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Conversations with Roopal Saran

Today we’d like to introduce you to Roopal Saran.

Hi Roopal, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I was born and raised in Southern California, a child of immigrants from India. My younger brother and I were raised in a household filled with curiosity and I was always encouraged to try new things from high school basketball to debate to dance to planning service projects.

I was surrounded by a very strong and social Indian community of family friends who celebrated, cooked, and did road trips together. I attended college at Stanford University and law school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I have now lived more than 25 years on the East Coast. After law school, I practiced law for a few years, representing school districts and advising state departments of education.

I found that while the education topics were interesting, the legal aspects of these topics were less interesting to me. I was craving more opportunities to work with people and so made the switch to nonprofit work, where I still am today.

I found a passion for community building, capacity building, and finding strategic ways to put corporate philanthropy dollars to use to assist vulnerable populations. I love connecting people and resources to create meaningful programs that lift up our neighbors and encourage them to participate more fully and equitably in our communities.

Because of my love for community building, I have been an active volunteer at my children’s schools, for the Girl Scouts, and on several boards and committees that focus on human services, workforce development, leadership, and developing college students to incorporate public service in their academic and career pursuits.

As my parents did when I was growing up, I have also built a strong community of friends who enjoy celebrating, cooking, sharing books, and exercising together. Along the way, I have been blessed to have a partner, my husband, who cheers for me and supports everything I want to do, and together, we are thoroughly enjoying raising three kids.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
I grew up seeing people do service, whether by collecting funds for organizations in India serving the impoverished or sick, or by volunteering time with local organizations. But I never knew anyone who had made a career out of service. I never knew you could make a living doing public service.

It is important for young people to understand that people are needed to do all kinds of work and that it is worth the time and effort to explore options, find mentors, try and fail and try again, in order to find the things you are passionate about.

At work, my ultimate goal is to ensure we have the funds needed so we can develop the best programs to assist our students in learning the English they need to survive and thrive.

Daily obstacles include navigating the changing priorities of our funders, adjusting our programs to meet their goals while still ensuring that the needs and goals of our students are met, and doing outreach to new organizations that may be interested in funding our work.

I love this challenge, meeting new people, spinning a story about our work that will resonate with each person I meet, and then motivating them to want to give to support our work.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
I have been the Executive Director of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia (LCNV) since 2017.

The mission of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia (LCNV) is to teach adults the basic skills of reading, writing, speaking, and understanding English so they can access employment and educational opportunities and more fully and equitably participate in the community.

At LCNV, I oversee the 16-person staff (academic programs, data, finance, volunteer management, donor relations, community relations, fundraising) who annually work with about 500 trained volunteers who give over 15,000 hours of service to 1500 students.

I am responsible for Board relations and recruitment for our 15-person Board of Directors who come from the legal, finance, workforce development, education technology, nonprofit, fundraising, and immigration sectors.

LCNV serves those at the lowest skill levels providing the crucial first steps of language and literacy learning, while also providing this population with workplace soft skills, digital literacy, financial literacy, civics, and industry-recognized credentialing. Mirroring Northern Virginia’s rich cultural variety, LCNV’s population last year was from 67 different countries and they spoke 38 different languages or dialects.

Over 54% of LCNV learners earned an income that is below the Federal Poverty Level (according to the Federal Register, $26,500 for a family of four in 2021) and over 80% lived at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. Of these adults, 71% are female and they were the parents to 1,207 dependent children.

LCNV serves adult learners through multiple programs to best meet their needs and life goals. LCNV offers Beginning English classes, Family Learning Programs (FLP), Skills-based classes, and Destination Workforce® classes. The classroom-based programs provide instruction in a workplace and life-skills context.

FLP curriculum emphasizes the needs of parents with school-aged children, engaging families in activities that help parents develop their English and reinforce what their children are learning in school. Skills-based classes help fill learning gaps by focusing on single areas such as writing or conversation.

Destination Workforce®, LCNV’s workplace program, offers classes in partnership with local businesses and organizations where English Language Learners can learn industry-specific vocabulary skills, and workplace soft skills, and earn credentials to help them advance in their careers. Notable partners have included DoubleTree Hilton, Capital One, and Jose Andres’ Think Food Group.

Together with my team at LCNV, I have achieved major accomplishments, including:

● Positively impacting the lives of nearly 6,000 learners and their families

● Growing the operating budget from $1.2 million to nearly $1.5 million, representing a 25% increase

● Increasing LCNV’s database of donors and supporters by nearly 50%

Major Programmatic and Organizational Accomplishments
● LCNV was selected by Leadership Fairfax for the 2021 Nonprofit Leadership award for our passion for service and positive change in Northern Virginia.

● In March 2022, I was selected as one of the 2022 honorees for the Washington Business Journal’s Diversity in Business Awards as a leader in my field and in the wider Greater Washington business community.

