Why Surge says “Latinx”

The pen is mightier than the sword and all that jazz. Words are the key to victory. Assessment and mutual understanding lead to connection. Dialogue leads to treaties.

Oversimplified, but you get the idea.

In the grand scheme of language, the term “Latinx” is brand new. It is a new iteration of a long and storied history of a group of Americans taking control of the labels placed upon them. “Latino,” “Brown,” and “Latin@” were all evolutions that occurred both within and outside these communities. And each evolution has been hotly debated at every turn.

“Latinx” came into existence in recent years and has specifically gained traction as a powerful act of resistance against gender hierarchies and binary categorization for Latinos and Latinas. There are many places to learn about the origins of the term as well as the positive and the negative responses to it.

This is a good example.

So is this.

As a national nonprofit aimed at lifting up education leaders of color in service to the underserved children of the United States, we at the Surge Institute strive for progression and forward-thinking in all our work. It’s what our mission is all about. This forces us to be cognizant and thoughtful about the many social justice movements arising in this country alongside our own, particularly as we expand our work to progressive spaces like the Bay Area. We must make ourselves part of every conversation that presents new and more inclusive ways to talk about the communities we seek to serve.

Inclusiveness. That’s the key.

The 2018 Chicago Surge Fellowship is made up of 24 emerging African-American and Latinx education leaders.

When the question of using the term “Latinx” came up, we gathered as an organization. Our entire team—in Chicago and Oakland offices— came together for a deep discussion on whether to officially adopt the term into our language. And that discussion did not end until every voice was heard.

Some team members were enthusiastic about “Latinx,” praising its progressive acknowledgment of the gender spectrum. Others were concerned about its potential trendiness and disregard of years of the ethnic complexity and diversity of identity of the Latino community. Latino and Latina members of our leadership team fell on different sides of the argument, presenting thoughtful and valid arguments for why they did or did not identify with this relatively new term.

We also sought the guidance and opinions of Latino and Latina Surge Alumni, who were honest about their love, hate, and indifference for the term. The process was thorough, but never thorough enough, and it was both enlightening and taxing. There was no consensus—nor could there ever be—but we needed to make a decision.

So we leaned into inclusiveness.

Ultimately, no individual is forced to identify themselves using a specific term. We are who we choose to be. Not all black people like the term “African-American.” Not all African-Americans like the term “Black.” We understand what is meant by the terms and that’s enough for a dialogue to begin. Each individual is free to self-identify.

But as organizations, companies, institutions, we must be well-intentioned in how we use language. In disregarding the term “Latinx,” which seeks to include, we disregard a growing population of people with gender non-conforming identities, who are already made to feel like outsiders. As people of color, don’t we feel that way enough? We are framed as the “other” plenty. Let’s not do it to each other.

Our intention is to be inclusive and see the beautiful spectrum of leaders across race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. We want to create spaces of love, healing, and transformation. We need leaders to show up in all their power, genius, and courage so they can transform education spaces for the communities and children they serve. That is our mission, and our language should reflect that. By adopting this term into our language, Surge is saying we want Latinos, Latinas, and all in between and beyond those parameters to shape the future of education for our youth. All.

Language is messy. So are labels. But vocal clarity in inclusion is just as important as inclusion itself. We have communicated an effort at unity, and hopefully, that message is clear.

We welcome emerging Latinx leaders to this movement.

We see you.

The Full Circle

by Ashley Richardson 

Back in May, I was having breakfast with a friend, who was interested in applying to become a 2018 Surge Fellow, when a number I did not recognize appeared on my phone.  We were deep in conversation so I ignored the call. After my friend and I said our goodbyes, I realized the urgency upon seeing multiple missed calls from the same number along with a voice message. As I headed to my office I called the number back. What happened next would prompt a major shift in my professional life and leadership journey.

Less than two weeks after that call, I accepted a new role as Executive Director of Spark in Chicago. Like many transitions in life, the opportunity was unexpected. Yet as I reflect upon it now, I realize this moment, this new role, completes a full circle journey that began more than three years ago.

When I applied to join the inaugural Surge Fellowship cohort in 2015, I did not get accepted.  I was crushed. But I sought feedback, and after receiving it from Carmita Semaan and the Surge team I knew I had work to do if I was wanted to be fully prepared for the opportunity the next time around. Despite my disappointment, the Surge application and feedback process helped me articulate my aspiration to lead a nonprofit organization focused on creating mentoring opportunities for students.

