After two interim executive directors and an extensive nationwide search, Evanston equity nonprofit Cradle to Career has selected a new executive director, Blake Noel.
Noel started on the job Feb. 6 and says he is currently focused on getting up to speed with the nonprofit, its partners and the city. His assignments, he said, are Cradle to Career’s priorities: kindergarten, college and career readiness and addressing inequities in the Fifth Ward.
“My goal is to try to lead from the center, not lead from the front,” Noel said. “I don’t see the role of the executive director of EC2C as being the person that says, ‘Here’s what I need y’all to do.’ I don’t see that as the work.”
Noel is new to Evanston but grew up nearby, in Chicago and Milwaukee. He said Evanston’s Fifth Ward reminds him of the neighborhoods he called home. There’s a sense of community and warmth here, he said.
There also are inequities in education, health and income. He said his experiences growing up inspired him to pursue community service and social justice work.
“I really want things to be better for the people that come behind me, for the people that are like me, and by that, I mean Black and brown and poor folks,” Noel said. “It’s a pretty big tent.”
Cradle to Career uses a collective impact approach, working to address social issues in the city alongside its more than 40 partners.
Noel’s background is rooted in making education more equitable. He began as a high school teacher. He helped form Oxford Teachers Academy at Reach University, which offers degrees through job-embedded partnerships for full-time teachers. The university has partnerships with 148 schools and districts and has trained more than 950 educators. Noel taught practice-based coursework there for two years.
While working on his doctorate at the University of Michigan, Noel helped his adviser with opening TeachingWorks, which gives teachers tools to help them reexamine education practices that reinforce patterns of bias in the classroom. He said he also created a summer math camp for underprivileged students.
“I really believe that if you want folks to engage, you have to be able to, one, speak a language that makes sense to them and two, craft programs that fit their lived realities,” he said.
Cradle to Career issued a news release Jan. 31 announcing its decision to hire Noel.
“With significant consideration given to the skills, experiences, and expertise needed to guide our network in our next phase of growth successfully, we are excited to announce that Blake Noel will be joining us as Evanston Cradle to Career’s new Executive Director,” said the release.
Noel said he hopes that by the next Cradle to Career partner meeting in May, participants will be done discussing ways to address the nonprofit’s focus points and begin executing them.
Until then, Noel said he is excited about working with Family Focus to build the city’s first welcome center for immigrants. Cradle to Career’s Latinx Advocates for Action is working to address other issues within the community.
“I’m really excited to have a new group of folks that can help us connect with communities that we have maybe not connected with, or not as well, in the past,” he said.
Most of all, Noel is excited to work alongside a city that made reparations happen for its Black residents.
“There are no other municipalities that have been able to put pencil to paper and say, ‘We’re going to take responsibility for the harm that we’ve done historically in the communities,'” Noel said. “We have a possibility, we have a chance to do something that can really become a proof point for the rest of the country.”