Leadership Diversity: Go Big or Go Home

Years ago, I was at a community meeting in Washington D.C. I was working for the school system, and we were discussing a plan to consolidate two elementary schools. The plan included new academic supports for the combined school, teacher professional development, and some serious renovations to the newly enlarged building.

There was a problem, though. An older woman approached the microphone at the meeting and pointed out what I and the other bureaucrats in the system had missed. The consolidation would require many students, some quite young, to cross a dangerous four-lane intersection. In order for the plan to pass muster, she suggested, it must include a crossing guard, at the very least, and the school system had not accounted for that expense in its plans.

Encounters like this are common in the public sector, and they are not rare in the private sector. Often, the individuals responsible for implementing a strategic plan are not the intended beneficiaries of that plan. As a result, their life, professional, and family experiences can be wildly different from those of their constituents or customers. Fortunately, the crossing guard incidence was an easy fix. Part-time traffic policing, while a critical element of public safety, is relatively inexpensive, and the system was able to make quick changes to the plan.

The issues, though, are not always so easy to confront, fix, or acknowledge. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Chicago right now. The city’s leadership, from the mayor to the dismissed police chief to the rank-and-file officers in the police department, were complicit in preventing the video of Laquan McDonald’s murder from being released to the public for over a year. Critics, including the New York Times, suggest that the mayor hoped to prevent the video from affecting his February re-election, which it almost certainly would have.

Though this example is extreme, it is not uncommon, as police brutality affects many children and families, a disproportionate number of whom are African-American, from Michael Brown to Sandra Bland to Rekia Boyd, another Chicagoan who died too young. What is unique about Laquan McDonald’s tragic death is that it illuminates the extent to which city leaders can put politics and self-interest over the wellbeing of a community. McDonald’s family is mourning, and the city, particularly its Black residents, demanded answers. The public safety of Chicagoans, though, took a backseat to political self-interest.

Would greater diversity in leadership have prevented this from happening? Maybe not alone, but it’s hard to argue that greater representation from people in McDonald’s community would have resulted in the same reckless disregard for bringing his killers to justice.

Self-interest is a natural phenomenon. So is taking care of one’s own community. Leadership should be about transcending that parochial interest and taking a magnanimous approach to communities that one doesn’t even consider one’s own. Despite good intentions, it is difficult for leaders to understand the authentic needs, desires, hopes, fears, and aspirations of a community from which they do not come. That’s why diversity in leadership is so important. Is it reasonable for me to expect Mayor Rahm Emanuel to have inherent lived experiences that captures the full range of every one of his citizens’ lives? No. Is it reasonable for me to expect that the mayor will carefully consider the unique needs of his Black citizens, who constitute a full third of the city’s population? Yes, and the best way to ensure this consideration is to have a diverse leadership team, particularly in a police department with a notorious history of racial abuse and violence.

I share The Surge Institute’s perspective on leadership diversity, which can be summarized simply as “Go big or go home.” Having diverse leadership at the top requires having diverse candidates at every level of an organization. In a civic milieu, that means working hard at diversity from the mayor’s office to the beat cops, and everything in between. In the private sector, that means from the boardroom to the mailroom, including suppliers and partners. There are tons of bureaucratic, oblique ways to increase diversity, but the easiest way to increase diversity it to hire people from many different backgrounds. It really is that easy. While leadership diversity alone would not have saved Laquan McDonald’s life, it certainly would have meant a shorter wait for justice.


CHICAGO – November 19, 2015 – Surge Institute has joined the #GivingTuesday movement this year to encourage spending for a purpose. #GivingTuesday takes place December 1, 2015, the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving. The day is dedicated to inspiring people to take action and give back to the charities they love.

This year, Surge Institute is launching its first ever 7-day integrated online fundraising campaign for #GivingTuesday as a way to raise money and awareness for the Surge Fellowship, the Institute’s signature leadership program. This campaign, entitled #SurgeForMore, runs December 1 through December 7 and all proceeds will be used to provide need-based tuition scholarships to future Fellowship awardees and support Fellowship programming. Surge is also excited to announce that they have secured an anonymous matching gift donor who will match up to $5,000 in donations.

This campaign is particularly focusing on awareness and engagement of small donors, as Surge wants communities to get involved at any level that fits their lives.

“It’s important that we get our supporters involved regardless of how much they can give,” says Carmita Semaan, Founder and President of Surge Institute. “This campaign is particularly focused on small donors: people passionate about our mission who may be in to position to give only $10 or $15. Each and every dollar given contributes to the success of Surge and drives us towards our ultimate goal – to dramatically improve outcomes for Chicago’s most underserved young people. Our donor community makes this work possible.”