Growing up in middle class neighborhoods across the Midwest and East Coast, I was fortunate to be exposed to a myriad of opportunities that expanded my view of what was possible for my future.  All of this exploration was made possible with the support of mentors who inspired me to dream big and a strong educational foundation that equipped me with the skills to succeed. Yet far too many young people in Chicago do not have these opportunities. It is the reason I am deeply passionate about helping black and Latino youth gain exposure to diverse experiences and make connections to caring adults who can help them realize their potential.

A year and a half later, I applied to the Surge Fellowship again. In the time between applications, I had transitioned to a new role and refined my vision for my leadership. I was still passionate about providing students with mentoring opportunities but focused less on the job and more on the impact.

This time I was accepted.

I am now an alumni of the 2017 Surge Fellowship. The experience prepared me to seize the opportunity at Spark when it arose. My Surge journey was not only about gaining the executive  skills to be a more effective leader but—most importantly—Surge allowed me to develop confidence in the distinct perspective I bring to the work as a black woman.

In my new role at Spark, I’ve found my dream job and I am in a position to provide students with the opportunities they deserve.  Yet my story doesn’t stop here.  In fact, this is just the beginning. I have a renewed sense of responsibility, an obligation to remember where I came from and use those experiences to shape how I lead. I must dream bigger and fight to ensure middle school students understand, experience and pursue what’s possible. That doesn’t mean self-doubt doesn’t still creep in or that I won’t face challenges, but through Surge, I now have a village of supporters to help me combat any obstacle I face and whose work I can amplify to create even greater opportunities for our kids.

About Ashley Richardson

Ashley Richardson is the Executive Director of Spark in Chicago, a non-profit that engages communities to provide career exploration and self-discovery opportunities that help middle school students understand, experience and pursue what’s possible. As Executive Director, Ashley has overall strategic and operational responsibility for Spark Chicago’s regional staff, program, expansion, development and mission execution. In addition, Ashley is an active member of the organization’s national leadership team, shaping key opportunities and strategies for Spark organization wide.

Ashley previously managed special projects at The Chicago Public Education Fund (The Fund), an organization whose current efforts seek to more than double the number of high-quality principals in Chicago. Ashley holds an Master of Education in education policy and management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from Vassar College. In her free time, Ashley enjoys exploring Chicago’s great restaurants, volunteering with iMentor Chicago and developing her salsa-dancing skills.

To Be a Surge Fellow

by Nina Sanchez

“The problem isn’t that we tell poor kids they can make it. The problem is we haven’t made a world for them where that’s true.”

-Linda Lutton

Education Reporter, WBEZ

The View from Room 204

We know none of us can single-handedly create a world where all kids succeed.

Instead, we create pockets of this world in school buildings, classrooms, cafeterias, offices, or huddled over desks, where we earnestly whisper, ‘you can do this, don’t give up,’ and ‘I believe in you.’

Every day, my Surge Fellowship colleagues and I square our shoulders and show up. We hold ourselves (and others) accountable for chiseling out spaces where excellent education happens—spaces where students understand that they matter and that they are appreciated on both the good and the bad days. We carve out spaces in a rocky terrain so that teachers, administrators, and decision-makers come to understand that the measure of their success is not simply reflected in test scores, but how well they reflect the lives and contexts of their students in everything they do and the decisions they make.

We show up every day, and our daily experiences often play out like a live tableau of the most recent news stories about education budget woes, violence, and regional poverty. We are witnesses, taking it all in from our own personal vantage points. Our sustained sense of optimism and resolve means that we feel the rug pulled from under our feet each time these forces snatch a child away. We feel our hearts in our throat each time we are forced to sacrifice one more essential from a budget. Our breath is taken away when we see kids devalued by adults or when the prison-school nexus crystallizes tragically before our eyes. The rug gets pulled, and we fall.

We land hard, and not always on our feet. We’re never numb to the landing.

At Surge, our GroupMe and monthly soul sessions are a refuge, offering respite and personal connectedness beyond the connections we intrinsically feel to our own values. We come seeking encouragement, a hug, and a prayer and we come seeking to give these things as well. These spaces are both a sanctuary and a place of great opportunity, because they are revelatory. We exist within them without the real and perceived barriers to cross-sector collaboration.

We are reduced to our why and are open to challenging the how. Our diverse perspectives as African-American and Latina/o education practitioners enrich our conversation and keep us proximate. In these moments, I have come to fully understand our potential to be game-changers and life-changers in education and in our city—not as individual leaders, but as a collective that eschews casting blame in favor of taking action.

