Nilofer Ali is the Resources Manager for Westchester K-12 Publishing Services. Her role encompasses recruiting, onboarding, and management of our freelance talent across all departments, as well as leading our DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) initiatives. Nilofer’s experiences before becoming a part of the Westchester K-12 team have given her a solid foundation for these responsibilities, as she shared in this interview:
Tell us about your career prior to joining Westchester K-12.
Nilofer: I started off my career as an elementary and middle school classroom teacher in private schools with fairly diverse populations in the suburbs of Chicago. I left teaching for about a decade when my children were young, working instead as a freelance writer for an Islamic educational publisher. When I made my return to the classroom, I had opportunities to teach in urban and suburban classrooms as well as virtual settings, for several years. I worked with Pre-K – 8th Grade students and families from as many backgrounds as you can imagine in both Chicago and then all over Ohio. After leaving teaching for good in 2014, I filled a variety of administrative roles in the field of adult and Pre-K – 12 education before joining Westchester K-12 in 2018.
What interested you about working for a content development provider?
Nilofer: I thought my teaching background and the little bit of freelance work I’d done previously would equip me to quickly understand K-12 educational publishing. I also generally work well with adults, and enjoy the behind-the-scenes work of establishing systems and processes, so establishing and implementing a system for recruiting and onboarding talent was appealing. The real draw for me, however, was Kevin’s description of the need for diversity among the creators of educational material to better reflect the diversity of the classroom. As a woman of color from a minority faith group, I grew up without seeing anyone like me in any of the books I read in school or even at the local library. Being provided with the opportunity and the organizational support necessary to bringing talented, diverse voices that reflect the modern classroom into the development process was one I could not turn down.
How does your experience as a classroom teacher help you in your current position?
Nilofer: Within each professional field, there is insider knowledge that gives those working in the field language and structures which provide a framework for understanding their role within it. I’m well trained in the field of education. My Bachelor’s was in Elementary Education, and my Master’s was in Technology Enhanced Learning, and as I mentioned before, I taught for several years in various settings. So, while the learning curve moving from teaching into educational publishing has still been a steep one, my understanding of the types of materials used in the classroom helps me understand what the Westchester K-12 team is working on at any given moment, and thus I am better able to help identify the best talent for the tasks at hand.
Why is it important for companies to have a commitment to DEI initiatives?
Nilofer: While having a comprehensive DEI policy is an important way for a company to incorporate moral and ethical perspectives into its business model, having a diverse workforce, an environment of inclusion, and equitable policies also just make good business sense. Diverse voices and an atmosphere that allows for open sharing of perspectives and ideas create fertile ground for innovation and growth. Equitable policies anchor diversity and inclusion to the bedrock of the organization and move them from being just “initiatives” to actually becoming part of the identity and culture of the company.
In addition to inclusive hiring practices, we’re also introducing college students to the career opportunities that exist in educational publishing. We participate in on-campus career recruiting events at local colleges and universities in the Dayton, Ohio region, and have implemented an internship program at our Dayton office. While we hire the best candidates for the position, our recruiting efforts target students from populations historically underrepresented in publishing, which are people of color and minority ethnicities. We’ve been very fortunate the past couple of semesters to have found some really sharp interns from a variety of backgrounds.
Describe how the internship program works?
Nilofer: We thought a good way to provide interns with an overview of the industry would be to have them work with our Project Management team. Project management touches every department of the company, so the official position title for the internship is “Project Coordinator” and a good portion of what they do is assist with project management. We do, however, have the interns working also on some data uploads to help us track project financials, as well as a variety of other tasks across most, if not all, departments. This semester we introduced a new project: to create a presentation to introduce their peers to educational publishing and Westchester K-12, with an emphasis on the aspects that align with their individual interests and fields of study. This helps them and their peers understand how the degree they earn can help them transition into a meaningful career in educational publishing.
Why is it important to introduce college students to content development?
Nilofer: A multi-pronged approach for developing a diverse recruiting pool is crucial for DEI initiatives to be fully successful. By introducing college students to a business that is thriving and in need of young, talented individuals, it opens their eyes to a potential career avenue they may not have previously known about. Also, by working with local colleges, it helps institutions of higher learning better promote how certain degree paths can help students once they have graduated.
What are some other ways that you stay informed about DEI initiatives?
Nilofer: I follow several professional organizations and networks including We Need Diverse Books, People of Color in Publishing, and Latinx in Publishing, among others, to gain knowledge about best practices in incorporating successful DEI strategies. I also attend conferences and seminars to understand how other businesses are addressing diversity, equity and inclusion in their workplaces. In December, I will take part in a panel discussion at the Education Business Forum hosted by SIIA (Software and Information Industry Association) about first steps companies can take towards creating a culture of inclusion in their business.
Finally, I’m a deep reader and have amassed a small collection of books to help me understand these topics, including understanding the barriers to inclusion. This includes a study of racism and what it takes to be anti-racist and inclusive, and how to do this within the context of a company or organization. I started with Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, and have moved now into Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist, and Race Talk by Dr. Derald Wing Sue. Next on my reading list is Trevor Wilson’s The Human Equity Advantage, which was recommended by a DEI leader in a large midwestern company, and specifically addresses DEI in organizations and businesses.
How does Westchester K-12’s ethos of inclusivity benefit our clients?
Nilofer: “Diversity, equity and inclusion” is fairly new as a movement, and most of us working in it are figuring out best DEI practices within our respective niches. No one really has all the answers just yet, and as a result, the DEI space is a highly collaborative one. We all help fill in the gaps for one another. That means that we at Westchester K-12 are here to help fill in the gaps for our clients who are interested in producing material which better reflects the many voices and perspectives of the students they serve, just as we learn from our clients. Furthermore, because we are striving to be an organization that provides space for our staff and freelancers to bring the full extent of their identity, experience, and voice to all that they do within the company, the products we offer reflect the richness of human diversity.
What else would you like readers to know about you?
Nilofer: Inclusion has been part of my life and mission for as long as I can remember. I’ve found myself building bridges and being involved in creating space for marginalized people (including myself) for decades. One day a week I work at a local state women’s prison as the “Imam” or Muslim religious service provider, teaching and offering spiritual and pastoral care to the Muslim inmates, and engage in some reentry initiatives in the Dayton area. In addition to that, I assist with outreach with the LGBTQ Alliance with the Dayton-Montgomery County Public Health Department. I’m also currently attending the Dayton Police Department’s Citizen’s Academy, as part of training to be a member of their Police and Clergy Together (PACT) team; and finally, I facilitate a weekly third space conversation group for people to connect and discuss “big talk” questions.
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