Surge Institute’s Second #SurgeForMore Online Giving Campaign Is Well-Received By New Donors

The Surge Institute is pleased to share the success of their second annual #SurgeForMore fundraising campaign. The campaign launched in 2015 to raise awareness about Surge’s movement to diversify education leadership and support the Surge Fellowship, the Institute’s signature program. #SurgeForMore focused on smaller contributions from individuals, who were also encouraged to share their personal inspiration online. In only its second year, #SurgeForMore increased participation by 34 percent. Donations from around the country — some as small as $5 — culminated in a total of more than $25,000.

The success of the 2016 #SurgeForMore campaign can be attributed to the exemplary response from online donors as well as 100 percent participation from Surge employees, board members, and Surge Fellows and Alumni. Fifty-four percent of this year’s participants were new donors. Also, this year’s fundraiser garnered $10,000 in support from two anonymous matching-gift donors.

Expressing deep gratitude for the donors, The Surge Institute’s founding Board Chair Darryl Cobb stated, “We are grateful to all the donors who made this year’s campaign a success. Surge is doing tremendous work in Chicago to ensure that the influential decision-makers of the educational futures of millions of children of color reflect the diversity and lived experiences of the students.”

Founded in 2014, The Surge Institute is dedicated to addressing the issues related to race and class in urban education through technical assistance, leadership development and advocacy. The Institute was created in response to a shortage of leadership of color at decision-making levels in education.

The Surge Fellowship, the Institute’s signature program, is an initiative to identify and groom emerging talent in education, nurturing leadership skills, ideas, perspectives and solutions to change the landscape of education. Proceeds from the #SurgeForMore fundraising campaign will be used for future fellowship programming and provide need-based tuition scholarships to future Surge Fellows.

Expressing high regards for The Surge Institute, a donor to the #SurgeForMore campaign said, “Surge is first in class for addressing the race and class-related disparities that cripple education in urban communities. It was a pleasure for me to support their fundraising initiative.”

Though the #SurgeForMore is over for the year, it is never too late to join this movement by making a contribution at For more information, contact Surge at

About The Surge Institute: The Surge Institute was founded in 2014 in response to a dearth of leadership of color at decision-making tables in education. Surge provides leadership development resources to institutions and individuals to create a pipeline of diverse leaders in education while also addressing issues of race and class in urban education through leadership development, technical assistance and advocacy.

Love: The New Wave in Education Reform

The intended outcomes of the American public educational system have drastically evolved over the last 400 years. Originally, public schools were designed to prepare poor white students for the labor force. Native Americans, Africans and other immigrants were not considered citizens and as a result were not factored into the construct of the public education system. White families that could afford better options sent their children to private schools to get an education and prepare them for professional careers. The original public educational system was never designed with students of color in mind, nor was it meant to create independent thinkers and entrepreneurs or teach from a culturally inclusive curriculum. Fast-forward to modern day, and educational systems across this nation still operate from the remnants of these foundationally dysfunctional principles. Inequity in educational options has become one of many active and ever-changing social justice fights of our time.

Soldiers on the frontline of education reform have bravely put forth innovative methodologies for delivering instruction and modifying traditional educational environments, school types, programmatic focus, etc. The demand for education reform has largely been born from the glaring disparity in the quality of public educational options provided to impoverished communities, largely communities of color. The results of these approaches have varied, with some excelling but others failing to do much better than provide more subpar options alongside traditional failing schools. However, recent research developments have identified one area that has been lost or is often overlooked in the rush to provide viable options: the development of social-emotional skills in children.

Social-emotional skills, largely known as “soft skills,” are not necessarily a new concept. However, there has been a growing awareness around this idea of developing and integrating the development of social-emotional skills throughout a child’s development. Stated plainly, how can we expect a 5-year-old child who has experienced a traumatic event at home to stand in line quietly and pay attention intently all day? How do we expect a child that is worried or afraid to learn? In its simplest form, social-emotional learning acknowledges the application of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to our still-developing children. Our children do not come to school as fully regulated adults in little bodies; they require molding and development. That molding will happen regardless of whether their surroundings are loving and nurturing or harmful and degrading. But the most powerful fact in all of this is that social-emotional skills can be developed no matter what environmental factors have shaped a child’s foundational beginnings, regardless of the child’s age.

