Oakland Literacy Coalition’s Sia Magadan is Creating Equity and Social Capital

An educator and development leader, Sia is leveling the playing field for California learners

 “I always say that I am a proud first-generation American. My parents came to the DC area from Sierra Leone in West Africa,” says Sia Magadan, Development Manager for the Oakland Literacy Coalition. “My mother finished high school but my father didn’t. In his village, if you couldn’t afford the uniform or the books, you didn’t go.” 

After moving to the U.S. they welcomed Sia and her two younger siblings, and impressed upon all three the importance of education. Being the oldest child, Sia says, meant learning to navigate the hurdles that came with it — everything from filling out a FAFSA to taking college tours to signing permission slips. Soon enough, though, Sia was coaching her siblings through the processes, all while working towards her undergraduate degree, with an eye on a communications career. 

“I wanted to go into PR — I had this vision of taking the advertising world by storm,” Sia says. “After graduation, though, I wound up substitute teaching. For people who knew me then, it was pretty hilarious. No one could picture me in a room full of kids. But I loved it and that was it. My path totally shifted.”

Creating critical connections in education 

Sia quickly dove into education, with an eye on helping communities marginalized by the typical public school structure — and, almost immediately, she saw not just surface needs but massive gaps right below the surface. 

“It wasn’t just a lack of resources,” Sia explains. A good example: In many communities of color, going to college is the key to a great future. But this message is lopsided because you’re not told about the opportunity to build social capital — to engage with people who, potentially, you’ll cross paths with in the future. These are people who can help shape your careers and help connect you to internships and jobs and advancement down the road.” 

As Sia continued teaching and running after school programs in these communities, Sia began to notice even more missing pieces. On the frontline she could support dozens or even hundreds of students one-to-one — but, at the same time, she recognized change could be impacted in other ways, too. That, she says, jump-started her development career. 

“So many kids who look like me only see the person who drives the bus or the person who runs that after school enrichment program,” Sia says. “We don’t recognize that behind the scenes there are many, many other people making things happen. When I recognized that, I wanted to be part of it — so I started sending my resume anywhere warm. I was done with DC’s three-thermals-and-a-jacket winters.” When Sia landed a job in California, she quickly packed up and moved. “I knew I could always come back — and besides, as I’ve seen so many times, sometimes comfort is the enemy of progress. And I was ready for some serious progress with this new career path.”

Finding her purpose — and her mentor

Once in California that lack of comfort translated into quick wins that became game-changing successes for Sia and her organizations. “I wasn’t there yet, though,” she says. “I needed someone who was a Rottweiler — someone who could make things happen in the fundraising and development space. And one night, at a Silicon Valley event, I spotted someone I knew could be that mentor — so I approached her and we struck up a conversation. Then, she took me under her wing and I learned the ins and outs of this industry so I could really grow and, ultimately, move into a full-time development role.” 

In the years that followed, Sia says she worked her way up, from development associate to her managerial role at the Oakland Literacy Coalition. 

“During those early years I wrote grants, I engaged the community, I networked and helped funnel money from Silicon Valley to communities that truly needed it,” Sia says. “I joined the board of the Association for Fundraising and Philanthropy in Silicon Valley. I really learned the ropes and carved out my place in development.”

Supporting the next generation of doers and dreamers 

Now in her current role at the Oakland Literacy Coalition, Sia oversees fund development, building out proposals, reports, budgets, and other grant materials for foundation and corporate fundraising and sponsorships. She also leads the development and implementation of the Oakland Literacy Coalition’s major and individual donor program, while managing much of the organization’s marketing and outreach.

“When I was writing grants for a STEM camp, I always used to say that the person who is going to cure cancer could be in the room — but because their school’s science department is underfunded, that student couldn’t realize his or her fullest potential,” Sia says. “Kids need the opportunity, exposure, and the right material. And that’s a big part of my job — how do we level the playing field so every child’s mind can develop to its fullest potential? That, at the end of the day, is my mission: to inform, educate and inspire young people. That’s why I was put on Earth.”

Looking ahead, Sia is eager to continue her work and push to find and fund the resources and experiences the next generation needs to excel — and, at the same time, to introduce a new audience of development pros into her field. 

“Development can be scary, especially in the beginning,” Sia says. “But once you get into it, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, there are so many things that just come to you. The process becomes second nature and it feels great.” That success, she notes, does rely on an unwavering sense of purpose and a commitment to the follow up. “No matter who you encounter, never neglect the follow up. People you meet at conferences, in virtual meetings, someone you met through a friend or colleague — follow up, reach out on LinkedIn, do something. You need to constantly be creating opportunities to stay connected, because those contacts could be your next boss, your next donor, your next mentor. Keep the door open.”