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30th Anniversary Spotlight
Mariel Novas '00
The Courage to Heal
Mariel Novas, Ed.L.D.
Steppingstone 2000 / Noble & Greenough 2006 / Yale University 2010 / Boston University 2012 / Harvard Graduate School of Education 2020
In July 2020, asked about her dreams for the future, educational advocate Mariel Novas replied presciently, “what I dream for myself is what I dream for all of us, which is healing.”
As the devoted Steppingstone Alumna and board member witnessed the reckoning with systemic racism, she saw a country already desensitized to the ravages of COVID within communities of color. “We have to start operating from a place of healing,” she reflected. “It has to start with self and then radiate out from there.”
“I want to be whole,” she went on. “I don’t want to just survive; I want to thrive. I don’t want to live in fear anymore. Living in fear only fuels hate.”
This March, after an exhausting year of sprinting headlong into her work of building and healing communities through the Education Trust, Mariel realized the need to step away and commit herself to “profoundly healing from the inside out, and grieving what’s been lost.”
After January’s insurrection, she came to understand that, if she was to be part of the change she envisioned going forward, “the resistance had to live in me first and foremost.” As she’s learning, there’s no endpoint to healing. Yet she’s feeling stronger again and regaining her connectedness to her strategy.
“We’re going to be in this for the long haul,” she acknowledges. “Part of my maturation as an activist is recognizing the need to pause.”
The Joy of Learning
Her own life’s mission aligns beautifully with Steppingstone’s. She sees educational equity as part of her calling. Whatever her role, “the work of community building to restore justice is what gets me out of bed in the morning,” she says.
Looking back, “I see my life pre- and post-Steppingstone,” Mariel says emphatically. Next to immigrating to the United States, she counts being chosen as a Scholar among her most transformative opportunities.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Mariel moved with her family from Santo Domingo to Jamaica Plain at age five. She discovered Steppingstone through her fourth grade teacher, Ms. Shaw, who drove Mariel to interviews and guided her through the application.
For Mariel, Steppingstone was a time of “all these super cool intellectual awakenings.” She laughs now to think about “how nerdy I was”—and see her younger self as “clearly an early feminist.” She loved everything from algebra to research on the Little Rock Nine.
When she closes her eyes and thinks of those summers, she immediately smiles. “There is so much joy. The joy of learning. The joy of being free to be ourselves.”
Ever since her Scholar days, “education has opened every door I’ve been able to walk through,” Mariel says.
Her own educational journey has taken her from the Noble and Greenough School to Yale to Boston University and, most recently, to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In May 2020, she received her doctorate in Education Leadership there.
Defending her capstone project virtually felt like a “homecoming.” Joined by friends from all over the U.S. and family from the D.R., “it ended up being the most beautiful moment,” she recounts. Kelly Glew and Isabelle Loring, Steppingstone’s president and board chair, celebrated it with her. Fittingly, Mariel even had Ms. Shaw there.
Designed to develop leaders who’ll transform systems of education, the life-altering program concluded with a year of learning and doing. She did her residency at The Education Trust, a national policy and advocacy nonprofit dedicated to closing achievement gaps. After her residency, she was invited to stay on to work toward expanding opportunities for historically marginalized students in Massachusetts.
“It was an amazing full-circle experience,” Mariel reflects. It brought her back to her roots in coalition building and bringing together community organizations that have been excluded from the table.
In her mind, “the point is to make the table bigger.”
Finding Her Voice
“Every single kid matters,” Mariel reflects. When it comes to ensuring educational equity, she’s long pushed for a greater voice from impacted communities and politically courageous leaders who’ll “move heaven and earth” to create systems change.
From her own personal experience as a first-gen college student, “I know that all it takes is one person who makes it through for a family to be lifted up,” Mariel reflects.
When she first started at Nobles, she wondered if she’d be accepted in all senses of the word. Not yet having a green card or social security number, she felt fearful and often held back. Her experiences and mentors there taught her “I have a voice, so I have to speak…even if it’s uncomfortable, especially if it’s uncomfortable.”
By senior year, “when I got into college and got a full ride, I remember seeing the envelope on my bed and starting to cry,” she shares. “I knew it would change my life.”
Even after Nobles, Yale “was a whole new world,” she adds. “It was a culture shock in every single way.” As challenging as it was, “I went all in,” she says. As she thinks back to high school and college, it reminds her that “I’ve always been a bridge builder.”
What Makes Her Heart Beat
At Yale, she also discovered that “educating and working with kids like me made my heart beat.” Recruited to Teach For America, she returned home to teach ESL math to middle schoolers in the Boston public schools while earning her master’s in curriculum and teaching at BU.
“Being a teacher to kids who shared so much of my life story made me realize my own story wasn’t singular,” she says.
At TFA-Massachusetts, Mariel went on to manage teacher leadership development and then direct district and school partnerships. Working across many historically marginalized communities inspired her to launch its Homegrown Program, which supports aspiring teachers who want to return to the communities they grew up in.
With all the needs that Mariel saw, “I couldn’t stay seated,” she explains. Putting to work her skills in coalition building, she also co-founded BEAN, the Boston Education Action Network. Organizing hundreds of educators, community members, students, and parents to work for change was “a dream.”
Over the past two years, she continued to stay true to her vision and passion in her roles at the Education Trust, where she supported the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership.
She brings the same energy and dedication to her ongoing role on the Board of Directors at Steppingstone. “I love this organization more than anything,” she adds. “We’ve been blessed with a board that’s so committed to Scholars. Each of our humanities is tied into this work of advancing equity and justice.”
A Brighter Future
In a spring 2019 interview for a Nobles magazine cover story, Mariel reflected on a wave of women of color becoming change agents locally and nationally. She reveled in seeing them “stepping into their light and showing everybody what we are capable of doing when we are allowed to lead and when we give ourselves permission to lead courageously.”
Today, her thoughts drift back to the long-ago words of Malcolm X: “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.”
She’s uplifted by the “radical resistance” continuing to emerge. Seeing self-care as liberation, “I’m caring for and loving myself so radically,” she says.
“The more of us who believe, the more who can share their light,” she says. “The future is so much brighter right now, as heavy as right now is.”
Steppingstone is an educational nonprofit which serves students of every race, color, religion, sex, gender identity, national or ethnic origin, or political beliefs to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to Scholars enrolled in the program. It does not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, color, disability status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, religion, or national or ethnic origin in the administration of its educational policies, admission policies, scholarship programs, or other organization-administered activities.