So what are social-emotional skills? The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning has defined the five core competencies of social-emotional learning as:

Self-awareness. The ability to effectively identify and express thoughts, feelings and emotions.

Self-management. The ability to regulate emotions, thoughts and feelings. Identifiable as impulse control, discipline and how one organizes themselves.

Social awareness. Awareness of other people’s thoughts, feelings and emotions. Showing empathy and respect for others.

Relationship skills. The ability to collaborate, work with a team and establish and maintain healthy respectful relationships.

Responsible decision-making. Evaluating situations, reflecting on responsible responses and thinking through the repercussions of an action.

The development of these core skills across a number of national studies has produced average academic gains of 11 percentile points. Children develop the skills needed to accurately voice what they’re feeling, and the adults in the school building create the environment that ensures the child feels safe and respected when expressing thoughts and feelings. Successful SEL implementation in schools directly correlates to a decrease in behavioral infractions, hence breaking the cycle of the school-to-prison pipeline. The implementation of an SEL curriculum teaches children lifelong skills for success by honoring their voices and advocating for themselves and others. For teachers, an SEL curriculum creates the space for relationships, even for those who aren’t innately drawn to teaching from a place of love. From this space, learning becomes possible, and outcomes become limitless.

When boiled down, at the core of SEL is the simple concept of love. SEL is how teachers, administrators and school support personnel actively display their vested interest in improving our children’s well-being and supporting them in reaching their highest potential. The concept of SEL is so simple, and yet has the capability to be incredibly transformative if and when it is integrated into the entire culture of schools and teaching practices.

Perhaps the most powerful and revolutionary educational reform initiative is, simply, love.

Education Leadership in Chicago Takes Another Step Forward as Executives Tamara Prather and Rito Martinez Join The Surge Institute

The Surge Institute, founded in 2014 in Chicago in response to a dearth of diverse leadership at the decision-making tables within education, takes another step forward in addressing the issues of race and class in urban education by hiring a Chicago Executive Director and new Vice President of National Programs.
Tamara Prather will join the leadership team on November 18, 2016, as the Chicago Executive Director. Tamara brings to bear over 17 years of combined experience in the education and private sectors, at corporate bodies as diverse as GE Capital, Kraft Foods, Chicago Public Schools and A Better Chicago. Her addition means added focus on brand building and strategy in Chicago, and will allow Surge Founder and President Carmita Semaan to address the broader needs for Surge nationally.

Rito Martinez succeeds Erica Harris, the organization’s founding Vice President of Programs, in a new national programs role — setting the expanded vision and direction for the content of the Surge Fellowship as well as the design of the Fellowship’s core curriculum. Martinez was an award-winning teacher and founding principal of Social Justice High School before he transitioned into adult learning, leadership development and executive coaching, which has informed his work for the past half decade. He began with the team in early October 2016. “As the founding VP of Programs, Erica Harris’s design of the Surge Fellowship created a powerful legacy upon which Rito is well-poised to build,” stated Carmita Semaan.

Both Prather and Martinez have personal connections to The Surge Institute’s mission. “I have followed the work of Surge and continue to be inspired by the passion and sense of purpose of the organization and the significant progress being made. I am honored to lead the organization through this exciting next phase of growth and impact in Chicago,” said Prather. “For black and brown leaders it is imperative that one examine issues of identity, race and ethnicity as a means of understanding both our strengths and areas of development. This vision of The Surge Fellowship resonates with my core,” shares Martinez.

Semaan is very pleased with the expanding team, which also includes Program and Development Coordinator Sandra Rush and Executive Assistant Maurae Gilbert McCants. “The impact of our fellows and alums has been tremendous in youth-serving organizations across Chicago, and Surge receives local and national recognition for our work in preparing, supporting, connecting and elevating these emerging leaders of color. We will continue to respond to demand as the need for diverse and connected leaders is great. This growth requires discipline and a commitment to continuous improvement — two of the foundational values of our organization. Our team will continue to Surge forward with these commitments to our community.”

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. Learn more about how you can #LeadTheSurge at

Surge Institute of Chicago Changes the Face of Education Leadership

Surge Fellowship admits third cohort of education leaders of color, and welcomes a new cohort of Fellowship alumni.

