What the heck, it’s only a meeting: thoughts on a transition

This past Monday, I chaired my last board meeting at Julia Morgan.

For those of you who don’t know me that well, I’ve spent the past 13 years intimately involved with a start-up middle school here in Oakland, the Julia Morgan School for Girls.

The school started with about eight parents getting together in a living room in 1996. None of us were teachers, and none had ever run or started a school. I got involved when I heard about the group from my daughter’s day care provider. (Becca was not yet three at the time!)

I figured, “What the heck, I’ll go. It’s only a meeting.”

Famous last words!

Here’s the fast-forward summary since then:

  • 1997: Sitting in another living room, we need to select officers in order to incorporate. Someone asks, “Who wants to be president?” Silence. More silence. People looking at their feet. “Okay,” I say. “I’ll do it. After all, it’s just a name on the filing papers.” (More famous last words.)
  • 1999: School opens with 35 sixth grade girls
  • 2000: School expands to 91 sixth and seventh graders.

Eighth graders work on a physics project in JMSG's early days / Photo credit: Julia Morgan School for Girls

  • 2003: School moves to a permanent site in a historic building designed by Julia Morgan (the pioneering California architect whom we chose as our namesake) on the campus of Mills College.
  •  2010: School has a $3 million budget, full enrollment of about 180 girls in grades six through eight, full accreditation, and alumni who are just starting to graduate from college.

Along the way, I got interested in the history of all-girl education and quit my job at the Chronicle to write a book about girls’ schools that was published in 2004. I wrote a ton of grants for the school, did countless individual solicitations, and learned a lot about fundraising. I presided over some good times and muddled through some messy times on the board.

And gradually – no one ever taught me, and I truly had no clue what was involved in the role for the first three or four years – I figured out what it meant to be a board chair at a school. (Mostly. There are things that even now I’m still learning.)

Now I’m leaving the board.

I’ve been ready to leave for several years now, but it took until this year for the board to commit to coming up with a successor. There was a very inclusive and deliberative process, and we have a new chair, Jolie Krakauer, who will be terrific. It’s a strong board and I feel like I’m leaving it in good shape.

Julia Morgan students and staff today / Photo credit: Monika Chin, JMSG

So it’s all good. The board and school are secure. I’ll have more time for working on the next stage of my life:  Hacking away at my novel. Figuring out what my next job/career will be. More time for family. (Sam will be happy!) Friends. Getting involved in tikkun olam in new ways.


This is a transition. And like all transitions, there is something lost as well as gained.

I haven’t thought about this. I haven’t dealt with the emotional aspects of leaving my board chair role at all until now. But about two weeks ago it hit me. I was talking with Sandra Luna, our head of school, about the board’s annual end-of-year dinner where we say farewell to departing members. I had asked if the administrative staff wanted to come: In some years they had joined us but in other years, burdened by the slew of year-end school functions, they opted out. She said that yes, they definitely wanted to come since I was the one leaving this year.

It hit home for the first time. I am really leaving.

I’ll stay involved with the school in a lesser role, but it’s still a big deal. Julia Morgan has been a major part of my life almost as long as Becca. In some ways, it was my second child: All the time that would have gone into playing with and chauffeuring and worrying about and watching soccer games of child # 2 was instead able to go into JMSG.

It sounds clichéd or pretentious, but I do feel like I’ve gotten more out of the school than I gave. Hey, I got a book out of my involvement with JMSG! A really good book that I’m proud of. I got to feel part of a community. I met some of the people whom I came to respect the most in the world. I’ve gotten to bask in the reflected light of the brilliant teachers who made the school happen – for instance, I’ll meet someone at a party who will start waxing on and on about what wonderful things the school did for his neighbor/daughter/niece, and I get to smile and accept the compliments on behalf of the teachers and staff who worked those wonders.

And I’ve received the great gift of feeling like I made a difference.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned from my JMSG years: You never know how you’re going to make an impact on the world.

Twenty years ago, if someone had asked me how I dreamed of being remembered, I would have said something like “Great novelist. Brilliant writer. Prize-winning reporter.”

Instead what it will probably say in my obituary is “One of the founders of the Julia Morgan School for Girls. Author of Where Girls Come First.”

And that all came about because I said, What the heck, I’ll go. It’s only a meeting.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that leaving JMSG is not only liberating and exciting (all that additional free time!) but scary.

For the past 13 years, when other parts of my life have been frustrating or unstable, I have had the security and status of being a central figure at JMSG. I might have thrown away the prestige of working for a major newspaper, my novel might be stuck in a muddy ditch, my teenage daughter might be giving me the silent treatment, but at least I had Julia Morgan.

