Danielle Lee has never been a stranger to education, starting with educating herself and later transitioning into a career focusing on education and making a difference.
Lee is the president and CEO of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF), a nonprofit college preparatory and youth leadership program for New York City students with exceptional potential in underserved school systems and communities.
Located in the heart of Harlem, HEAF works with children from sixth grade to college and beyond. The program provides students with services such as youth leadership development and test and college preparation, as well as opportunities to travel across the world.
During 20 years spent working with young people, Lee has had nothing less than a passion for building a foundation for youngsters that will prepare them for college and beyond. “When I saw the opportunity to take HEAF to the next level, I thought it was a chance I could not pass up,” said Lee.
Raised primarily in Manhattan on the Upper West Side, Lee always had a special bond with Harlem. There, her grandfather owned a cleaners, her father had his own photography studio and she attended Canaan Baptist Church. At church, she recognized that she had great mentors who pushed her to excel. She was also very active in the youth ministry.
From the very start, Lee considered herself to be a little “nerdy” and heavily hands-on with education. She received a scholarship for high school, then attended Swarthmore College, where she received her bachelor’s degree in English literature and history, with a concentration in Black studies. Post-
college she attended Teachers College at Columbia University, where she attained her master of arts and master of education in educational leadership.
After college, she was unsure of what to do with her life, but she landed a position as a middle school teacher and served as a kindergarten-eighth grade assistant principal at one point. Lee became involved in the after-school community for many years after grad school at the Morningside Area Alliance as the associative executive director. She also worked at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth in New York.
It has been 10 years since Lee took a position with HEAF, and she has been proud ever since. “I hadn’t heard of HEAF before I came here, but I was so enamored with the mission of the place and energized by the challenge to build an institution solely focused on getting kids to and through college, and I continue to find that mission exciting,” said Lee.
As president, Lee has her hands in everything, from working with the board of directors to securing the funds that it takes to run the organization, overseeing fundraising programs and developing many incredible partnerships with organizations and institutions that are helpful to the students. Such partnerships include HEAF at Barnard College and HEAF at NYU Polytechnic.
HEAF also claims itself as an international organization. “I just make sure that more kids across the city have opportunities and experiences like the kids have had at HEAF,” said Lee. “In June we are going on our ninth or 10th Learning for Social Impact trip and taking a group of kids to Belize.
“Our kids have literally been all over the world. We are providing a lot of kids with a lot of great exposure and a more global education. African-Americans need more of those opportunities to close the achievement gap and to hold our kids to a high standards.”
In her spare time, Lee raises her 16-year-old daughter, Milan, and loves to write. Throughout the past year, she has been blogging about educational and social issues affecting the Black community.
As a reward for her hard work, Lee was proud to have won the Beacon for Education Award from the New York Coalition of 100 Black Women in 2010. In 2011 and 2012, she and her staff were also rewarded with an Innovation Award from the College Board for the work they do to get kids into and through college.
“Education has provided me with options and an opportunity to do work that I really love, which is great. A lot of the times when you don’t have an education, you don’t have options and you have a job that doesn’t bring you a sense of satisfaction. Education is the key to personal and community transformation,” said Lee.