Today the Surge Institute expanded the reach of its signature yearlong Fellowship program by announcing the acceptance of a diverse cohort of twenty-two (22) equity-minded, emerging African American and Latino Chicago education leaders. The 2017 Surge Fellowship Cohort, the Surge Institute’s 3rd, was selected from a group of 45 impressive applicants and is comprised of Fellows from across the education landscape – including Chicago Public Schools, various charter schools and networks, and non-profit youth-serving organizations.

Over the course of the Fellowship, Surge Fellows meet for eleven (11) sessions during which they receive executive skill training, leadership development and exposure to respected leaders and policymakers in education as they develop their own leadership and advocacy skills. While developing advanced leadership skills as a team, Fellows also complete individual capstone projects to advance the work of a new or existing Chicago education initiative. 2017 Fellowship awardee Jonathan Chaparro, Student Recruitment Manager for the Noble Network of Charter Schools was attracted to Surge because “The Surge Fellowship offers the opportunity to develop the skill-sets and operational excellence needed for executive leadership, while maintaining a clear focus on what matters most- closing the opportunity gap in low income communities.”

2017 Surge Fellowship Awardees

– Stephanie Arias, Manager of Charter Support, Illinois Network of Charter Schools
– Andres Avila, Manager of Student Services, Namaste Charter School
– Andrea Black, Principal, Schmid Elementary School
– Julianne Boulware, Founding Director of Culture and Community, Steel City Academy
– Jonathan Chaparro, Student Recruitment Manager Noble Network of Charter Schools
– William Collins, Senior Director of School Partnerships, OneGoal
– Dominique Davis, Director of College Success, Chicago Scholars
– Cesar Dominguez, Data Strategy Manager, Illinois Network of Charter Schools
– Mario Earnest, Director of Special Projects, Intrinsic School
– Alejandro Espinoza, Manager, Partnerships, Teach for America
– D. Nigel Green, Assistant Principal, Muchin College Prep
– Dawn Hicks, Chief Program Officer, Umoja Student Development Corporation
– Tamara Hoff, Adjunct Professor, DePaul University
– Bryan Jackson, Dean of Students, Chicago International Charter School | Bucktown
– Shenita Johnson, General Counsel/Managing Director, Illinois State Charter School Commission
– Halleemah Nash, Executive Director, Chicago, iMentor
– Natalie Neris, Chief of Academic Accountability, Chicago International Charter School
– Jawann Pollard, College Access Program Manager, LINK Unlimited Scholars
– Ashley Richardson, Manager of Special Projects, The Chicago Public Education Fund
– Nina Sanchez, Director of Talent Development, Teach for America
– Andrea Serrano, Individual Giving Manager, City Year Chicago
– Ashlie Tyler, National Director of Recruitment, SAGA Innovations

On August 20, 2016, the 2016 Fellows (The Vanguards), celebrated completion of the Fellowship during a Page 2/3 If you have any questions regarding information in these press releases please contact the company listed in the press release. Our complete disclaimer appears here private graduation ceremony held at McDonald’s Hamburger University. New Alum Nicole Beechum describes the Fellowship as a “community” in which Fellows “push each other to step into leadership opportunities that will allow our voices to be heard on behalf of young people who look like us.”

“We desperately need more individuals with shared experiences with our young people and their communities in positions of influence and power across the landscape of education in Chicago,” says Carmita Semaan, Founder and President of The Surge Institute. Each new Surge Fellowship cohort builds an ever-widening network of capable and driven leaders of color seeking to improve the condition of public education in Chicago. Semaan adds, “Our vision is to dramatically change the face of leadership in education by preparing, connecting, supporting and elevating African-American and Latino leaders across organizations that are seeking to improve education options and outcomes for our children.”

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. Learn more about how you can #LeadTheSurge.

2016 Surge Fellowship Capstone Presentations and Graduation

The 2016 Surge Fellowship concluded the weekend of September 20th. Wrapping up their 10-month Fellowship, the 2016 Surge Fellows—aka The Vanguards—presented their final capstone projects. On Saturday, September 20th, Surge welcomed the Vanguards into the alumni family with a graduation luncheon at McDonald’s Hamburger University. The Vanguards enjoyed a private ceremony with their families, their coaches, and the Surge staff in attendance. The ceremony included a speech by 2016 Fellow Marilyn Rhames, who shared moving reflections about the Fellowship experience, and community leader Juan Salgado‘s address left attendees inspired for change. It was a lovely afternoon!