And now I won’t.

If JMSG is my second child, this is the moment where that child leaves for college.

If JMSG was my second-job-after-my-paying-job, this is the moment where I take the gold watch and retire.

I’m starting to feel sad.

Not regretful – it is totally the right time to move on.

But sad.


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12 Responses to “What the heck, it’s only a meeting: thoughts on a transition”

  1. Cathy Garza Says:

    This is the only blog post of yours that I’ve read (so far) and it is beautiful. Thank you – I think Taylor got a great education at JMSG (yes, I get that it was the faculty and admin!) and congratulations on the next stage of your volunteerism! Might you be helping on the boy’s school initiative?! ;-)
    All the best,

  2. Susie Miller Says:

    Ilana, this was definitely a symbiotic relationship, your life with JMSG, but they do have you to thank in a VERY big way! Accept the glory, don’t just bask in their reflection, because your part in it (your dedication, dilligence, vision, values) brought it into being. I remember very clearly when it “was just a twinkle in your eye” and look what it’s grown into. Lots of people have second children, heck, lots of people have dreams of starting their own school or business or whatever…very few see it thru to fruition. Mazel tov on a job well done!

  3. Jim Richardson Says:

    I remember when you started out on this journey starting the school, and the book party, and when the building came along, and hearing from time to time how this was going. Wow. I am so very proud to know you for many reasons. The photo on your blog says a lot. I do hope you bask in this for a good long awhile. You deserve it. Somehow I don’t think the school will quite be leaving you.

  4. Lisa Urry Says:

    I’m sad too, as a Board member and alum parent – it’s the passing of an era. Compounded for me by my JMSG graduate going off to college next year. These transitions are painful and beautiful, the stuff of life. I think there’s nothing more wrenching, nor more enriching, than events like these that mark the passage of time.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Lisa, it was thanks to your efforts that the transition and selection of Jolie as our next chair has been so smooth and positive! Thank goodness you were on sabbatical from teaching this year. :-)

  5. Jane Fischberg Says:

    Ilana, this was a beautiful post. What a milestone for you and for JMSG! You leave an incredible legacy.

  6. Susan Says:

    Oh, it’s REALLY sad! It’s the end of an era!!!! But you have so much to be awesomely proud of, Ilana. Our family will forever be grateful for what you created there.

    A friend of mine just reported, ecstatically, that her daughter was just accepted into JMSG. A new beginning for a new family! So exciting. And yet hard to let it go.

  7. Barry Epstein Says:


    Hi from Boston, where (my) Becca — one of the founding class members at JMSG — graduated yesterday from college (Tufts). No doubt, JMSG played a big part in her becoming one of the confident, capable, creative, and compassionate women of tomorrow…

    Other than supplying the aforementioned living room around which we eight or so founders met, I give all credit to you for seeing this through for so long, with such care and grace.

    Love ya,


    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Mazel tov on seeing TWO daughters out of the nest and through college!

      Barry, you are too modest. Your wisdom, legal acuity, and even-tempered leadership weer critical to getting JMSG up and going. Your fingerprints are all over the scene of the JMSG creation crime. :-)

      You and Judy are two of the people I was thinking of when I wrote in the blog that JMSG allowed me to meet some of the people I respect the most in the world.

  8. Jody Knowlton Says:

    You are the epitome of a risk taker and a fine example to the students at JMSG! You will always ‘have’ Julia Morgan School for Girls…and I hope we will always ‘have’ you! I can imagine that this is a bitter sweet moment for you. With all your years of hard work, dedication and shrewd and mindful decision making, it is inspiring to hear you say that you have gotten more out of the experience that you’ve given. You are such an inspiration to all of us on the board and I want you to know that we promise to follow your lead – to work diligently and thoughtfully to ensure the School’s vitality and success. You are such an inspiration, Ilana, and you will be greatly missed!

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Jody, I feel so good leaving the board knowing that you are there for another two years! (As well as Jolie & the rest of the crew of course.) It is truly a strong and effective board at this point and you have been a big part of making that happen.

  9. Whitty Ransome Says:


    What a wonderful summary of your work on behalf of Julia Morgan School. How well I remember your various connections to the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS), the help we offered when your book was published. the promotion of your tour, the times we sent others your way who needed advice as they started a school like JMS. Having left my “third child”, NCGS, in 2008 I can assure you there is great work after the creation of something beyond your wildest dreams. Take care and I look forward to following the next chapter in your incredible journey.

    Whitty Ransome, Co-Founder, former Co-Executive Director
    The National Coalition of Girls’ Schools
    Currently, Director, The James Center
    Garrison Forest School (MD)

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