Wendy Puriefoy ’71
by Catherine Williams
Wendy Puriefoy ’71 has dedicated her life to the notion that public education is a civil right.
“Public education is the single most important public institution in a democratic society,” she recently wrote. “It is our ultimate department of defense against poverty, ignorance, hatred and intolerance.”
A nationally recognized expert on issues of school reform and civil society, Puriefoy is a passionate advocate for high quality public education for all children, especially the poor and disenfranchised. She is the president of Public Education Network (PEN), a network comprised of a National Office, 76 Local Education Funds (LEFs) and individuals working to advance public school reform in low-income communities across the country. PEN is the nation’s largest network of community-based school reform organizations. It leverages its broad base of members to develop and scale innovative strategies that improve student outcomes within the public education system while also advocating for public support and policy change. Based in Washington, D.C., PEN’s National Office plays a critical role in representing the combined work of LEFs, interpreting LEF roles and performance, and acting as the broader voice of PEN. Under Puriefoy’s leadership, PEN and its members mobilize resources for quality public education on behalf of 12 million children across the country.
“When you consider race and income disparities, the achievement gap in American schools is huge,” she says. “Our nation was founded by adventurous and courageous people but it was carried on by educated people. Democracies are complex things that require an educated population. There is a direct link between the quality of public education and the quality of life in a democratic society. We cannot afford to have a nation that is only half educated. If you are not educated, you simply are not free. Low education attainment in the country shackles the nation’s intellectual and economic growth and compromises our power globally.”
Puriefoy’s life as an education and civil rights advocate started as a child in Philadelphia. “Both of my parents were deeply engaged in their community,” she explains. “My mother started the first local workshop for intellectually disabled children and served on the local school board. My father started the first private swim club owned by African Americans. Both my mother and father were active in the civil rights movement. They were always working to make the world a better place. I didn’t know any other way to live.”
At William Smith, Puriefoy excelled. She was the first-ever student trustee elected to sit on the HWS Board of Trustees and was a member of the Presidential Committee on Minority Affairs and the Academic Affairs Committee. But what Puriefoy remembers most about her years in Geneva are the ways in which her professors and fellow students negotiated the nation’s contentious political and social environment.
“I was at Hobart and William Smith during the ‘Tommy the Traveler’ incident,” Puriefoy explains. A traveling salesmen and reported FBI undercover agent, a man whom Walter Cronkite referred to as an ‘agent provocateur,’ Tommy Tongyai encouraged Hobart students to bomb the campus ROTC office. “It was reprehensible and the students rioted.”
The results could have been dire, she says. “The Colleges could have closed down like several other colleges in upstate New York but President Beverly Causey and the faculty believed in the students and thought this was a teachable moment. They were so right.”
Instead, Puriefoy says, “We had extraordinary conversations in the classroom and during open panel discussions. What happened at the Colleges at that time was truly remarkable. HWS made it possible for us to share our beliefs and to truly explain them to people who might not have been like-minded. I believe that it was the experience of working through something difficult and divisive like that – the reality of the situation – that gave me the tools for my career. That was an exceptional lesson.”
After graduation, Puriefoy earned three master’s degrees in African American Studies, American Studies, and American Colonial History from Boston University (“That’s what happens when you don’t finish your Ph.D.,” she quips.) In 2006, she received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Amherst College.
One of her first jobs was serving as a special monitor of the 1974 court-ordered desegregation plan for Boston’s public schools. “I saw people at their worst and their best,” Puriefoy says. “Boston is an amazing city and it’s a better city today because of the work that Judge Arthur Garrity and concerned citizens did during the school desegregation process.” In Boston, Puriefoy was a trust officer at the Boston Foundation Safe Deposit & Trust Company, the first African American woman to hold that position. She was eventually named executive vice president and chief operating officer of The Boston Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest community foundations, with an endowment of more than $750 million.
During her time in philanthropy, she worked in South Africa during the fall of apartheid helping American companies collaborate with the South African government and community groups on issues of ethical divestment and community reinvestment. “I was able to meet very brave people, like Albertina Sisulu, who was formally under house arrest and all the while working as a freedom fighter. This was during the time when her husband, Albert Sisulu, was still imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela,” she says. “Mrs. Sisulu’s windows were covered in barbed wire to protect her against the many firebombs that were lobbed at her home by pro-apartheid advocates. I knew that these same people, just days or weeks after sharing their stories with me, could be jailed or tortured.”
These experiences in Boston and South Africa, she says, “...reinforced in me a deep appreciation for democracy and the Constitution, for the importance that the constitutional framers placed on education and for my own belief that public education is a fundamental foundation of democracy.”
Public Education Network, which Puriefoy has helmed for 20 years, began life as a loose affiliation of grassroots LEFs supported by the Ford Foundation. As the Ford Foundation was winding down its support of successful LEF projects, all involved agreed that a central group that could coordinate efforts and funnel resources was essential in continuing to see positive outcomes. Puriefoy served as the chair of the search committee for the organization’s first director.
“We took a short break after completing interviews with prospective applicants. When I returned to the conference room, everyone had these mischievous looks on their faces. The board chair, David W. Hornbeck, said they had unanimously decided that I take the job and they were willing to wait a few weeks until I made the right decision. Puriefoy says. “I made the right decision.”
Puriefoy explains that what keeps her going are the opportunities. “The need for great public schools is as strong as ever, and the learning landscape is changing,” she says. “Technology is rewiring the brain and the type of education we need will be one that produces individuals well-educated enough to teach themselves over and over again.”
Puriefoy says that the Colleges provided her best example of this. “I got a great liberal arts education here and it has stood me in very good stead,” she says. “My classmates and I were given so many opportunities at Hobart and William Smith – but the question that governed our lives was - what will you do to help others? I’ve answered that by becoming an education advocate.”
In 1992, Puriefoy returned to the Hobart and William Smith Board of Trustees, serving for two years. She is a founding member of the Advisory Board of The Fisher Center, served on the Centennial Honorary Committee, and received the Alumnae Achievement Award in 2000. In 2007, Puriefoy received The President’s Medal, presented to individuals for outstanding service to the community, the country and their profession.