Joan Sullivan, chief executive officer of the Partnership for L.A. Schools, didn't start out as a champion of education equality. Like many people, she was once a student who was less interested in school than in summer break.
"When I was not a particularly devoted student and not much of a reader, my mom was determined to change that," said Sullivan, who grew up on a farm in New Jersey in the mid-'70s. "She told me every day my future depended on how much I read, which I ignored."
Sullivan's mother was determined, however. She challenged her youngest daughter to read 50 books over the summer, for which she would pay $1 per book.
"At the time it seemed like a phenomenal sum, so I read a lot of books," Sullivan said. The simple challenge ignited a lifelong love affair with reading and enrichment.
Her mother was a homemaker who aspired to have a career as a professional photographer. Her father was a former Jesuit priest.
"My mom was a product of the '50s where the expectation for women was focusing on being a wife and mother," Sullivan said. "Later in life she took that opportunity to pursue a career and became a really strong feminist. She reinvented herself in a really inspiring way. She is an incredibly determined person."
So it's no surprise that seven of Sullivan's 10 siblings are also educators. "Eight of us are teachers, so I come from a family of teachers -- and that's partly an outgrowth of the values that my parents had."
Sullivan attended Princeton High, where students sometimes participated in activities with students from the far-less-privileged Trenton Central High, about 15 miles away.
"They were not far away but the disparities were profound," Sullivan said.
For example, Princeton sent a third of its seniors to Ivy League schools. Trenton Central, however, was fraught with issues that grip poor neighborhoods.
"While Princeton was a public school, the expectations and outcomes were tremendously different than Trenton, where the vast majority was living in some degree of poverty where the resources were fewer and the outcomes in terms of going to college were much lower," Sullivan said.
"I felt very lucky to have some exposure first to the idea that we can and should have a just society," she said. "And it was my good fortune to have some exposure early on to stark injustices that seemed like an opportunity as much as a problem."
This experience led to her involvement in school reform for more than a decade, including serving as principal and founder of the Bronx Academy of Letters, a high-performing public secondary school in the impoverished South Bronx.
In her current role with the Partnership for L.A. Schools, a public non-profit aiding in turning around underperforming educational programs, Sullivan helps a large school district and serves over 10,000 students. She said it's a "way of getting to work with teachers, families and students who are inspirational."
"As the CEO I lead and guide some of the most talented people in education to transform 16 of L.A.'s most challenged schools, representing 14,000 students in South L.A., Watts and Boyle Heights," Sullivan said. "Our teachers, principals and home office staff work collectively to empower students with a high-quality education (and) innovations that influence policies at the Los Angeles Unified School District."
"Because of this unique organization I get to think about larger policy questions that can influence many more kids," she said.
All because of an irresistible challenge from her mother to read and learn one summer (and small bribe of $50).