Exit Interview: Dan Ryan reflects on 11 years leading All Hands Raised (Portland Business Journal, June 2019)
By Andy Giegerich
Read the story below and here.
The announcement that Dan Ryan is leaving his longtime role as CEO of the education nonprofit All Hands Raised offered no details as to the influential leader’s next steps.
Which, given Ryan’s reasons for leaving, makes sense.
“I believe when you’re a good fit for a role, you should do it for at least seven to 11 years,” said Ryan, whose last day is tomorrow. “I’m a firm believer in that. And, I’ve done this 11 years.”
More specifically, Ryan, who assumed the role after a stint on the Portland Board of Education, will counsel other nonprofit leaders and work with the national Cradle-to-Career child empowerment group. He also plans “to be quiet and do a lot of reflection.”
In our interview below, Ryan, yes, reflects on his role with All Hands Raised, which advocates for Portland-area K-12 students. This interview has been edited.
How did you come to the education world?
I was at a nonprofit in Seattle and involved in a leadership development program. Each month we would focus on a different sector. I remember the month where we focused on public schools: It drew me in and I had an epiphany that I wanted to pivot toward that world.
It makes sense you’d home in on schools, because a lot of nonprofits work in the education realm.
I was reminded that public schools have to open their door for everybody in their neighborhood. And I’ve always admired the people on the front lines that work in those kinds of sectors.
You’re from Portland originally but lived in New York for a time. What did you do there?
I was aspiring to be an actor. And I had a health setback that forced me to have a job with benefits. That really pulled me away from the actor grind … I began working at New School University, and I really enjoyed it.
What did you learn from acting?
I found that theater allowed me to understand history and understand psychology. It really wove together a lot of the other disciplines I was studying.
When you landed back in Portland, why did you run for the school board?
I volunteered at Roosevelt High School, my alma mater. I then got involved when there was a repeal campaign for (Multnomah County’s I-Tax, a county income tax designed to assist public schools). I remember all my friends were really passionate about gay marriage being on the ballot. They were passionate about defeating George W. Bush. And I would ask people about this repeal and they were like, Oh yeah, I might support that. I’d be like, what? When I heard all things Portland progressives were saying about backing the repeal, I knew it was in trouble. So that’s where I decided to put my focus.
The campaign consisted of probably 90 percent moms of students in Portland Public Schools. Mothers would ask me, where does your son or daughter go? And I’d say, I don’t have kids. And they would literally look at me and say, why are you here? I didn’t like that stigma. I thought (the I-tax) was an important investment for all of us. (The repeal attempt failed.)
Around that same time, there was an incumbent in North Portland who was having a hard time. I thought, well, we need to have representation from North Portland on the Portland Public School Board and so why not me? When I was asked by journalists why I wanted to be on the school board when I didn’t have kids, I’d point out that well over 80 percent of the voters don’t have children.
You eventually worked with Superintendent Carole Smith, who left in 2016 after lead was discovered at some schools. How do you, in retrospect, view her overall performance?
The community wanted a leader who would stay in the role for a while. Carole’s positive impact on our schools, especially her role as a champion for our communities of color, is her lasting legacy. She put action into her words like no other previous superintendent. She focused on graduation rates, and no superintendent could claim the success she had, which included double-digit gains that accelerated for kids of color. She said she would focus on racial equity, and she did.
Did she get a raw deal?
I personally think the community owes an apology to Carole Smith. The lead issue was just one example of the decades of the lack of investment in our infrastructure and in Oregon schools.
You joined All Hands Raised 11 years ago when it was still the Portland Schools Foundation. How much about the mission changed when you changed the name?
We changed by saying we were for all Portland schools, not just Portland Public Schools. It was important for us to be there for all of Portland School districts, especially those with much higher poverty than Portland Public. That includes Parkrose, David Douglas, Centennial and Reynolds. It was a mandate by our partners beyond PPS to change. Really the name All Hands Raised has nothing to do with the kids. It has everything to do with the adults keeping their hands up and being committed for the long run. Kids are resilient, they handle change well, they’re nimble, they’re eager to learn. Adults rather can be stubborn and righteous.
Did the changes make it easier or harder to raise money?
Making the case for collective impact work and continuous improvement work in the social space has always been challenging. We brought a very innovative model really from the business sector and we’re applying it into the social service and education arena. The business community responded quickly because they look for areas where there’s innovation.
Was it a hard decision to leave?
This happened to be a good fit for me. I knew it was time to ensure that this mission is owned by the community. And I felt if I stayed much longer, it would’ve been Dan Ryan’s organization. And I didn’t want that: This is the community’s organization.
Do you have anything lined up?
I just turned 57. I want to work. I think I’m going to work for at least another decade. This is my town and I think I’m moving into what is more of the elder years in the market. And I’m looking forward to, in the short term, providing executive counseling to those in these types of roles. But for six months, I want to reflect and write.
Any advice for your replacement (veteran PPS principal Lavert Robertson)?
The key advice I got when I started this job was to focus on doing three things really well each year. And if you do that every year, 10 years later, you will have accomplished a lot. Also, in our
noisy world, with way too much social media, it’s very easy to be distracted removed from your priorities. Stay focused on the mission and don’t allow the latest noise to knock you off your game.
Title: CEO of All Hands Raised (his last day is June 29)
College: University of Oregon
Hobbies: Gardening, exercising, watching both sports and arts performances (“I am Bi-Cultural”).
What he’s reading: “Braving the Wilderness,” by Brene Brown, “Elenor Oliphant is Completely Fine,” by Gail Honeyman, “Okay Fine Whatever: The Year I Went from Being Afraid of Everything to Only Being Afraid of Most Things,” by Courtenay Hameister.
Mentors: Scappoose Middle School PE teacher and track coach, Mr. Vella; Roosevelt High School English teacher Sarah Friedel; Carilyn Alexander and her husband, Richard; Karen Whitman; Ronnie Herndon; and John Emerick.