says that black women often undersell themselves. In my head I’m saying, “I’m not arrogant! That’s not the type of person I am.” But I think it’s important to be able to talk about the assets we bring to the table and promote the great work we can do. I feel like if you have a passion or dream, you should step up and share that and not be afraid to promote it and get excited about. And then other people will get excited about it too.