It’s Time to Lean INTO the Discomfort of Transformative Change

I have spent my entire life in the fight for educational equity and 14 years fighting that fight in classrooms and schools across cities like Los Angeles, Miami-Dade and Chicago. For a long time, I believed schools and classrooms were the best spaces to create change for the Black and Brown students we serve. Don’t get me wrong – change without transformational leaders in classrooms and schools is impossible. But, the change that is needed today is deeply rooted in historical systems of oppression and racism that – consciously or unconsciously – have resulted in institutions that are well equipped to maintain the status quo. Unless there is transformational change at multiple levels the changes created in classrooms are, at best, short term.

I am the child of an immigrant single mother. I believe the appropriate label afforded to me was “alien” – a very befitting term as I was neither from here nor there. My family left a war-torn country in pursuit of the all-American dream, but little did we know that language, poverty, culture clashes, alcoholism, domestic violence, and sexual abuse would be some of the challenges we would have to overcome in pursuit of such dream. I struggled understanding the world I left behind and the world that stood in front of me, so I embraced the “alien” label and allowed myself to walk in that lane for too long.

Education has transformed my life – but, it didn’t happen the day I got into UCLA, or the day I graduated with a Masters from Loyola, and it didn’t happen the first day I walked into my 3rd grade bilingual classroom full of immigrant children in South Central LA. Transformational change required building extraordinary relationships, cultivated and nurtured across time and distance.

When we are intentional about creating human connection, we become more open and embracing of diverse people and diverse perspective. More importantly, when we are open to engaging in diverse thinking, we are able to speak and listen in new ways because we then allow ourselves to be stretched in ways that, at first, make us uncomfortable. This discomfort is the birth place of true transformational change – when you begin to see and seek differently because your paradigm has shifted, and you position yourself in the place of most potential.

Enter Surge! I am a 2015 Surge Fellow – one of the 12 “Inaugural InSurgents” as we fondly came to call ourselves. My Surge Fellowship experience was intense, powerful and I often found myself inspired and uncomfortable at the same time. The Fellowship redefined the phrase “Lean in” by teaching me how to lean INTO my own discomfort. It taught me how to listen anew and speak anew so that I could do anew. I see the impact of transformation in my professional work and in my work as a single mother of two toddlers.

We spend too much time surrounding ourselves with what we know, too much time looking for people who look like us, who sound like us, who think like us. We fail to see the value of diverse backgrounds and diverse experiences and so fail to invite those perspectives to the table. We make those who are different feel like “aliens” and we allow fear to be the driver and we become comfortable and complacent sitting on the passenger side and watch while good intentions and new initiatives further polarize the people our educational and social systems should be designed to serve.

From positions of comfort, we engage in unproductive conversations about charters vs district schools, teachers vs administrators, districts vs CMOs, states v. national, etc., while millions of Black and Brown kids across the country watch helplessly as we build walls as opposed to bridges. Having been on both sides of many of these debates myself, I think it’s time we stop and we, each and every one of us, lean into our own discomfort, and in doing so, build the strength and the hope required to help ourselves and others emerge…transformed.

LeadTheSurge 6.7.16 Reception

On June 7th, 2016 at Nellcôte, over 120 guests and 50 prospective Surge Fellows showed up to support a new pipeline of diverse Chicago education leaders. Over $10,000 was raised for Surge Fellows, and #LeadTheSurge 6.7.16 kicked off the application period for the 2017 Surge Fellowship. Speakers included former Chancellor of DC Public Schools Kaya Henderson, 2016 Surge Fellows Nicole Beechum and Michael Johns, Surge Fellowship Alum Ana Martinez, and Surge founder Carmita Semaan, all of whom moved the crowd.


Chicago – June 3, 2016 – The Surge Institute will be hosting #LeadTheSurge 6.7.16, an after-work reception for leaders and supporters of high quality education options for Chicago’s youth, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, June 7th at Nellcôte in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood.

The event kicks off the seven-week application period for the 2017 Surge Fellowship which became available on Surge’s website June 1, 2016 and must be submitted by July 21, 2016. Chicago education leaders are invited to learn about the Surge Fellowship program. The evening will feature insights shared by current Surge Fellows and Alumni and provide networking opportunities with leaders across the Chicago education reform movement. Drinks and hors d’oeuvres will be provided.

