‘Our Leadership is an Extension of Our Values’: Getting to Know Rise Co-Executive Directors Jeanette Vega Brown and Bianca Shaw

In April, the Rise Advisory Board announced that it selected Jeanette Vega Brown and Bianca Shaw as the next leadership of Rise. Here, Jeanette Vega Brown and Bianca Shaw, now co-executive directors of Rise, tell us about who they are, how they got involved in the parent-led movement for family justice, their roles and vision for the organization and what is staying the same at Rise. They also discuss why it is meaningful for Rise to be led by two women of color, including a parent impacted by ACS. 

Q. Tell us about your identities, what you are passionate about and what brings you joy.

Jeanette Vega Brown: I identify as a Puerto Rican woman who lives in the Bronx. I was raised by my mom and grandmother. I’m easygoing and I love jokes, laughter and talking to people. What brings me joy is being at peace with myself and my surroundings and being with my boys, spending time together, including movie time every week. Losing three years with my child to ACS made me want to connect with my children even more. 

I am family oriented—that is a value I bring to Rise, that we should be family and support each other in anything we go through. My passion comes from being a parent impacted by ACS and elevating other parents to be their best selves and the change makers we know we can be. My goal is to continue elevating parents’ voices and leadership within Rise. 

Bianca Shaw: I identify as a queer Black femme from the Bronx. Growing up with a single mom who raised seven children, undocumented and unafraid, taught me what it means to lean on community. Community relationships were super important because when we faced challenges or needed support, we had no safe space to be our true selves and tell our stories. We stayed silent about our experiences because we were afraid that the school, hospital, police—any system—could come into our lives and separate us. That never happened to us, but my mom always worried about the system becoming involved in our lives because we saw it happen to our friends and extended family. I was taught early on that these systems were not there to protect or care for me. If anything, they were there to harm me. It taught me that in community, we can take care of each other. Although I am not directly impacted by the family policing system, I am impacted by generations of trauma, colonialism, separation and state violence. 

The thing that brings me joy is being in community—people coming together and feeling valued, seen and appreciated. I present as serious but am really a goofy, silly person. I love when folks can be their authentic selves—and laugh together. The work is not just about what we are creating for our communities; it is also about how we relate and care for each other. My goal is to create a joyous organization that reflects those values. 

Q. What made you get into this work? 

Vega Brown: About 18 years ago, I caught an ACS case with my oldest son. I wasted three years in the system. They didn’t give me anything I needed, just a lot of runaround. After my case closed, I separated myself from anything child welfare-related.

Two years later, a friend invited me to a support group at Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP). I didn’t realize it was a support group for parents impacted by ACS, so I went. Listening to people share their stories made me feel connected in a way I’ve never felt. No one ever knew about my case—friends, family, nobody knew my son was in foster care, so to have a space without judgment where I could finally tell my story helped me release the stress and trauma I felt. That made me want to get involved in this work. I connected with mentors who were also impacted parents, including Tracy Carter, Carlos Boyet, Teresa Bachiller and Sabra Jackson. Seeing their strength and how they used their pain to support other families helped me realize what I was meant to be. They trained and coached me throughout the early years of my career. Ever since then, I’ve focused on supporting parents.

I worked at CWOP for four years. Then, I was one of the first parent advocates to staff Child Safety Conferences in New York City. After that, I became a foster care parent advocate and worked for four years supporting parents directly and facilitating parent support groups. The system did not let me advocate for parents the way I wanted—there were a lot of restrictions. I also wanted to have my last baby, and when my youngest child was born, I took a year off. 

A year later, I bumped into Rise’s founder, Nora McCarthy, and she asked me to work at Rise. Now I’ve been at Rise for six years, each year taking on more responsibility and a new title. I worked to pilot Rise & Shine as an entry point into Rise so parents would operate from the same framework and foundation, developed TIPS to provide information to parents and began our peer support work. In all of this work, I drew on my experience at CWOP and considered the training and support I wish I had as a parent and a parent advocate. I am super proud that I am now the co-executive director of Rise, alongside Bianca. My goals and dreams have come true. 

Shaw: I came to Rise because I know that when folks are silenced and don’t have the opportunity to share their own stories, the system tries to tell their story—to say, this is who you are and what your life can be. The system demonizes and punishes you. I’ve experienced that personally and by working with folks who have histories of substance use, mental illness, incarceration and homelessness. I’ve always had a problem with that.  

I started my career as a caseworker connecting people to resources. I realized that no matter what I did to help them navigate systems, there was always a bigger beast beyond that. People had to navigate not only getting housed, they also had to navigate racist hospitals and an oppressive public assistance system. I saw that the system needs to change, so I went back to school to become a social worker and community organizer. 

After graduate school, I worked in the criminal legal system, creating alternatives to incarceration for young people and providing training and technical assistance to credible messenger mentoring programs. I joined Rise in 2018 as public speaking director. Rise’s mission spoke to my values around amplifying stories, speaking truth to power and shifting the narrative about folks who have been impacted. I became assistant director in 2019 and co-executive director in 2021, alongside Jeanette. 

Q. What is the significance of Rise being led by two women of color, including a parent impacted by ACS?

Vega Brown: A lot of people believe that because you’re a woman of color and/or an impacted parent, you can never get to this level of leadership. We’re proving that it doesn’t matter what color you are or what your experiences have been. I believe that all women should be leaders.

As a parent impacted by ACS, I know that it can feel like there is no life after that experience. I’m hoping that impacted parents see us in our leadership roles and see parents at Rise elevate in their roles—and that will show that having an ACS case doesn’t stop people from being successful in their careers, in their lives or as parents.

