Challenging the Status Quo of the Nonprofit Sector: My Fulani Fellowship Experience

Nov 28, 2018
Inacent, first on the left, with Dr. Fulani, third from left, on the last day of her fellowship

The Fulani Fellowship is a four-month professional development program in New York City for people who are passionate about spearheading changes in low-income communities of color. Fulani Fellows work closely with Dr. Lenora Fulani, an experienced activist, getting hands-on experience in different approaches in psychology, politics, and development. Fellows work as part-time paid employees at the All Stars Project, Dr. Fulani’s nonprofit organization, to create social change and promote development. The program is open to graduate students or recent masters and doctoral program graduates in psychology, youth development, education, public policy and social workw

We talked to Inacent Saunders, a 2017 Fulani Fellow, to learn more about the fellowship and get some tips for preparing an application!

1. What inspired you to apply for the Fulani Fellowship?

The Fulani Fellowship is a 5 month program that trains emerging and established leaders in education, social work, and activism who have a passion for serving poor communities of color through new approaches to human development, performance, and community organizing. The fellowship was named for Dr. Lenora Fulani, a developmental psychologist who ran for president of the United States in 1988 and 1992. She was the first African American Woman to get on the ballot for U.S. President in all 50 states as an Independent party candidate. She is also the founder of the All Stars Project, a youth development organization based in NYC, with affiliates in New Jersey, the San Francisco Bay Area, Dallas, and Chicago.

I first met Dr. Fulani in 2011 at a community meeting in the Ocean Hill – Brownsville community of Brooklyn, where I was born and raised. I was a member of a new organization called the Ocean Hill Brownsville Coalition of Professionals (an organization for which I now serve on the board of directors), and she was sharing a bit about her life, activism, and the youth program that she co-founded several years prior. This program, the All Stars project, allowed young people to perform – both literally on a stage through music, dance and theater, and in life in general. The work of the All Stars Project is based in the philosophy that just as a baby learns to talk by being spoken to as if they understand, this is also how young people (anyone, in fact) can become something they are not yet – by “performing” beyond where they are, until they develop into what they can be. As she shared about her work and her own personal journey in life, I was fascinated. When I was looking for a new employment or learning opportunity in 2017, I remembered Dr. Fulani and the All Stars Project. I visited the organization’s website and learned about the fellowship. I applied, and the rest is history.

I was attracted to the Fulani Fellowship for several reasons. First, being a lifelong nonprofit worker, I had begun to grow a little dissatisfied with what you might call “the status quo” within the sector. I saw a deficiency of creativity and innovation in many areas of the sector. This is not to say that I didn’t see great work being done. However, after working in the sector for so many years, I just wanted to see something else…something more! The All Stars Project, which sponsors the fellowship, looked like it had the “something else… something more” I was looking for.

Another reason I was attracted to the Fellowship was because of Dr. Fulani’s activist work. As I said previously, I had the opportunity to meet her and she was indeed every bit as radical as I had heard folks say that she was. Although I had done some low-level community organizing, and even taken some training in community organizing, I wanted to do more. This fellowship promised to offer that, and it indeed did.

Lastly, this fellowship presented an opportunity to work alongside a woman of color that is a leader in the nonprofit arena, as well as the political arena…a woman who cared about people and seeing them develop, regardless of their circumstances. As a woman of color who is myself concerned about all of these things, I wanted to see her in action for myself.

Inacent helps to recruit new Fulani Fellows

2. What have been some of the most eye-opening moments during your fellowship?

Although there was definitely a rhythm to the work I did as a fellow, no two days were the same. Some days, fellows shadowed Dr. Fulani in the community. Other days we worked on individual research projects. I chose to do mine on entrepreneurialism as a tool for ending poverty in distressed communities. Some days we went to observe or assist work being done by other organizations affiliated with the All Stars Project. And then, every few weeks, the fellows would rotate from working on a project for one department of the organization, to another department. This way, we gained insight into how organizational theory was entrenched in every area of their work – not just programming. I learned much about fundraising, performance as a tool for development, nonprofit management, independent politics, and community organizing…I could go on and on. The fellowship provided a great mix of research, learning and doing. It was intense, but rich. And I have so many great memories!

Given my passion for youth development and nonprofit strategy, my most memorable fellowship-related memory was planning and executing an outreach and recruitment plan for the youth development team so they could better capture their target audience. I’m a bit of a planning and strategy nerd, so that type of work brings me joy! In the realm of activism, I’ll never forget marching through the streets of Harlem and the Bronx, pumping my fist in protest of New York City’s plan to privatize public housing. I collected petitions, and heard people’s tales of woe regarding the state of their public housing apartments.

The most memorable part of the entire experience was the weekly sit-downs the fellows had with various members of the All Stars Project Community. So many staff, volunteers, and other supporters of the program took time to meet with us to share why they were so passionate about their work and the paths they took to get where they are now. And trust me, NONE of their stories were the “typical” “went to school, worked hard, and now I’m here” success stories. Everyone had a different and surprising story about how they became successful in their fields. The mix of passions, experiences, and backgrounds of the folks we met was inspiring, to put it mildly.

Inacent, third from left, with her cohort of 2017 Fulani Fellows and Dr. Fulani, center, at their welcome reception

3. What tips would you give others applying to the Fulani Fellowship?

The Fulani Fellowship application process is pretty straightforward. It doesn’t require you to jump through any special hoops. I would encourage anyone looking to apply to be clear (and honest) about what you think you’ll get out of participating. After all, the fellowship doesn’t automatically lead to a professional step up. However, it is an experience well-worth having.

In terms of making your application stand out, I think mine stood out because I was clear about where my passions lie and how they align with the work of Dr. Fulani. I also believe that my experience with grassroots community building, although not robust at the time, definitely caught the eye of the review panel. If you decide to apply, good luck! And get ready for an experience like no other!

Inacent Saunders is a nonprofit practitioner with more than 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. She specializes in strategy development for youth and community development organizations. In 2017 she started Groundwork for Change LLC, a nonprofit management consulting business. In her personal time, she volunteers as a board member of two Brooklyn based nonprofits – the Ocean-Hill Brownsville Coalition of Young Professionals and Seeds to Flowers, Inc., serving as the Board President for the latter. She is also the founder and director of a faith-based young adult ministry, Timothy’s Tribe. Lastly, she is a member of the Association of Nonprofit Specialists, for which she also volunteers on the education committee, organizing learning opportunities for nonprofit consultants. Inacent published her first book From Pain to Praise: the Prose and Poems of a Daughter in Process in 2015. Inacent holds a Master’s of Science in Nonprofit Leadership from Fordham University. For more information, please visit, or view Inacent’s Speaker Kit online here.

Interested in applying? Bookmark the Fulani Fellowship to your ProFellow account.

© Victoria Johnson 2018, all rights reserved