The Surge Fellowship is a one-year program for emerging leaders of color working in education in the Chicago metropolitan area. This fellowship inspires and accelerates the trajectory of these leaders so they may bring new ideas, perspectives, and solutions to change the landscape of education. By training, connecting, supporting and elevating high-capacity African-American and Latino leaders across organizations, Surge aims to dramatically improve education options and outcomes for low-income children.

#LeadTheSurge 6.7.16 will feature remarks by Surge Founder and President, Carmita Semaan, Kaya Henderson, Chancellor of DC Public Schools as well as current Surge Fellows Nicole Beechum and Michael Johns and Alumnus Ana Martinez; to inspire emerging leaders of color within education to apply for the 2017 Surge Fellowship.

“The Fellowship was pivotal – participation made me a more powerful, authentic leader by providing me with access to resources, training, and a larger network to support my efforts to drive change,” said Surge Fellowship Alumna Ana Martinez. 2016 Fellow Michael Johns adds, “This is not a sit and get program. The things I learn are immediately applicable to my leadership role, and have allowed me to become an even greater asset to my employer by applying newly acquired skills.”


I went to law school with the hope of helping people. My grand vision of justice includes using the knowledge and privilege I gained in law school to give a voice to those who are never heard in spaces of influence. Education law yields that space for me. As a civil rights attorney focusing on education equity, I work with parents and students who are fighting for access and fairness in educational services. In my work, I feel firsthand the impact that elevating their stories has on their outcomes. In a bureaucratic system charged with serving so many, too often students and parents are silenced behind regulations and protocols without a meaningful opportunity to be heard. It is in this space that I have found that my voice could help so many of our students and families who are silenced in the education system.

However, the adversarial model of the law challenges me as I think about long term solutions for our public education institutions. Simply put, when students, families, and educators are pitted against one another, nobody wins.


With respect to the discipline process, it is clear that students, especially students of color, lose big across educational institutions. In the 2009-2010 school year, over 3 million children across the nation lost classroom time because of exclusionary discipline; enough children to fill every major league football and baseball stadium in the country. As an advocate taking on cases one-by-one, I continue to be haunted by a troubling rhetoric that surrounds our young people as we justify cutting them off from educational services:

“We are making this decision because we have to hold our students accountable.”

A necessary element of accountability is that people are in relationship with one another and possess self-awareness of how their actions impact others. How does a student develop this self-awareness when they are disconnected and rejected from the school community for mistakes and poor judgment? Is this not precisely what we are supposed to be teaching them?

“We have to think about the other students.”

So often in education, we must balance the interests of the many against the interests of the few.  However, the danger comes when we narrowly focus our conversations around equality without a deeper understanding of equity. Even when we distribute resources evenly, the reality is that some of our students need more resources and supports just to be able to meaningfully access an equal opportunity for success.  This can include the need for more chances to learn from their mistakes or more support to develop strategies for conflict resolution and self-regulation. Unfortunately, too often discipline conversations are centered on separating struggling students from their peers. The effect of this is that we arbitrarily cut off all our students from important lessons of empathy and inclusion for others.

“We can’t do anything because this family does not care about their student’s education.”

It is understandably very difficult to work with students when it seems their parents and families are not supportive. However, lack of parental engagement should not be a mark against the student. Our challenge is to meet students where they are at and hope that we can help them rise above circumstances that are beyond their control.

“This student has forfeited his right to a public education.”

This continues to be one of the most unsettling statements that I have heard coming from a school administrator to justify a decision to deny a student educational services. Does a child who is still learning who they are and how the world works possess enough knowledge and understanding to make informed decisions? Instead, the indictment is on us in that we have forfeited our obligation to provide this student with a public education.

What is most troubling about these statements is that they often precede a decision to remove a student from the same space that promised to teach and care for them. For many students, this becomes yet another experience of broken promises and rejection. This experience mangles their prospects for a successful future in such a way that few are able to recover. Instead, many fall prey to the school to prison pipeline which leaves them exposed to the criminal justice system, in a vicious cycle of poverty, and further disengaged from society.