Let’s not leave our sanctuary behind when we leave our monthly Surge session. Let’s take the time we need to feel the pain, anger and tears that make our why seem wrought and feckless at times. Let’s take a moment to wring our hands and angrily demand that education officials stop gambling with the lives of our kids in the name of narrow-minded “fiscal responsibility” or wielding political influence.

Let us feel that fleeting sensation of wanting to give up and then, let us remember who we are and why we are here. When we have done all of that, let us seize upon our own power and take a step forward, together, to create the wide world our students need to succeed. Let’s not leave our sanctuary behind but let us carry it with us.

Let us carry each other.

We can take this step; we must take this step, if we ever hope to spark change felt beyond the walls of our particular time and space.  Instinctually, we know that we cannot address grades if we do not address hunger or trauma or access to stable housing. We know we cannot address college persistence if we do not address the wealth gap, violence, or unequal access to opportunity.

I urge us all to think about how to expand our lane instead of staying in it. We do not own time but our moment in time dictates that we emerge from our sanctuary empowered to frame the big picture. Our moment in time dictates that we stand together in the spirit of our Civil Rights pioneers, our farm labor organizers, our religious leaders, and women, whose aspirations of a multi-racial coalition to address poverty and equal access were cut short by time. Our moment in time dictates that as African-American and Latina/o Chicagoans, we seize upon the vestiges of the Harold Washington Coalition to find common ground and become world-changers.

Let’s be more than witnesses.

Let’s be a voice.

About Nina Sanchez

Most recently, Nina Sanchez served as the Director of Talent Management & Regional Lead, Diversity, Equity, & Inclusiveness for Teach For America. Nina has dedicated her career to ensuring that first generation and underrepresented students have the support they need to get to and through college. She began her work in direct service to students and subsequently moved into roles designing, implementing and scaling effective programs aimed at dramatically increasing the number of students who persist through college. 

Throughout her career Nina has grown into a guru of strategy and implementation, boosting and evolving the efforts of every organization she has served. Going forward, Nina’s work continues to support the disenfranchised and underrepresented, inspired by her own experiences and propelled by continued advancements.

The Power of your Story

In my work for the Surge Institute, I find myself reflecting personally on our fellowship program objectives. Recently, none have resonated with me more than the power of one’s personal story.

My story matters and makes me a better leader.

That’s the crux of the objective. For me, this means a journey into my childhood. In the past two months, I have chosen to intentionally proclaim my story as the son of an immigrant.

I am proud to be the son of an immigrant whose parents overstayed their visitor visa. I am proud to be from a family that survived deportation. The 2:00 a.m. immigration knock on my parent’s apartment in Little Italy ended with my mother Josefina and my father Rito in handcuffs, being processed for deportation. My mother, who was seven-months pregnant, found the mercy of the courts and was allowed to stay because of the baby in her belly. My father did not find that same clemency, was deported, and as a result did not witness my birth.

Soon after my birth, we joined my father in Mexico. I treasure the few memories I have of growing up there and am grateful that my first language is Spanish. I am proud that English is my second language. I am proud that my citizenship helped my parents to eventually become residents of this country.

This is my immigrant story.

My identity, strength, and purpose as a leader is intertwined in this story. This story led me to become a teacher and a principal in the very community in which I grew up. When asked why I lead, I am reminded of Cesar Chavez’s words: “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”

Every single time I drive through the streets of Chicago and I see my people, in either frigid cold temperatures or suffocating heat, selling tamales, paletas (ice cream), fruit, and cotton candy.  I quietly thank them because their sacrifice reminds me that we both share a similar story and I am grateful. I choose to see their dignity and I acknowledge the strength in our collective narratives.

More recently, familiar elements of my story have taken center stage. The vitriol that currently exist in our country is taking a toll. My heart breaks as a result of the hatred, xenophobia, and racism unleashed toward so many of our immigrant neighbors. This anti-immigrant narrative, full of micro-aggressions, hate, and misinformation has place families, friends and children under the siege of fear and stress. Silence, anonymity, and obscurity is now palpable in many of our communities in Chicago.

And so I proclaim my story.

“The anti-immigrant logic has basically saturated our world. I’m staying, and I’m fighting,” said Junot Diaz. I am fighting by being intentional to share my story as an immigrant in every possible circle, space, and encounter where I can. I have chosen to share, to bring light and to compel others through my story. This is the least I can do. We must create a counter-narrative to the vitriol. We must challenge the current dominate narrative and we must be intentional in our approach.