Surge Institute hopes to get as much support as possible to #SurgeForMore this #GivingTuesday. For more information on Surge Institute, its signature leadership program, or how you can #SurgeForMore, visit https://www.surgeinstitute.org/SurgeforMore.


The Surge Institute broadly addresses issues of race and class in urban education through leadership development, technical assistance and advocacy. The Surge Fellowship, the Institute’s signature program, develops high-potential talent within education to create the pipeline of influential education leaders of color. The 2015 Surge Fellowship Cohort graduated in September of this year: https://goo.gl/r9bMGm

Not Here By Mistake

This year brought unexpected blessings and people into my life while also exposing new areas of uncertainty and frustration. Like many, I’ve watched the stories of injustice, heartache and terror unfold across the globe and here in my own beloved city and wondered what more I can and should be doing to be an agent of change. I realize there is no simple fix to the complex institutional and structural issues that abound, but I know I must be part of the solution, even if the path forward is elusive.

In spite of my frustration and uncertainty, during this season my heart is full of gratitude for my journey and for all of the things I haven’t yet realized or accomplished.  It’s easy to be thankful in times of “harvest”, but I believe it’s even more critical to express gratitude when things on the horizon are still unclear.

A song that I’ve been playing on heavy repeat for well over a year now has started to resonate with me in a much more profound way given my uncertainty about how to impact change in the midst of current events which convey a spirit of greater intolerance, injustice and inequity.  There’s a verse in the song that states, “Not here by mistake; No luck – only grace; I’m on my way to who I AM.”  Just let that sink in for a minute.  It is so powerful to consider that we are all exactly where we are intended to be…but even of greater importance is that the current place is simply a step toward our ultimate destination of living the life that is fully intended for us, and helping others to do the same.

When reflecting on this, I can’t help but express extreme joy and gratitude for all of the people who have helped and continue to help me navigate the difficulties and complexities, while also celebrating the breakthroughs and successes.  My life is full of an abundance of joy and hope for our collective future!

My wish for everyone this season is to truly feel how cherished, appreciated and loved you are. Know that you’re exactly where YOU are supposed to be…no matter how difficult or daunting current situations may appear. And I implore you to take every opportunity you can to convey that same message to others – through your words and – more importantly – your actions.


Pearls of Wisdom for Leadership

Authentic leadership is an essential theme these days.  It’s an inspiring concept because it requires you to know yourself, embrace your strengths and determine how best to apply them.

I’ve learned that one of my strengths is the ability to empathize with others and assume positive intent, particularly in crisis. On one occasion, I was called upon to terminate an employee that was beloved within our work community. The decision to let her go was the right one, but no one wanted to deliver the message, and so it was left to me. In that situation, I stood up, took the challenge, delivered the message with kindness and respect, and also made sure to listen to the perspective of the employee as well.  In the end, she thanked me and said, “You are the only one who understands.”

Isn’t it great to know that of the 7.3 billion people on earth, there is only one YOU?  When we embrace our uniqueness and bring our full selves to our work, we can use that as fuel to be the change that we want to see in the world.  I find it a humbling and exhilarating challenge to know that there are things that can’t or won’t happen unless I participate, offer my voice, or share my unique perspective.

This excellent article inspired me! The writer features the bold moves of Carla Harris, Vice President of Global Wealth management at Morgan Stanley and in so doing captures the essence of many of the leadership principals of the Surge Institute. This type of bold authenticity is what I hope Surge Fellows take with them on their journeys. Although from the corporate sector, the gems Ms. Harris shares apply universally, regardless of industry, because true leaders follow similar principles to reach success. Perhaps this article will inspire you too.

Speaking Truth to Power

A highly-recognized and respected education leader approached me earlier this year to share a story about how an interaction with me 5 or 6 years ago changed her perspective and altered her professional practice. I didn’t remember the event, but she recalled vivid details and recounted them for me as she thanked me.

At the time, she was a lecturer at a storied Ivy League university and was delivering a case study to a group of education leaders from across the country. During our conversation she shared that I challenged her a bit during her lecture and attempted to push the conversation from a theoretical exercise into one that was more deeply rooted in the realities and consequences for our children and their families. My pesky questions and perspective apparently did not fit her lesson plan and she now laughed about how she politely tried to blow me off even though her conscious was pricked.

In speaking with me this year, she shared, “I left that room thinking 1) That woman is absolutely brilliant and someone should try and steal her from CPS (where I was working at the time), 2) How did I completely ignore that aspect of the case? and 3) If I ever get a chance, I will let her know that this brief interaction had an impact on how I’ll think about my work from now on.”

I was absolutely floored!

So let me remind you all of the tremendous power you have to impact the lives around you – even when you don’t know you’re doing it. I don’t really believe in coincidences. I believe to my core that we’re all brought into situations and lives for a greater purpose – which sometimes isn’t about you at all. Never forget that. And never waste an opportunity to share your truth and speak truth to power. You are placed where you are for that PRECISE purpose.

