My North Star

By Malissa Williams

Malissa Williams joined the Scholars Unlimited Board in January, 2016, and has been a donor to the organization since 2010. She works as an Assistant Attorney General in the Health Care Unit in the Office of the Colorado Attorney General.

I’ll admit it. I’ve been really distracted since Tuesday, November 8, 2016. Now, especially, it seems like there’s so much noise all of the time – on television, print and radio news, my 12 different social media feeds, on our streets. It seems like it’s all politics, all the time. It’s exhausting.

I suspect that I’m not the only one being pulled in different directions at once.  And especially if you believe in social justice like I do. So many worthy causes. How do you pick the right one – the one that will most positively impact people’s lives and society in general? The one that you can feel good about throwing yourself into?

“All politics is local” – it may be a hackneyed expression, but it is truer today than ever.  When it’s hard to know where to direct your time, attention, and resources, use “all politics is local” as your North Star, and you’ll never lose your way.

It was that guiding principle that led me to what was then known as Summer Scholars.  My good friend and colleague Jon Bender introduced me to the organization by inviting me to the annual fundraiser Breakfast of Scholars.  I left that Breakfast deeply moved by the incredible work of Scholars Unlimited because it tapped directly into my sense of social justice and my desire to act locally.

First of all, the statistics were shocking.  The one that haunts me most is that one-fourth of all Denver Public School (DPS) students live in poverty.  Let that sink in for just a bit. That means a family of four – mom, dad, and two little kids, or a mom and three children – living on an income of $24,600 per year. (See

When you have an income amounting to just a little over $2,000 per month, where’s the money for after-school tutoring; buying books for the home; summer camp; dance and art lessons; piano class; computers; broadband Internet access? Forget that. Where’s the money for buying healthy food; grandma’s diabetes medication; and paying rent for an apartment or home that’s not blooming with mold?

These students begin school with enormous deficits in social capital and school readiness – and without additional supports, they never catch up. It’s not hard to understand why 68.5% of DPS students receive free/reduced price school lunches.  Or why more than one-third of DPS students fail to graduate high school. (See

The costs to all of us are high: People who don’t get a high school diploma are more likely to earn less, to live in poverty themselves as adults, and to end up in the criminal justice system.  (See

Not only is this cycle of poverty and incarceration morally reprehensible and offensive to the conscience, it’s expensive – there’s the intangible cost of lost productivity and innovation (how much brain power is left untapped or, worse, thrown away?), as well as the very tangible, real costs. Each year, our state spends about three times more to incarcerate one inmate than it spends to educate one student (See

Like so much that’s going on in the world right now, these seem like intractable problems that make you want to throw up your hands and say “just forget it.” But, for me, succumbing to cynicism and apathy is the easy way out. I know I can’t fix all of the country’s problems or even a fraction of them, but I also know that I have to do something besides sharing articles, commenting on friends’ posts, and expressing outrage on Facebook. I can help provide equity to some of our community’s most disadvantaged kiddos. And that’s exactly why I got involved with Scholars Unlimited.

Scholars Unlimited is committed to serving underprivileged and at-risk children who attend Denver Public Schools. There’s free after-school programming to help kids who may be struggling academically.  In the summer, Scholars fills in the gap for students whose parents can’t afford camps and enrichment activities.  Instead of losing academic gains achieved during the school year, students build MORE academic skills over the summer and participate in numerous activities that they otherwise would not be able to access.

And guess what? It works.  Last year, our end-of-program assessments showed that:

  • 80 percent of our scholars achieved grade-level proficiency in literacy skills that are critical for reading proficiency.
  • Two-thirds of our students made significant and measureable gains in reading fluency and comprehension.

I’m one person, but if I can channel my energy and outrage and resources to just one thing that makes me feel like I’m making a difference in the community that has given me so much, it’s Scholars Unlimited.  After my first Breakfast of Scholars, I became a sustaining member in the organization.  It was a very, very modest amount that came out of my account each month, but it was consistent and much appreciated by the organization – I loved getting the handwritten notes from both scholars and and staff. But it wasn’t all warm fuzzy feel good stuff. There were also the tax breaks! In addition to the federal tax deduction for charitable donations, gifts to Scholars Unlimited qualify for the Colorado Child Care Contribution Credit – which results in a lower state tax bill.

Now, I am truly thrilled to have upped my participation by serving as a member of the Scholars Unlimited Board. In my first year on the Board, I’ve increased my giving and introduced my friends to the Scholars’ mission by holding a Discovery Tour at my home. And coming full circle, I sponsored a table and had the honor of speaking at last year’s Breakfast of Scholars – something I never would have dreamed of doing when I attended my first Breakfast all those years ago.

But it’s not about me. It’s about providing equity and improving outcomes for children whom some would discard. It’s about the light and joy in the faces of children who are discovering their true potential, believing in themselves for maybe the first time ever, and learning that people do care about what happens to them.

It’s about acting locally by building a more just, inclusive, and moral community – one that gives each kid a fair shot at success, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity or nationality, by giving her the academic, social, and emotional skills to become a fully realized, contributing member of society.

If you’re distraught and feeling overwhelmed by the constant onslaught of news and events in the nation and the world, I urge you to follow my North Star and remember that all politics is local. Consider becoming a sustaining member of Scholars Unlimited.  Attend a Discovery Tour (, pull up a chair at the Breakfast of Scholars (, learn more about our mission, meet our scholars and our incredibly committed and knowledgeable staff.  You’ll come away feeling refreshed, inspired and humbled, just as I do. Believe me.