Danielle De La Fuente has vast experience in peacebuilding and diplomatic efforts stemming from her work at the US Department of Defense and multiple Embassies. Her passion for achieving sustainable development led her to form the Amal Alliance. Amal provides displaced and disenfranchised children worldwide with education and social development programs to help cope with the invisible scars of trauma, and the learning fundamentals needed to succeed. She specializes in SEL and inclusive education. Danielle obtained her BA in International Relations from Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Affairs and MLitt in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of St Andrews.
Recently, in an exclusive interview with K12 Digest, Danielle shared her professional trajectory, insights on how the K12 education landscape has transformed over the last five years and its future, the inspiration behind establishing Amal Alliance, her secret to striking a work-life balance, future plans, pearls of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.
Danielle, can you please tell us about your background and areas of interest?
I grew up in San Diego, California as a child of immigrant, multi-religious parents. Growing up in this multicultural environment taught me the nuances of diversity from an early age. My ability to foster relations with others from distinct backgrounds led to starting my career at Embassies after graduating from Boston University. Later, I spent numerous years working to create dialogue and trust amongst nations through my work at the US Department of Defense. I had witnessed many senior officials’ viewpoints pivot as they came to grow a human connection with each other. Wanting to understand the dynamics of peacebuilding further, I returned to do my Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of St Andrews, where I focused on intergenerational trauma and the role it has on the next generation. My passion for working with children became more fervent as conflict grew and more children were forced to flee. I decided to apply what I had seen across nations and introduce the fundamentals of peace through educational programs with young children. On the surface, it didn’t seem intrinsically connected, but peace is only achievable if individuals learn to communicate, to express themselves, and take the perspective of another. I saw a clear correlation with strengthening children’s social and emotional skills as an effort to mitigate violence and hate by cultivating more empathetic societies.
How has the K12 education landscape transformed over the last five years and where is it heading now?
In the last 5 years, the K-12 education landscape has shifted towards personalized learning approaches and competency-based education. There has also been a major push towards integrating technology, which skyrocketed during the global pandemic with both hybrid and remote learning. This technological surge did, however, present challenges as it highlighted the inequitable access to learning opportunities. The pandemic also shed light on the importance of social and emotional learning, which has seen significant growth. Looking ahead, there will surely be a continued focus on digital tools, adaptive learning, and a more student-centered holistic approach to educating our children.
What was the inspiration behind establishing Amal Alliance? What is its mission and vision?
In recent years, wars, conflict, and natural disasters have increased and forced tens of millions of children to flee their homes with or without their families. These traumatic events can have profound impacts on a child’s development; and perpetual toxic stress affects mental health, with potential long-term consequences on physical health and livelihood. I do not believe adverse experiences need to define your life path and see children as powerful agents of change if given the right tools to succeed.
Amal Alliance was born to help displaced children learn to navigate all of life’s challenges so they can grow to reach their full potential. Our mission is to empower marginalized children around the globe with four primary pillars of support. Those include: 1) Social Emotional Learning, 2) Early Childhood Development, 3) Psychosocial Support, and 4) Peacebuilding. Through our unique and innovative approach, we address the social and emotional and psychosocial needs of children affected by emergencies.
What is the role of youth in the development and future of society?
Youth play a crucial role in shaping the development and future of society. They bring innovative ideas, creativity, and fresh perspectives towards addressing some of society’s most pressing challenges. This is why it is so important to invest in their skills and provide them with the tools needed to meaningfully contribute and participate in decision-making processes. By engaging youth in areas of education, leadership, and civic engagement, we help build a sustainable and more inclusive future for all.
Can you speak about the importance of female leadership in the field of education, and how your own experience as a woman in this field has influenced your leadership style?
Females tend to lead with more empathetic approaches, which foster collaboration, effective communication, compassion, and inclusivity. Female leaders also bring diverse perspectives and typically possess strong interpersonal skills, which are particularly important in creating a balanced and equitable working environment.
These leadership approaches are especially important in the field of education, for they create opportunities for innovation and a more inclusive decision-making process. Being in a position to influence education policy and thought leadership comes with tremendous responsibility. Parents, particularly mothers, look to female leaders to serve as role models, and inspire them with innovative ways to provide the best possible education for their children. By embracing my empathetic nature and the unique qualities I possess as a female leader, I do my best to lead thoughtfully.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
There are numerous people who have helped guide and enlighten me along the years, but I owe my utmost gratitude to my family – specifically my mother and maternal grandparents. They not only provided me with the best education possible but taught me a plethora of skills from an early age. My grandfather, for example, would allow me to sit in on his business meetings from when I was a young 6-year-old girl. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was learning how to negotiate, how to pitch ideas, and was building my confidence. My family was also very big on travel, and I explored the world with them – learning nuances of culture, religion, and languages that you quickly absorb when visiting foreign lands. I’ve also been incredibly blessed in meeting many experts along my journey. Their expertise rounded out skills needed to advance Amal’s mission.
What are your thoughts on the role of AI in the K12 education system?
AI can revolutionize K-12 learning experiences by providing additional support for students with diverse needs, and also establishing personalized learning paths. However, AI comes at a dangerous cost of losing human connection; especially the magic found in the teacher-student and peer-to-peer classroom interaction. The growing divide of inequitable access to technology is also a danger, and there is more work needed to ensure ethical data privacy. As we embrace the AI future, we must responsibly integrate it across our education systems, without replacing the critical role of teachers.
What’s a leadership lesson that you’ve learnt that’s unique to being a female leader?
When I first started Amal, I sought to understand and deeply explore the field of education in emergencies. As I attended conferences and forums with high level dignitaries shaping policies for refugee children. I couldn’t wrap my head around how such important decisions were being made without taking into account the primary beneficiaries. The core of our work is based on collaboration with those we serve, so it felt unnatural to be discussing issues without representation. I challenged the status quo, and learned the importance of giving voice to those who may not have a seat at the table – in this case, the children themselves.
What is your secret to striking a work-life balance?
I don’t think there is a secret sauce to achieving work-life balance, but rather an intentional commitment to draw boundaries that allow for both an enriching professional and personal life. This commitment towards yourself also forces you to take inventory of tasks and prioritize accordingly. If you can manage your time wisely, and learn to delegate and trust in your team, you make room for activities that bring you joy.
Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
In the next 5 years, Amal’s flagship program, Colors of Kindness, will expand to new countries and impact the lives of over half a million children worldwide. We also aim to develop and roll out new tools and resources that ensure quality social and emotional learning is delivered to the most marginalized communities. Personally, I am a perpetual learner, and will continue my quest to acquire and grow new skills. I also hope to broaden my work-life balance, leaving room to pursue the hobbies I enjoy and spend more time with my loved ones.
What advice would you like to give young women out there who are interested in pursuing careers in tech or education in general?
Whether you choose a career in tech, education, or any other field that calls you, find your purpose. Clear purpose and integrity will help you lead by example. There will be bumps and challenges along the way, don’t get disappointed by failures. Instead, learn from them. Be flexible, adaptable, and always open to learning new things. Leadership is not a destination, but a journey. Recognize and celebrate your successes, and those of all of the people that helped you along the way.