2015 Graduation and Capstone Project Showcase

On September 26th, 2015, Surge hosted the Graduation Luncheon and Capstone Project Showcase at the Regency O’Hare, to celebrate the 2015 Surge Fellows’ (aka Inaugural Insurgents) transition to Surge Fellowship Alumni. The private ceremony for the Fellows and their families featured a touching photo montage, remarks by DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, and reflections by 2015 Fellow Melissa Connelly.


CHICAGO – On Saturday, September 26, 2015, the Inaugural Surge Fellowship Cohort, comprised of twelve emerging African American and Latino leaders in Chicago, will complete the 2015 Surge Fellowship program. Between April and September of this year, The Surge Institute piloted a condensed program, which modeled the Surge Fellowship’s rigorous 12-month leadership development program to be delivered to the 2016 cohort and beyond.

The Surge Fellowship was designed to identify and groom emerging education leaders, accelerating their trajectory so that they may bring new ideas, perspectives, and solutions that change the landscape of education. Surge Fellowship is the flagship program of The Surge Institute, a Chicago-based non-profit that exists to broadly address issues of race and class in urban education through leadership development, technical assistance and advocacy.

To commemorate the completion of the 2015 Inaugural Fellowship, Surge is hosting a Capstone Project Showcase “Gallery Walk” and Graduation Luncheon for graduating Fellows, their employers and their families. Speakers at the invitation only event include Kaya Henderson, Surge Executive Board Member and Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, and 2015 Surge Fellow, Melissa Connelly. “I am beyond grateful that my peers chose me to speak in honor of the profound and life-changing six months our cohort has spent together. I have no words to describe how humbling it was to be selected by this group of incredibly brilliant leaders,” says Connelly, Senior Director of Regional Persistence for OneGoal – Chicago.

“Upon graduation, our first generation of Surge Fellows is better prepared to take on the sizable challenges of Chicago’s public education system with conviction in their beliefs, understanding of the players in the education ecosystem, and a network of peers and support to help them improve conditions for our children,” remarks Surge Founder and President, Carmita Semaan.

The 2016 Surge Fellowship Cohort was announced on September 9, 2015 and their program will conclude in August, 2016.

About the Surge Fellowship

The Surge Fellowship develops high-potential talent within education to create a pipeline of influential education leaders of color. This network transforms status quo systems and approaches in education by sharing ownership of the change efforts, engaging communities in defining and working toward success, serving as role models for young people to pursue roles with influence and risk, and accessing financial capital and power brokers to develop new solutions. Contact info@surginstitute.org or (312) 768-8139 for more information.


CHICAGO – September 9, 2015 – The Surge Institute, a Chicago-based education leadership accelerator founded in 2014 in response to a dearth of leadership of color at the decision-making tables within education, announces the thirteen (13) individuals awarded the opportunity to participate in the 2015-2016 Surge Fellowship cohort.  The 2016 Surge Fellows are the second cohort of emerging leaders of color that Surge Institute will prepare, support and connect in order to accelerate their growth as trailblazers within education.

The Surge Fellowship, Surge Institute’s signature program, identifies high-capacity African-American and Latino leaders in education and provides them with leadership development and access to networks and visibility, empowering them to bring new ideas, perspectives, and solutions that change the landscape of education.  The Fellowship’s 2015 Inaugural Cohort, which concludes on September 26, 2015, has been an overwhelming success. The inaugural cohort piloted Surge Fellowship’s rigorous 12-month leadership development program that will be delivered to the 2016 Cohort and beyond.

“My position at UEI has the potential to get substantially more Chicago students to and through college.  Being a Fellow has given me cultural insights, enhanced my understanding of the overall education landscape, taught me valuable leadership skills and allowed me to build stronger networks – all tools I need to transform potential opportunity into reality,” opines 2015 Surge Fellow Grisel Maldonado, UChicago Impact’s Director of College Success at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.

A host of exceptional candidates applied for the fellowship, inspired by the promise to develop skills, networks, and tools, and receive the support necessary to deepen their impact.  The diverse cohort is comprised of African-American and Latino men and women from the Chicago Public Schools, high-performing charter schools and networks, non-profit advocacy agencies and higher education.  “We are expecting the 2015-2016 Fellowship Program to have an even greater impact on Chicago by funneling more prepared elite talent of color into the leadership pipeline where their presence is sorely missed and desperately needed,” says Kaya Henderson, Surge board member and Chancellor of DC Public Schools.

“Each applicant had a highly impressive background and passion for education – selecting the best of the best was a formidable task for us.  Ultimately the signature elements of candidates selected for the 2016 Fellowship include: unbridled passion for better serving Chicago youth; deep connection to the communities in which they serve; and evidence of a readiness to immediately use the Surge experience to have tremendous impact on urban education in Chicago.” shares Carmita Semaan, Founder and President of The Surge Institute.

