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

HELP FOR HELPING PROFESSIONALS: Managing “Self” While Caring for Others

Our passion for servant leadership brought us here. Our innate desire to make a positive impact on the next generation of leaders guides our path. As helping professionals (therapists, educators, social workers, etc.), we live the duality of working daily with our students while simultaneously grinding behind the scenes to make substantive changes to reform education. As rewarding as doing the “work of the heart” can be, possible collateral consequences such as burn out, fatigue, and neglect of personal self-care can come with doing this work. This reflection is for the working professional who is charged with caring for others, but is not always “present” to preserving self.

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, author of Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide for Self While Caring for Others, defines trauma stewardship as “the entire conversation about how we come to do this work, how we are affected by it, and how we make sense of and learn from our experiences.” This concept is rooted in an understanding of the incredible honor and responsibility that comes with being present for others. As we create spaces for everyone else in our professional lives to honor their hardships, experiences, and criticism; how are we mindful of our own “stuff?”

In my role as the Assistant Dean of Students at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), I manage both academic and non-academic complaints alleging violations of the Student Disciplinary Policy. Our office facilitates the processes, through an administrative action or hearing panel, which ultimately renders decisions accessing responsibility and issuing appropriate sanctions for violations of this policy. The sanctions range from warning to expulsion, or permanent removal from the University of Illinois system. I often hear from many colleagues that they would not want my job. Even I must admit there are days that feel very heavy in my professional identity: The nature of working with people, in difficult spaces, can take a toll of you. Though I am devoted to being present for every student that goes through our conduct process, I do not allow myself to own their experiences. I facilitate their conduct process; I am not responsible for the decisions that were made that brought them here. My role is to educate, challenge, and support them in this process and beyond. This reframed perspective not only empowers me to do this work; but it creates vital boundaries necessary to sustain me in this work long-term.

As helping professionals, it is critical that we are intentional about developing a plan to preserve “us” while we are there for others. Lipsky reminds us, “We [must] develop and maintain a long-term strategy that enables us to remain whole and helpful to others and our surroundings even amid great challenges.” We must be mindful not to assume the pain or paths of those whom we serve as our own. This requires us to be conscious of what we take on. We must accept that we cannot be everything to everyone, at the same time. Sometimes it even means saying, “No” to others, which means saying “Yes” to ourselves.

Trauma stewardship can be an essential framework in nurturing your own life in order for you to continue to be a blessing in the lives of others. I would like to offer five tips to help you embrace your own trauma stewardship:

  1. Live the Advice You Offer to Your Students: It is amazing how often I have witnessed colleagues give their students advice on a wide variety of topics; however, when they are faced with the same challenges, that advice becomes null and void. For example, we encourage students to “step outside of their comfort zones” all the time, but how often do we live those words? Giving advice has a modeling behavior component to it. Our future leaders are watching. If you can empower your students to take risks, what is stopping you from stepping out on faith? For example,
  1. Take Vacations and Use Your Sick Time: Vacation and sick time was allocated for a reason. Plan a vacation and actually take it. Rest. Unplug from your personal devices. Whether staycation or far flung international destination, a change of scenery goes a long way towards restoration. When you begin to feel yourself getting sick, take your sick day. Take care of yourself. See this as a sign from your body to slow down. I know, what about all that work you have to do? Trust me, it will get done. Taking good care of you means the people in your life will receive the best of you, rather than the rest of you.
  1. When in Need, Ask for Help: Having a village of support is critical to your short and long term success. Give serious thought to the role you play within other support circles and the roles that others play in your circle. Outside of your village of family, friends, mentors, and colleagues, do not be afraid to tap into professional services such as a doctor for medical related issues and a therapist for those matters of the mind and heart. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it is a symbol of strength and self-awareness.
  1. Practice Self Care: Exercising regularly, reading a book, or spending some quiet time alone are all examples of what it means to practice self-care. Self-care looks different for everyone because we are all different. You must dedicate time to gaining a better understanding of what you need to care for yourself. I encourage you to care for yourself with the same time and energy you would dedicate to others. You must infuse self-care activities into the permanent fabric of your daily routine. They are a part of the work that you do, not outside of your work.
  1. Focus on the Positive: In our profession, we encounter many things that make it hard for us to smile sometimes. We help people through many difficult situations. When it is all said and done, it is easy to focus on the negative aspects of what we have experienced or helped others get through. I believe it is in these moments that I challenge you to take a different approach – focus on the positive. Instead of thinking about the stress in a scenario, zero in on the positive aftermath. Lipsky highlights, “The positive strength and growth that can result from an individual’s struggle with crisis is called Post Traumatic Growth. These newly found strengths might include survival skills, self-acceptance, and a greater appreciation and understanding of life in general.”

Trauma stewardship means remembering the privilege and sacredness of being called to help. We are not in this movement in isolation. We are bonded in our universal passion and commitment for our youth and education. You are important. Embrace the trauma stewardship that comes with doing what we do best – transforming the lives of others WHILE making sure we are free to live an authentic life of our own!