NextUp RVA President & CEO, Barbara Couto Sipe, has been selected as a 2021 YWCA Outstanding Women Award Honoree for her work in education. This award, launched in 1980, seeks to recognize women in the Greater Richmond area who have made contributions to our community through exceptional leadership, sustained dedication, and inspiring achievements. Chairman of the Board, Thurston Moore says, “Barbara’s impact on our community, and Richmond’s youth, cannot be overstated. As NextUp’s only CEO, she has overseen the growth of an organization that will impact generations and, over time, will influence other out-of-school-time (OST) systems across the country.”
Barbara has worked in the Greater Richmond community for 20 years, helping to improve the lives of children. The road Barbara took to get to her role as President & CEO of NextUp has made her into the leader she is today. Personal experiences in adolescence, and her father’s advice “that we each have a responsibility to leave the world better than we found it, however we can,” influenced her career path.
Middle school years can be tough on any child without adding in the additional stressors of family turmoil. Barbara’s parents separated for a time (later reuniting for 43 years of marriage until her father’s passing), and a family member went through a mental health crisis. It was these experiences that give Barbara such a deep connection with today’s youth, “I think the middle school years are a time when we are very vulnerable, and I want to ensure every child has the opportunity to know they are worthy, that they have talents and skills, and are not alone.”
Barbara attended college at Virginia Commonwealth University and credits the School of Social Work with changing her life. It was there that she discovered her talents and the ability to understand systems and how to effect positive change by bringing people and sectors together to make intentional connections. It was this experience that launched her career in the Greater Richmond nonprofit sector. Prior to joining NextUp, Barbara spent 12 years in leadership roles at the United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg and United Way Worldwide. In these roles, she developed large-scale initiatives and coalitions, such as the Regional School Readiness plan and Greater Richmond Age Wave plan.
Barbara was brought on to NextUp in 2013 to design and pilot a coordinated afterschool model for middle school youth, by partnering with area schools and program providers. That successful model is now connecting more than 4,800 RPS students with programming from 68 organizations across Richmond. Collaboration with schools, program providers, and parents, has been the key to making NextUp the organization it is today. On collaboration, Barbara says, “I think striving for collaboration makes leaders better because it strengthens the group and multiplies the force of the effort and therefore, the impact.”
Most recently, Barbara has led NextUp through the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges it brought. When schools closed their doors in March 2020, the real work began in making sure NextUp continued to achieve its mission of ensuring RPS students have access to quality, enriching learning beyond the classroom. Barbara explains, “Our mission is to create ACCESS, that meant we had to step up and think outside of the box- doing our part to make sure kids could stay connected to programs, to know they weren’t alone, that they could engage in positive activities.”
In response to the pandemic, NextUp created and launched an online portal for virtual classes within 2 weeks’ time. Two of NextUp’s guiding principles are results-focused and action-oriented. To Barbara, “Our only challenge was being willing to try and maybe fail.” Under the direction of staff leaders Jeanine Turner and Candace Benn, the NextUp team created an online platform that made us accessible to students across RPS elementary, middle, and high schools.
As schools are preparing for in-person learning once again, our attention has turned to the unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness affecting middle schoolers as a result of the pandemic and ways NextUp can help. Barbara explains, “NextUp and its providers will work hard to support students with making friendships, addressing the toll on their mental health, and re-engaging in school.”
It’s through her leadership qualities, her dedication to students and the Richmond community, and her emphasis on collaboration that Barbara has been able to make such a positive difference on NextUp and the lives of the students. What is her driving force in all of this? For Barbara, “My purpose is to help children and youth thrive.”