2016 Surge Fellowship Awardees

Nicole Beechum Doctoral Candidate and Research Assistant, University of Chicago
Michelle Bess Talent Recruitment Manager, OneGoal
Elisa Botello Director, New School Development, Office of Innovation and Incubation, CPS
Christopher Goins Founding Principal, Butler College Prep
Ceddrick Hunter Assistant Dean of Culture, Johnson College Prep
Michael Johns Director of Mentors, Volunteers and Interns, Chicago Scholars
Ariel Johnson Legislative Affairs Manager, The Illinois Network of Charter Schools
Khadeejah Lasuc Program Manager, Center for College Access and Success, NEIU
Nche Onyema Manager of External Affairs and Engagement, OneGoal
Bianca Paiz Director of Alumni Counseling, Rauner College Prep
Marilyn Rhames Manager of Alumni Relations, Namaste Charter School
TaMikka Sykes Founding Principal, LEARN Charter School
Erica Thompson High School Success Program Manager, LINK Unlimited Scholars

About Surge

The Surge Institute broadly addresses issues of race and class in urban education through leadership development, technical assistance and advocacy. The Surge Fellowship develops high-potential talent within education to create the pipeline of influential education leaders of color.  This network transforms status quo systems and approaches in education by sharing ownership of the change efforts, engaging communities in defining and working toward success, serving as role models for young people to pursue roles with influence and risk, and accessing financial capital and power brokers to develop new solutions. surgeinstitute.org


#LeadTheSurge 7.14.15

Chicago education leaders celebrated the kickoff of the 2016 Surge Fellowship application process with an evening of energy and inspiration at #LeadTheSurge 7.14.15. The event was a refuge from a season of turmoil in local education; attendees left with an understanding of how the Surge Fellowship cultivates leaders in order to transform education in Chicago.





CHICAGO – Tomorrow, July 14, 2015, The Surge Institute is hosting #LeadTheSurge 7.14.15 an after-work reception for leaders and supporters of high-quality education options for Chicago’s youth. The event, from 5:30 PM – 8:30 PM at Nellcôte in Chicago’s West Loop, will showcase the early impact of the Institute’s signature program, the Surge Fellowship – and invite leaders of color within education to apply for the 2015/2016 Fellowship.

Surge Institute is a non-profit organization founded by Carmita Semaan in response to a dearth of diverse leaders at the decision-making tables within education: The lack of a critical mass of diverse leaders in positions of influence often results in stalemates and substandard outcomes for Chicago children. The Surge Fellowship program prepares, connects and supports high-capacity African-American and Latino leaders across organizations in order to dramatically improve education options and outcomes for low-income children and transform the education landscape in the process.

“Our hope is that this inspiring event will attract a broad spectrum of high-performing education leaders curious about or interested in applying for the 2015/2016 Fellowship. The diversity of the Surge Fellowship cohorts adds to the richness and impact of the program because together fellows learn how to more effectively lead, negotiate and influence in order to achieve desired outcomes that impact Chicago children and our communities.” says Surge founder and President Carmita Semaan. The fellowship’s inaugural cohort admitted in April of this year is comprised of African American and Latino leaders from the Chicago Public Schools, high-performing charter schools and charter networks, non-profit advocacy agencies, higher education and justice reform.

The Surge Fellowship welcomes a unique population of leaders; men and women with backgrounds and experiences similar to those of Chicago’s most underserved children. “Surge Fellowship prepares and supports new leaders that come FROM minority and underserved communities and return TO these communities, which provides significantly higher levels of authenticity. This will accelerate impact and unlock opportunities: opportunities that lead to jobs, home ownership and positive economic impact where it matters most,” opines Surge board member Nneka Rimmer, SVP Corporate Strategy and Development for McCormick & Company.

#LeadTheSurge 7.14.15 commemorates the three week 2015/2016 fellowship application period, which opened on July 6, 2015 and ends on August 1, 2015 when all applications are due. The evening will feature insights shared by current Surge Fellows, networking with Chicago education powerbrokers and thought-leaders, as well as hosted wine, beer and hors d’oeuvres.

#LeadTheSurge 7.14.15 at Nellcôte, 833 West Randolph, 5:30 – 8:30 PM, RSVP Required

About the Surge Fellowship

The Surge Fellowship develops high-potential talent within education to create the pipeline of influential education leaders of color. This network transforms status quo systems and approaches in education by sharing ownership of the change efforts, engaging communities in defining and working toward success, serving as role models for young people to pursue roles with influence and risk, and accessing financial capital and power brokers to develop new solutions. Contact info@surginstitute.org or (312) 768-8139 for more information.