The school community does not win when it makes a decision to remove a student from the educational setting. When students are pitted against their teachers and administrators a relationship is broken. Although there is a popular narrative that strict discipline has a deterrent effect on other students, it also has the residual impact of destroying trust between students and adults. This is the type of trust that is needed for students to open both their hearts and minds to the safety and instruction of adults. Removal from school makes it harder to rebuild trust for students who do have the fortune of returning back to their school one day.  The student that returns is inevitably not the same student, because without intentional supports, he is left with the trauma of being rejected from his school community and classified as an outsider. This is one reason why discipline can often be looked to as an indicator of whether a student is at risk of dropping out.

In many ways, my job is to look for the bad actors and protect students from unjust systems and practices.  However, this is deeply complicated in the education system, which has multiple layers of competing interest that create unintended consequences for even the most well-intentioned teachers and administrators.  Pressures involving increased performance standards, lack of resources, changing political regimes, labor disputes, and much more all underlie the education ecosystem. Add in devastating incidents of school shootings, growing conditions of poverty, rising levels of violence and exposure to trauma, and systemic racial injustices that continue to destabilize communities.  In the midst of all of this, how can we definitively point the finger at the source of the problem?

I am challenged by the fact that I believe litigation to be one of the most destructive forms of intervention, and recognize can be a necessary and effective tool to make meaningful change. Litigation firmly pushes people who likely have complex perspectives on any given situation to take a firm position on one side or the other. It is about exposing one another’s weaknesses to elevate your own position, which can destroy the very relationships we work so hard to create in education settings. Even still, there are times when the injustice is so great that nothing else will do. After all, it was Brown v. Board of Education that catalyzed the dismantling of racial separation in schools.


As big and impossible as these issues seem, I remain steadfast in my belief that we can and we must win for our children and generations to come. For me, winning is about not only equipping our students with the tools they need to be productive in their careers, but also preparing our young people to join us in carrying the same torch for justice that we inherited from our ancestors and forefathers. Today the challenges in our society are formidable: the wealth gap between blacks and whites has nearly tripled over the last 25 years; minority and low-income students continue to attend and complete college at far lower rates than their peers; this country carries 25% of the world’s imprisoned population; Americans with lower incomes and educational levels report higher rates of disease, disability, and poor health; and the list goes on. Addressing these challenges will continue to require intergenerational efforts. We truly lose if our children are so disconnected, disengaged, and skeptical that they can no longer see a community worth fighting for.

Thus, my grand vision of justice has not changed much. Although I continue to be challenged on any given day in the execution, my goal is to empower those who bear the brunt of societal inequities and whose potential may be the most challenging to access. I believe this is the type of advocate our children need and deserve. As I take on the challenge of winning, I ground myself in these core values:

  1. Operate from a fundamental understanding that we are a community. We are inextricably linked to one another and the successes and failures of our students are on us.
  2. Commit to changing hearts and minds. Changing policy and laws is important and necessary work, but along the way, we must invest in the human spirit with the hopes that we are building a community that is committed to seeing the work through.
  3. Do the work in love. As sappy as it may sound, I simply don’t see a win without it.


Candace Moore is a Surge Fellowship Alumna and a dedicated civil rights attorney advocating for education equity through a lens of racial and social justice at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She was instrumental in the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee’s re-launch of the Educational Equity Project. Candace’s work has focused on organizing legal advocacy resources to address disparate school discipline and barriers to enrollment for students throughout Chicago and its surrounding communities. As a next generation civil rights advocate, she believes that it is imperative for members of the legal community to work in partnership with community-based reformers and institutional policy makers to achieve sustainable and meaningful solutions.

The Stories We Miss by Having Too Few Leaders of Color at the Table

My path to work in education wasn’t a traditional one. It wasn’t even rooted in a desire to be an educator. But it has been shaped by a belief that my life experiences and personal narrative weren’t happenstance or a mistake—they were exactly what were required to position me to do the work I was created to do.

Knowing me begins with knowing my mother, Wanda “Patty” Plump Burnette. She would have celebrated her 68th birthday last month. Wanda’s wisdom was often lost on me while she was physically present, but I can now appreciate and comprehend the lessons she instilled in me and I know I wouldn’t be half the woman and leader that I am without them.

At 29, four months after having me, my mother suffered a massive stroke. The outlook was initially very bleak and my family honestly had no idea if she was going to make it. But against the odds she powered through.

