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The Value of Listening

Learning from The Gates Foundation’s Pras Ranaweera

Pras Ranaweera with all the fellows sitting and standing around her

Pras Ranaweera with RespectAbility Fellows and Staff

Rockville, Md., July 21 – “People love to talk about themselves, but it is more important to listen,” Pras Ranaweera expressed to a room full of energized RespectAbility Fellows.

Ranaweera practiced her sage advice by using the majority of time to hear personal stories and suggestions from the Fellows and staff. She listened to their experiences with inclusion in the public and private school systems. During the sharing session, Ranaweera carefully took notes, demonstrating her commitment to promoting the next generation of leaders – the most treasured part of her work at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

As the Senior Portfolio Officer of K-12 Education at the Gates Foundation, Ranaweera is able to impact the lives of young people nationally on a daily basis. Prior to her work with the foundation, she served as Chief of Staff for Data and Accountability at D.C Public Schools where she was quickly promoted to Deputy Chief of Assessments. There, she oversaw the district’s assessment portfolio for more than 40,000 students, managed 115 schools’ transition to online PARCC testing, overhauled the district’s student report cards and oversaw the collection and reporting of timely, accurate data on student achievement for the district.

Fellows listening to Pras Ranaweera talking

Pras Ranaweera talking with RespectAbility Fellows

Ranaweera said that sudden shifts in her career enabled her to grow by forcing her to be taken out of her comfort zone and step up as a leader.

“Resiliency in the face of change and instability is a great skill to have in life,” she said. “Try and find ways to add value during times of change.”

Ranaweera used her flexibility and significant experience with the D.C. Public School system to influence her work at the Gates Foundation, where the K-12 team is funding a push for greater inclusion of students with disabilities in public charter schools. She and her team want to ensure that charter schools are serving communities with the greatest need and that “low income parents have access to high quality seats.”

Ranaweera explained that her team is exploring why charter schools have not been as efficient as district schools at serving people with disabilities and subsequently opened a forum for the RespectAbility Fellows and staff to offer suggestions regarding how to improve the charter school system for people with disabilities.

Pras Ranaweera standing with Rachel Schindler and smiling

Pras Ranaweera and Fellow Rachel Schindler

Communications Fellow Brilynn Rakes said, “when students with disabilities have to ask for help, they often times feel like they are burdening others.” Therefore, she said it is important to establish an open school environment and accommodate people with disabilities in smaller ratio classrooms.

Other suggestions included sensitivity training for staff, increased understanding regarding the stipulations of 504 plans and a willingness to provide the necessary accommodations for people with disabilities.

National Leadership Program Director Christopher Trujillo said that resources for families outside of schools are of major importance due to the possible language and cultural barriers prohibiting parents from being educated about their child’s condition.

Diligently taking notes on her tablet, Ranaweera demonstrated how to be a compassionate and active listener. The RespectAbility staff and Fellows appreciated the respect and validation she gave to our opinions and recommendations. The commitment to hear and validate everyone demonstrates Ranaweera’s ability to be an effective leader and not just to hear but to listen.


RespectAbility is a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities. Learn more about the National Leadership Program and apply for the next cohort! Contact for more information.



Meet the Author

Rachael Schindler

Rachael Schindler is a Jewish Inclusion Fellow. She took an interest at an early age in intellectual and developmental disabilities through personal connections and her mother’s occupation. Schindler is a rising junior at Brandeis University, majoring in Health: Science, Society and Policy and Legal Studies.

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