Shaw: Rise is now in a place where our leadership is an extension of our values. We always have held the value of impacted parents being in leadership positions within the organization and movement. Jeanette and I are now co-executive directors, and our entire organization is run by women and people of color. Who better than us to do this work? We have firsthand experience—we live in and love people in these communities, shop at these stores and go to these organizations. There’s no one who can tell us better what our communities need. We are living out the organizational value that parents’ and people of color’s power, leadership and voices should be front and center. 

Q. What is your vision as co-executive directors of Rise?

Vega Brown: Our vision has always been to elevate parent leadership and power in the movement. We are working to create a community care and peer support network so that NYC parents have the resources, support and care they need without system involvement. We are building a parents’ platform to organize and advocate for policies to create lasting change for our families—for our children. 

Shaw: Rise is also raising awareness of the pervasive, ongoing, historical and generational ways the family policing system and other systems harm our communities. We have learned about systemic oppression, racism, sexism and ableism and have made a commitment to address and undo that in our work. We’re calling for community investment and community care because families deserve access to resources and spaces of joy, support and safety. We’re calling for dismantling the system because they deserve access in ways that do not come with experiences of harm, demonization and punishment. It’s a mighty, long-term vision. Our biggest commitment is to parents leading that vision and having the skills and tools to see it into reality. 

Vega Brown: As we work toward abolition, thousands of NYC families are involved with ACS now. We train parent advocates to support parents in the system with accessing information and resources, reunifying with their children quickly and then staying out of the system. 

Q What is staying the same at Rise?

Shaw: Three core things will stay the same and continue to grow at Rise: our commitment to parent leadership and power, our culture and our storytelling. Parent leadership has always been part of our culture, that parents are decision makers and their perspectives are honored in all the work we do. Our culture also includes the community we’ve built amongst our staff, where folks can come as they are and be in a space of joy, relationships and healing. That’s evident in our work, and it’s what we’re creating for our larger community. 

Vega Brown: At Rise, we care about and make space for people, rather than focusing only on tasks. To build parent leadership, we meet people where they are at and believe in their abilities. We provide tools, knowledge, feedback, opportunities and space to learn and grow. Parents involved with ACS lose their power, so it is important that Rise is a compassionate, understanding and nonjudgmental space. That environment makes you feel free and safe to try new things and be the best you can be, and it encourages people to stay involved at Rise.

We also create opportunities for parents to share their stories. Sharing our experiences connects our team, especially our staff impacted by ACS. It is also important for people beyond Rise to understand the stories that are the foundation for our recommendations for change. 

Shaw: Rise has been effective at creating and shifting the narrative around the harms of the family policing system. When Nora started Rise 15 years ago, she saw that parent stories weren’t being shared. We were hearing from young people, we were hearing from the system about all the “good” they were doing—but we weren’t hearing from parents. Providing a platform for parents to speak their truth is an incredibly important tool for change. 

Q. What is it like working as co-executive directors?

Vega Brown: The great thing about being co-executive directors is that everything doesn’t fall on one person. It gives you a thinking partner and someone you can count on, who you know will have your back, even if you may not agree on everything. You share in the realities of what it is to be a leader. Sometimes leaders may feel alone in their little corner, but having a co-e.d., we need to stay connected and run things through each other. 

Having that commitment to someone else makes you strive harder for the organization and want to be a better leader. Although we haven’t yet been in a situation where we disagree strongly, when that happens, we’ll need to decide how to compromise together on what’s best for the organization. It has been a great experience so far and I think it is going to make our relationship even stronger. 

Shaw: Co-e.d. leadership structure is new, and as Jeanette described, it’s about partnership: having someone you can call on, cry with and talk to about hard decisions. It’s a testimony to Rise’s values—we talk a lot about relationships and what it means to care for and be accountable to each other. 

Over the last three months, I’ve seen that this is life work. It’s teaching me about my communication style and boundaries and how to live my values, ask for what I need and say what I think. That’s so important, especially as a Black woman who used silence as a tool for survival. Creating space to talk and be in conflict and to see that as positive will help us grow as leaders and people and will benefit the organization. 

Q. What are your roles?

Vega Brown: As co-executive director for leadership and policy, I represent Rise with the media and in committees and partnerships. Rise partners with NYC legal agencies and other groups advocating for legislative and policy change. We are also working to connect with allies in intersecting movements who are organizing for abolition and developing community-led approaches. We are interested in building and strengthening our relationships with credible messenger and mutual aid groups doing aligned work. 

Another part of my role is fundraising and finances, bringing in money to continue our work and grow our staff. Together, Bianca and I are responsible for making sure that Rise has a clear vision for our work as we continue to grow. 

Shaw: As co-executive director for programs and culture, I have the honor of overseeing programs at Rise. We are focusing on community investment and building parents’ leadership and power in new ways. We have many exciting programs that were created with that vision in mind. 

Like many organizations, Rise works within the nonprofit industrial complex, which means that oftentimes we value productivity, feel disconnected, feel rushed in our work, deal with systems of oppression and operate in unsustainable ways. It’s just the reality we live in—it’s not intentional or unique to Rise. My commitment has been to shift the ways in which we work and relate. For the last two years, we’ve been intentionally building a culture of trust, accountability and care. There is no roadmap for it—we’re building the plane while flying it. That’s the hardest and most exciting part of my job: creating a sustainable movement where we live our values every day in our practices together.

Q. What are you most excited about for the future of Rise?

Vega Brown: I’m excited to see our new programs progress to the next level. I’m excited about building community, supporting parents with staying out of the system or getting through it, and continuing to uplift parent advocate voices throughout our movement.

Shaw: I’m excited for our growth and the work our team is doing around dismantling the system, shifting policy and creating networks of community care. I’m excited about building new relationships and learning from people and movements who are also committed to community care. I’m excited about parents being in every space with the power to make change. 

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