My parents divorced soon after my mother’s recovery and she and I returned to her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. Life for us “was no crystal stair,” as she often reminded me. Her medical issues mounted. Life below the poverty line, housing instability, harrowing medical issues and all their associated ills were part of our daily lives.

However, my story isn’t a simple one. And I’m aware of the privilege that was as much a part of my life as the poverty. If you had asked me when I was a kid if I was poor, I don’t know what I would have said. I was clothed, fed and had a village of family and friends who loved and supported me, which wasn’t aligned with my juvenile perceptions of the poor.

Yes, I lived in housing projects. But I was also surrounded by kind people who looked after my mother and me at all times. Yes, there were periods of homelessness after our eviction from the projects. But I wouldn’t have thought to call it homelessness at the time.

There was always a place to sleep—a family member’s spare room, a family friend’s sofa, a motel. I just considered it part of life. My mother’s annual income from disability payments was well below the poverty line, but our home was warm and full of laughter, light, love, music and LOTS of books.

Early on, I was taught that education was paramount; it was my ticket to something better. My mother may never have completed her college degree, but four of her siblings had and three went on to receive master’s degrees. My father was an engineer and my paternal grandfather received an MBA from the University of Chicago after returning from WWII—no small feat for an African-American man at that time.

So while my reality was steeped in poverty, I was held to expectations that knew no bounds and had aspirational models. That was my version of privilege.

Coaching and care by a village of amazing adults, effort and a lot of luck resulted in me excelling in the public schools I attended. I was told to do whatever I could to make a good living, challenge myself and ensure I would always have a job. That translated into a career in chemical engineering for me and later an MBA.

I was almost seduced into a life of social responsibility and mission-driven work at the start of my professional journey, but a call to my mother during my junior year of college put it on pause. It was a call I’ll never forget. I called my mother to tell her that while I was on track to graduate on time (four years in chemical engineering was not easy) and had kept up my grades, I’d had a vision that I was supposed to be in service to others.

Her answer was swift and no-nonsense, as was her way.

“One: You don’t have the luxury of doing what those rich kids you go to school with can do—we have bills to pay. And two: The best thing you can do for poor people is never be one of them…ever again!”

After that, she hung up. There was no discussion or debate. I knew what I had to do.

I now know that she was doing her best to guarantee I charted a different course for my life. Though it was soul-crushing at the time, it allowed me to forge a path that eventually led me to exactly where I was supposed to be.

I never lost the nagging feeling that all the privileges I was afforded weren’t for me. I knew they were about something bigger. For years I addressed the nagging itch by volunteering, establishing mentorship programs with partner schools and the like, but it wasn’t enough.

After living in Chicago and hearing countless stories of the way its—my—children were being underserved, I knew I had to do more. I could no longer sit idly by and think my occasional checks and volunteer efforts were enough.

I dived in, quit corporate America and went to work in Chicago Public Schools and eventually worked my way up to chief of staff of high schools.

Throughout my career, I’ve been shaken by the fact that the further up the rungs of leadership and influence I climbed, fewer and fewer people around the decision-making and policy-setting tables had any shared experiences with the majority of students we served. I was frequently the only, or one of the few, people of color and very rarely did anyone else around these tables know poverty or unequal educational opportunities.

I found myself all too frequently being the sole voice of dissent, reminding others that a single story could never define our students, their families or their communities.

I am tired of the constant references to the contemporary education reform movement as the civil rights issue of our generation without anyacknowledgement that this “movement” is by and large not of, with or by the people. The people suffering from a lack of access to high-quality education are often invisible in the places where their fates, and those of their communities, are decided.

The Surge Institute is born of my desire to ensure that diverse leaders are appropriately prepared and networked to fill the pipeline of leadership in education that often falls woefully short of representing the populations of children and families served. I dreamed of creating an organization that assists oft-ignored and underrepresented education leaders in accelerating their impact and influence across the field of education.

That dream is now a reality.

I took the leap into education over a decade ago with equal amounts of fervor and naïvete. I will never be an education expert, and it’s not my role to be. I have long-lasting relationships with amazing educators throughout the country and have found a place to use my skills to advance their great work on behalf of the students in whom I see myself—and my story.

Reprinted with permission from EducationPost