● As the local refugee population grows, the need for English language education is exploding. With hundreds of referrals and classes at capacity, LCNV piloted and formalized new rolling enrollment “mini-classes” to respond to urgent language needs and to be an on-ramp to enrolling into regular semester classes.

The initial group of 20 students soon became 50 and LCNV decided to extend these impromptu virtual mini-classes as long as the need was there and funding was available.

Our programming for Afghans caught the attention of the US Department of Education and LCNV was invited to speak to the Acting Assistant Secretary of the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education as they develop their Immigrant Integration programs.

● The pandemic made clear that our students who weren’t well-versed in technology became more isolated and fell further behind in economic opportunities.

LCNV made a commitment to switch all classes to virtual, which involved training instructors to teach English using virtual platforms, showing students how to download and use Zoom, developing a laptop loaner program so that students would have access to devices to take our classes, and creating an entire virtual registration system.

While we added back in-person classes in September 2021, virtual classes are here to stay and this semester, 50% of our 606 students are taking classes virtually. Distance learning has established LCNV as a leader in online learning and we have been invited to speak at national, regional, and local conferences on this work.

● As LCNV gained comfort in teaching computer skills to students so they could participate in virtual programs, in Fall 2021, LCNV piloted a new computer literacy curriculum in recognition that computer skills are critical to students as they search for and obtain livable wage jobs.

● I led my team to organize the first inaugural A Taste of Literacy Fundraising Breakfast in 2019. We raised $34K in the first year. In 2020, due to Covid-19 we turned the event to virtual within 10 days of the event and raised $54K. In 2021, we raised $80K and in 2022, we returned to an in-person event and raised $91K. Our events incorporated student and volunteer testimonials, bringing tears to the eyes of many in the room!

● LCNV has been recognized for its service with a Commending Resolution in the Virginia House of Delegates 2019 session alongside the remarkable Tuskegee Airmen and Richmond 34. LCNV has been recognized for its 60 years of service to nearly 60,000 students with another Commending Resolution in the Virginia House of Delegates 2022 session.

● Quantitative progress of students in 2021:

o 90%of regularly attending adults in the Family Learning Program reported increased involvement in their children’s education.

o 83% of regularly attending classroom learners achieved two or more personal learning goals related to life skills and/or job readiness.

o 59% of regularly attending classroom students improved their BEST Plus test scores (a nationally recognized test that LCNV uses to measure learning gains) by an Educational Functioning Level gain (EFL). Please note that the State of Virginia’s target for the beginning level learner was 44% last year.

● One of my favorite parts of my job is finding win-win-win ways to lift up our students, corporate and community entities that have philanthropy dollars to share, and LCNV generally.

To that end, I have developed many new relationships and partnerships for LCNV with entities including Amazon, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Capital One, Jose Andres’ Think Food Group, Fairfax County Public Libraries, and Falls Church City Public Schools, Global Shout, and more.

● I am currently working on a rebranding project that will result in a new name and logo for LCNV later this year.

So many of LCNV’s accomplishments are best shared in the words of our learners:

“When I came to the USA 3 years ago, I was the same as a baby when he tries to speak or tries to walk. I often had a friend come with me to translate when I had to do anything. It was embarrassing for me. But I tried. I listened. I watched movies. I searched for any place to take an English class. I listened to anyone who would give me advice. Now, thanks to my God, I have a solution. I say, “Good job Nadia, you are a strong woman.”

I support myself to do everything. The conversation is easier. I listen and ask what things mean and I remember. When I speak with any person in my shop, I think ‘what does that mean.’ Sometimes I use an online translator and when I know what something means, I remember it. My boss all the time helped me in everything in my life. He said you have to push yourself. He spoke with me in English all the time at work.

Before my class, I was scared when he [spoke] English. I could not answer him because I did not trust myself. Sometimes I would say to him, ‘can you translate for me to Arabic,’ and he said no. He said to me, ‘translate to me what you understand.’

After I translated for him, he said, ‘Why you don’t answer me? You understand already!’ I feel I am good. I can speak with him now. I trust myself, especially with email. My boss said now he will open a position as a job as a buyer and I will apply. I made one goal.” –Nadia, LCNV learner

We’d be interested to hear your thoughts on luck and what role, if any, you feel it’s played for you?
What a fabulous question!

I have been lucky to have been part of a family that supported my interests even if they had little firsthand knowledge of what it meant to pursue a career in public service. I am fortunate that I had the means to try many things and have many experiences that shape my ability to be empathetic and knowledgeable when developing programs to help others.

I have been lucky to have a group of friends and mentors with many different backgrounds who ask questions, motivate me, push me to explain my actions, and then celebrate my successes. There is much pride in having developed this group of friends and mentors and knowing that there is always someone to talk to and get advice from.

I am lucky to work with an extremely hardworking and passionate group of people from fellow staff members to volunteer Board members who give their time and energy and treasure to a common goal. I am lucky to live in a diverse community that revels in all we have to offer and values differences of opinions.

No doubt this has allowed me to grow in many ways and to be more open-minded as I work to strengthen my community.

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