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Elise Tolbert

Founder & Executive Director

Elise Marie Tolbert is a native of Tuskegee, Alabama. Elise is committed to improving communities, particularly those of color, by improving the quality of education, health and the environment, thus improving quality of life. As the Founder and Executive Director of Next Step Up, Elise enjoys leading volunteers, community members, and others in initiatives that provide support for high school students. She envisions this organization expanding across the United States and abroad to reach more students and impact more lives.


At an early age she developed a deep passion for the natural environment, which later molded her career interest. Elise received her B.S. in Environmental Science from Tuskegee University and Masters of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences from the University of Michigan. Ms. Tolbert's interests in public health lie at the intersection of climate change, environmental health policy, environmental justice and social justice. She lives by motto “Blaze your own trail,” which reminds her of her responsibility to follow her heart and create a path for others.

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Ellen Tolbert


Mrs. Ellen Tolbert is an educator with over 18 years of experience in secondary education--teaching, developing and leading instruction in Mathematics, Aerosopace Technology, Computer Science and STEM Education. For the past 19 years, Ellen has worked as a teacher and has served the Macon County school system in many capacities, employing her ability as an educator to craft educational initiatives that enhance the learning experience for students.  Mrs. Tolbert is also the founder of an after school tutorial program called, “ Power Hours” which she started years ago at her local church. The program ran for years and provided academic assistance to students seeking help with improving their grades.


As an educator, she is committed to making an indelible impact on students and believes that it is imperative that she helps to make a difference in students’ lives for the betterment of her community. Mrs. Tolbert views Next Step Up as a vital part to the success of students, as many students require and want individualized assistance. She notes that, homework and academic tutorial assistance has been proven to make a positive gain on students’ personal and academic achievement in school. She hopes to contribute vastly to the enhancement of the organizational and programmatic development of Next Step Up in an effort to take it to the next level and beyond.


Omar Neal


If motivation is the electrical power that activates the engine of success, then Omar Neal is the personification of a mighty motivational machine. Arrayed with the God-given ability to mobilize, empower and motivate people from all walks of life to reach their greatest level of excellence, Omar Neal takes pride in positively impacting the lives of those whom he has the opportunity to reach. 

The Honorable Omar Neal served as Mayor of the historic city Tuskegee, Alabama from November 2008 to November 2012. He also served as a Macon County Commissioner from 1996-2000. The in- depth conversations held with hundreds of top level professionals give Neal a heightened understanding of the thinking, behaviors and skills that are needed for effective leadership.


Neal received his B.S. degree from Tuskegee University in business administration. He earned his master’s degree in Public Management from Troy University and also completed the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government’s Executive Education program in State and Local government. In addition, Neal completed the Delta Leadership Institute, which is sponsored by the Delta Regional Authority in partnership with the College of Continuing Studies at the University of Alabama. Omar Neal is the Founder and CEO of the International Municipal Collaboration and possesses an exemplary and veritable career in leadership both in the private and public sector.


Joyce Johnson


Joyce R. Johnson is a retired mathematics teacher for Macon County school system. Joyce now spends her time focused on applying her expertise and passion in the commercial art business she created in 1999. In her free time she finds herself traveling and attending craft classes. Joyce graduated from Alcorn State University in Lorman, Mississippi where she received a Bachelors of Science in mathematics. She also received a Masters of Mathematics education from Alabama State University in Montgomery, Alabama. She became a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc. (AKA) sorority in 1975.

Being passionate with an interest in engineering during her time teaching career of 41 years, Joyce started a National Society of Black Engineers jr. (NSBE jr.) chapter at Booker T. Washington high school with the help of a former calculus student who was an engineering major at Tuskegee University.

Joyce is a firmly devoted person with devotion to God. Joyce has inspired and trained students to become tutors and encouraged them to seek higher educational goals in the fields of math, science, and engineering. She believes in the power of teamwork. In order to make sound accomplishment she believes that one must understand the need and importance of communication.

Joyce truly feels one must have patience, a sense of dedication and determination to make others successful. She believes in treating people fairly. She always shows love and commitment, passion, and integrity in what she does and encourages all to live, enjoy, and have fun.


Brittany Bennett


Brittany Bennett is the Executive Director of Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) where she leads an international organization, tackles messy sustainability challenges, and uses data science as a tool to drive social change. Growing up in the South, Brittany experienced chronic poverty throughout her childhood after her mother escaped an abusive marriage. Despite constant threats of homelessness and severe food insecurity, Brittany became the first in her family to attend college. Brittany hopes that every child is given the support and resources they need to overcome hardship and succeed. She lives in Denver, CO, and holds a Bachelors of Science in Engineering Science from Smith College.


Doretha Heard

Board Member

Ms. Heard co-founded a Cancer Support Group in 2012 out of a need for cancer support and resources in the Macon County Community.  In 2016, the group was named Macon M.E.A.N.S. for Cancer Support with a mission to improve the quality of life of cancer survivors in the community through mentorship, education, advocacy, and nutritional supportive services.  Macon M.E.A.N.S. for Cancer Support is a non–profit organization, committed to empowering the community through health education.


Ms. Heard is a retired Oncology Nurse Case Manager (ONCM) and resides in Tuskegee, Alabama. She served Central Alabama Health Care System (CAVHCS) as an ONCM for 20 years during which, she developed and coordinated the Oncology Case Management Program. Before transitioning into the Oncology Nurse Case Manager role, MS Heard worked as a Certified Perioperative Nurse for 10 years at CAVHCS, as well as a Med-Surg Nurse for one year.  After serving her country in active duty and reserve status, Ms. Heard is Commander, US Navy NC, and Retired.  In the Navy Nurse Corps, MS Heard worked OB/GYN, Med/Surg and Psychiatry, with a specialty in Perioperative Nursing. As a reservist, Ms. Heard served as Training Department Head for the Fleet Hospital.  Ms. Heard has also served as Department Head for Allied Health with Job Corps at Tuskegee University.


Ms. Heard received a Bachelor of Nursing Degree from Troy State University in Troy in 1981 and Masters in Nursing from Troy State University in 1997. In addition to active participation in her church as District Director of Christian Education, Tuskegee District, of the AME Zion Church, Ms. Heard has volunteered with the American Cancer Society for the past 19 years. She is a trained Community Health Advisor, and Abstinence Coach. Ms. Heard has a passion for serving her community. Her personal philosophy: “Empowering people through education”, is consistent with the Mission/Vision of Next Step Up. 

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