Fwd Thinker: Helping Students of Color Succeed Makes the Entire Economy Thrive

1024 576 Nadine Ono

As UNITE-LA’s CEO David Rattray approaches his retirement later this year, he spoke with CA FWD CEO Micah Weinberg for the latest edition of our Fwd Thinkers series, in which he reflected on the organization’s work, his leadership style and what he sees as the key to creating a successful local government.

UNITE-LA is dedicated to developing an effective, local, equitable public education system that prepares students for college, career and beyond. “Our priority has been to transform education and workforce development so all young Angeleno youth, especially youth of color thrive and prosper in an economy and that economy thrives as well,” explained Rattray.

Since its founding in 1998, Rattray says graduation and college entrance rates have risen dramatically, especially for Black and Latino students. But college completion rates have lagged, which led to Governor Newsom’s goal to reach a 70% completion rate by 2030, a move Rattray applauds. “That’s the right aspiration we should have for our students and especially for all students, meaning we don’t leave behind our first-gen students and students of color.”

In 2019, 29% of Latino Californians and 35% of Black Californians held an associate’s degree or higher, or a career technical education certification, while the number for all Californians was 42%. Learn more with CA FWD’s California Dream Index.

To Rattray, the past two years of the COVID pandemic and racial justice movements have illuminated the disparities in our society, but he’s hopeful that it will also inspire a new generation of leaders.

“It exposed things in a way that gives the opportunity for true leadership to emerge,” he said. “I think it’s a moment of hope, if we have the courage to embrace the necessary tough decisions and the kind of focus that needs to happen.”

He cites his own life experience as a privileged white male in the corporate and non-profit worlds and how that has informed his leadership style. “Who am I to be that voice on racism when I don’t have that lived experience,” he said. “What my sisters and brothers [of color] actually want is for me to stand forward and say, ‘Call it out’ and say it exists and say, ‘I’m committed to do something about dismantling these structural problems that we have in our society.’”

He recalls that it was uncomfortable at first, but he learned he had to step into that role, a move that made the organization more effective. Speaking on his leadership style, Rattray added, “People didn’t want to be managed. They wanted to have a leader that respects servant leadership, the model that I aspire to, which is a leader that understands that they have to earn the privilege of people choosing of their own free will to follow them.”

As Los Angeles is about to elect a new Mayor, Rattray described the leader he would like to see in that role as “someone who really believes truly that they should serve the people in a way that doesn’t always score against the next election.”

He pointed to the City of Long Beach as a model for good local government. He said leaders there have a “sense of real civic commitment” by their longevity and development of successors, which allows to Long Beach to rely on “home-grown” talent.

“It creates tremendous cohesion in Long Beach,” said Rattray. “It allows the City to take on big projects and see them through completion, which is not always the case in other local governments.”

After 24 years of heading UNITE-LA, Rattray will retire September 1. UNITE-LA President Alysia Bell, who has been with the organization for more than a decade, will succeed him and continue the ambitious work to ensure that every child has a path to obtain a high-quality education, a college degree, a good-paying career and ongoing education.


Nadine Ono

All stories by: Nadine Ono