A Profile in Courage
Nelba Márquez-Greene ’97 exudes strength.
You can see it as she speaks to audiences across the country, bearing witness as the mother of 6-year-old Ana Grace Márquez-Greene, who was killed at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School with 19 other first-graders and six staff members in December 2012. Márquez-Greene accepts a dozen or so speaking requests a year, she says.
You can read it in her poignant writings on grief and gun violence in national and local publications and in the inspired wisdom she shares with thousands of followers on Facebook and Twitter.
You can feel it at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) in New Britain, where, in an office painted a warm purple—Ana Grace’s favorite color—Márquez-Greene directs the community advancement division, a job she has held since November 2020.
A licensed marriage and family therapist, Márquez-Greene can point to many reservoirs of strength, including a solid family and her unwavering faith.
Still, it is her community, she says, that has helped her define it.
“I definitely was one of those moms who said if anything were to happen to one of my children, I’d die,” she admits. “We say those things, but what I think is important—and what I’ve learned—is that one of the reasons you go on is because of your community.
The University of Hartford has played an integral role in that community from the very beginning, from allowing us to host Ana’s reception there to many of my classmates and professors—former professors and current professors there now—supporting our work in one way or another.”
Márquez-Greene; her husband, saxophonist Jimmy Greene ’97; and son, Isaiah, have channeled their grief and gratefulness for the outpouring of support they have received since the Sandy Hook tragedy into many uplifting projects. Greene’s Beautiful Life albums are a tribute to Ana Grace. His new album, While Looking Up, was released earlier this year. A playground in Hartford’s Elizabeth Park, paid for by the Where Angels Play Foundation, also memorializes Ana Grace. The “forever home” of the CREC Ana Grace Academy of the Arts Elementary School is scheduled to open in Bloomfield later this year.
Perhaps the dearest memorial, though, is the Ana Grace Project, which Márquez-Greene founded in collaboration with the Klingberg Family Centers in 2013. With the slogan “Love Wins,” the project’s first conference on creating stronger communities took place at the University of Hartford’s Lincoln Theater.
Though many recent events, like everything else in our society, have shifted to the virtual environment, the Ana Grace Project continues to focus on promoting love, community, and connection for every child and family through several major initiatives.
“We do professional development—big conferences like the one we had at the University of Hartford and smaller things,” Márquez-Greene explains. “We also do music and arts by helping fund initiatives in schools. For example, we fund Puerto Rican traditional dance classes and cultural teaching at Maria Sanchez School in Hartford. I love that very much. We have partner schools here in New Britain. Last year, we were able to fund a sensory room at one of our partner schools.”
There’s also the annual Love Wins: Finish the Race event in April—the month of Ana Grace’s birthday—which introduces fifth graders to higher education.
“For many of our students that we bring onboard that day—there are about 400—it is the first time they’ve been on a university campus,” Márquez-Greene says of Finish the Race, which is held on the CCSU campus during normal years. Along with other activities, “athletes come out to greet them that day. We partner with [Fleet Feet] in West Hartford, which allows us to purchase sneakers at cost. At the end of the day, we say, ‘We want you to finish the race of your education.’ We give them new sneakers so they can finish the race. We want them to feel and know that they are welcome here and that we see them as scholars. Whether they come to a four-year university or go to a trade school, we see that they could be more than they understand right now.”
Márquez-Greene’s passion for the well-being of her community may have found a larger stage since 2012, but she has a long history of service. At the University of Hartford, she recalls, residential life was a key element of her campus experience. “Being a resident assistant was big. I was in B Complex. At the time, it was the arts dorm. Just having the responsibility and privilege of working with students, developing programming, troubleshooting problems, listening, doing a lot of guidance—yes, residential life was a huge part of my years at the University.”
After earning a Bachelor of Arts in music with an emphasis in education, Márquez-Greene was a teacher for a limited time, which is when she noticed that some students did better when she reached out to the families. “I started to realize,” she explains, “that it isn’t just that one-on-one in the classroom with the student; I have to engage the family if I want to make a change. And that got me very curious about marriage and family therapy.” Márquez-Greene proceeded to earn a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from West Hartford’s St. Joseph College (today known as the University of St. Joseph).
“I’ve had a private practice,” she says. “I’ve worked with CREC [Capitol Region Education Council]. I’ve worked at residential institutions, therapeutic group homes—just really using that framework of looking at people within the context of their community.
“You never know how [your degree] is going to take you to where you need to be,” Márquez-Greene continues. “It may not be the final destination. Teaching wasn’t my final destination, but that doesn’t mean the lessons were lost. As a matter of fact, the lessons were salient to many other parts of our lives and important for that. A lot of kids get stressed because they worked so hard to get that degree and then might find themselves with another passion. Well, 18 years old is a little young to know what you want to do. And it’s okay. Just get that degree, and it will open doors that you didn’t know.”
As director of community advancement at CCSU, Márquez-Greene sees an opportunity to expand her reach even further. She takes the long view and appreciates that slow and steady wins the race. The Ana Grace Project is a piece of it.
“A lot of these problems we are trying to address are larger systemic issues that don’t get solved even in one generation,” she says. “Think about your great leaders—your Marian Wright Edelman, your Martin Luther King Jr.—We’re still fighting some of those battles. So, if you’re thinking you’re going to measure your success by how much work you got done or how much you see, I think we’re looking at it wrong. I think we’re putting a lot of pressure on ourselves. We need to show up and do the work.”
Over the years, Márquez-Greene has been recognized for doing the work. She received the 2004 Minority Fellowship Award from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and the 2004 Distinguished Professional Service Award and 2013 Service to Families Award from the Connecticut Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. In October, she was named one of People magazine’s Women Changing the World in 2019, joining the likes of California Senator Kamala Harris, actress Taraji P. Henson, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, environmentalist Greta Thunberg, the United States Women’s Soccer Team, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Oprah Winfrey, and actress Evan Rachel Wood.
In addition, her story of courage and activism is included in Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton’s The Book of Gutsy Women (Simon and Schuster, 2019). After meeting Hillary on the campaign trail and Chelsea at a book signing, “they learned about our work,” Márquez-Greene says. “Chelsea said it was my writing about my daughter, my telling stories of her. As a mother, she really connected with that. … She came here to [CCSU] for the Ana Grace Project. Our students from New Britain public schools read her book She Persisted to her. Then she did a Q&A with me and signed some books for the community, which was really beautiful.
“There are honors that you tuck in the secret pocket of your heart,” she continues, “but really even more, much more, the honor is the relationship that you are able to build with others.”
As she continues to work to build strong communities, Márquez-Greene notes, “Because of what we’ve been through, we take things one day at a time, one breath at a time. We have counted very much on our faith to allow us to be there. Because when [we lost Ana Grace], we couldn’t see two days out. So, the fact that we’re still here doing these things more than eight years out is really a miracle—and a responsibility I don’t take lightly.”