A crusader for both students and educators, Ninive Calegari fell in love with education at an early age. “I remember being in high school and feeling I’d had this incredible experience,” she says, “and I loved the notion of different generations working together.”
Calling on that passion, Calegari has worked tirelessly with organizations like 826 National, the Teacher Salary Project, and the Enterprise for Youth. Along the way, she’s been an invaluable ally to students and teachers around the globe, spreading the joy of learning and teaching.
A Clear Calling from a Young Age
Calegari found her calling early in life. As a student, she enjoyed working with her teachers and felt supported by them. “I absolutely felt one thousand percent sure that the adults in my life had my back,” she tells Parentology.
During this time, Calegari worked as an intern for Nancy Pelosi, an experience she credits with igniting a fire for both politics and education. “I thought the greatest political act was to actually go into the classroom and to work with young people, giving them the agency they deserve,” she says. “So I became a public school teacher.”
In her teaching career, Calegari wanted her students to have the same positive experience she’d had. “We don’t always treat youth as the treasure that they are — the future of our democracy, society, and well-being,” she says. “But I had that experience as a young person, so I’ve wanted always for young people to feel incredible support from the adults around them.”
A Place for Young Writers
Calegari’s desire to support students has been a guiding principle in all the organizations she’s worked in, including 826 National. The tutoring organization, which she co-founded with authors Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, connects students with volunteers and professional writers for help with student writing.
“[Eggers and Vida] were incredibly excited about creating a touchstone in the community,” Calegari says. “I was invited to join them and to create the program — to grab and facilitate all the magic Dave has to offer the community as a professional writer, publisher and designer.”
Calegari wanted to provide a space where students could receive quality writing help outside of the classroom. “I knew that no matter how many students teachers have, or how much time they have, they always, always need more help with writing.”
Since the opening of the first center, 826 has expanded to nine locations nationwide, providing youngsters with free after-school tutoring, as well as in-school programs and field trips.
826 centers aim to create a fun and engaging atmosphere for students. “One of 826’s most magical components is that we put joy at the center of the experience – joyfulness, playfulness, theatrics — whatever it takes to engage.”
More than plain tutoring centers, 826 locations have colorful themes that seek to nurture the wonder of reading and writing. The original location, 826 Valencia in San Francisco, is decorated like a pirate ship, with a Pirate Supply Store for all a kid’s seafaring needs. Meanwhile, other locations have themes like the Time Travel Mart at 826 LA in Los Angeles, or the Detroit Robot Factory at 826 Michigan.
The centers’ commitment to student engagement sparked pupils’ imaginations, as well as nourishing Calegari’s own sense of joy in education. “When I was a teacher I was very earnest about the serious, political, critical nature of being a public school teacher,” she says, “and 826 brought back the joyful component of teaching and learning.”
Fighting for Teachers
Calegari believes quality education isn’t just a matter of engaging students, but of supporting teachers. “Pay is a real detriment to teachers getting the prestige they needed.”
To address insufficient teacher salaries, Calegari and Eggers wrote the book Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers. They followed up with a documentary, American Teacher, exploring the issue. (Catch the preview of American Teacher below. See the full documentary on YouTube.)
“It’s very difficult for teachers to stand up and ask for better salaries,” says Calegari. “People question them, their motivations, and their professions. So given that it’s challenging for them to articulate their worth, I thought it was really important for us to articulate it.”
This work culminated in Calegari founding the Teacher Salary Project to spread awareness of low teacher pay. “We did everything we could to crack open the conversation around why and how teachers are valuable, and how we should be treating them,” she said.
In support of the project, Calegari went on a nationwide campaign to double teachers’ salaries. “They want to be solving problems, innovating,” Calegari says. “But if we’re asking teachers to go and tutor after school, and then bartend all weekend, there’s no way we can maximize what they’re doing.”
Spreading Opportunities in the Community
Currently, Calegari is the CEO of Enterprise for Youth. In 1969, educator Glady Thacher founded the organization to provide students with job training and internship opportunities. “She’s an American hero, and she’s been a beacon for me for many, many years,” Calegari says. “She founded Enterprise 51 years ago in her living room, and taking her job 50 years later was something that was really meaningful to me.”
To explain the program, Calegari recalls her internship with Nancy Pelosi. While she found the position through a personal connection, “not everyone has that kind of access to provide internship experiences that are so critical to your career,” she says.
In order to make these opportunities more accessible, Enterprise for Youth connects students with local businesses. Calegari says,“What I’m getting to do now is make that telephone call for young people in the city who are so talented and ready for these experiences, but they may lack the network to be able to plop themselves into these plum situations.”
Enterprise for Youth provides youth with training workshops, coaching, and guidance, all culminating in 75 hours of work-based learning. Students can utilize Enterprise’s network to connect with employers and find positions at businesses throughout the San Francisco area. “There’s the incredible magic of what it means to [students] to be working in hospitals, banks, city halls, retail stores, and entrepreneurs’ offices,” Calegari says, “and we have had such great fortune with San Francisco coming through.”
Calegari says that Enterprise has added a slew of new posts for ambitious young students, including organizations such as UCSF, Stitch Fix, and INTERSTICE Architects, alongside established partners like First Republic, Kaiser, and Old Navy. “We have a 94% graduation rate,” Calegari says, “because it’s not just a job where we throw youth and let them sink or swim. It’s a situation where they’re still nourished by the Enterprise staff in a very significant way.”
A Growing Legacy of Service
Last year, on Enterprise for Youth’s 50th anniversary, San Francisco held a celebration for Thacher’s 90th birthday. “We got the mayor to proclaim her 90th birthday as Glady Thacher day,” Calegari says proudly. “I consider that proclamation one of the greatest successes of my life.”
Ninive Calegari has no shortage of successes to reflect upon, and her efforts in spreading the joy of learning has guaranteed her place alongside Thacher as an enduring hero of American education. As for the students and teachers of the world — she’s got their back.
About Redefining Rosie
This profile on education advocate and author, Ninive Calegari, is a part of our Redefining Rosie: Cool Women, Uncommon Jobs.
Parentology created this series to celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. It features articles highlighting remarkable women in the workforce around the world — and in outer space! Check out our other profiles in the Redefining Rosie hub.