Let’s continue to tell our stories in power!

Rito Martinez

Vice President of National Programs


The strategy of counter narrative and counter story telling can be one small but intentional strategy of resisting and fighting back. Below is a quote and a resource:

“Counter story-telling stems from critical race theory, which began around the mid-1970s.  Solorzano & Yosso (2002) define counter-storytelling as “a method of telling the stories of those people whose experiences are not often told” (p. 26).  So, counter-stories can be used to expose, analyze, as well as challenge deeply-entrenched narratives and characterizations of racial privilege, sex, etc.  In this sense, counter-stories can help promote social justice by putting a human face to the experiences of often-marginalized groups.”

Click here to learn more about counter storytelling.

Schools Don’t Look Like Me

The bell rings.

The doors open.

Little faces exhibiting curiosity, anguish, joy and uncertainly enter the school building. Colorful clothing, rumbling footsteps, uncontrollable laugher, and at times inaudible conversations about life permeate the stairway as children disappear into classrooms. These students whether in black leather “church” shoes or Jordan Retro 12’s venture into these spaces to acquire knowledge in hopes of reaching heights only imagined.

Once students have entered the classrooms they place their belongings in coatrooms or hooks and prepare for the day. The teacher whom most often greets them with “good morning” seldom looks like them. Today children represent many ethnicities, cultures, and religions. In fact, the American school system is the most diverse its ever been. However, the faculty in many American schools are white and the majority of these teachers are women. Where are the Black male teachers?

During my sophomore year at the University of Minnesota I knew that my calling was to become a teacher. Out of the hundreds of students in Minnesota’s school of education less than 10 percent were African-American and, even more striking, just 1 percent of those that would commit their lives to this work were black males. Being closely tied to that 1 percent, I would often self-reflect on my own personal experiences. What made this picture even more vivid was cycling though memories, looking back at the countless teachers who taught me while a student in Milwaukee Public Schools and realizing that in my 13 years of elementary, middle and high school education only one of my teachers, Mr. Harris, was a black man.

I realized, as a black male educator, that my 11 years in an elementary classroom were atypical. Because as I reflected on my professional network it was comprised of well-connected, highly educated and impassioned teachers, none of whom looked like me. There is a lot that comes with being the only in a school. Being treated as the “black savior” of the toughest kids of color, confronting daily micro-aggressions with colleagues, becoming a wordsmith in an effort to articulately check misinformed teachers, and feeling as though you are under a microscope is a hefty burden to bear.

We are in a national crisis and we need more black men in not only our schools but in our classrooms as well. “America’s teachers are disproportionally female (75 percent) and white (83 percent), according to recent federal data. Black men make up less than 2 percent of teachers, though minorities now make up a majority of students in public schools”. Our black children do not see reflections of themselves in teaching or in administrative positions. In addition, our boys lack the male role models whose presence alone can instill values of worth and purpose.

There are programs that understand the urgency of supporting black male educators and there are national initiatives encouraging black males to consider being teachers. Bottom line, our boys of color, especially our black boys need black men to mentor them, coach them, guide them, teach them, and love them!

In sixth grade Mr. Harris told me I would be great. He said I could attend an Ivy League university if I put my mind to it. In his presence I felt that I had the power to change the world. He wasn’t the first teacher to believe in me, but he was the one that mattered the most. Mr. Harris, wherever you are, thank you for believing in me, and know that ya boy attended an Ivy League, Columbia University, and I am changing the world.

The Drum Major Instinct

I recently visited the Center for Human and Civil Rights in Atlanta, GA.  As the exhibits retell the sobering experience of the Civil Rights movement, much of what I saw was very familiar to me.  I have immense respect and admiration for the sacred stories of our ancestors and each time I hear them, I try and find a new point of inspiration to move forward.  I entered the center feeling very heavy, mostly driven by the recent events of our country.  As I meandered through the building, I stumbled upon the exhibit that illustrated the assassination of one of my personal heroes, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  From the time I could comprehend his story, my mother ensured that I read and watch everything I could find.  From that point on, I began to develop a deep and profound respect for this incredible servant leader.  

As I moved up the stairs to the section that replayed excerpts from his funeral, I decided to sit down and watch the footage.  The voiceover of the footage was Dr. King’s sermon entitled, “The Drum Major Instinct.”  Initially, hearing the sermon, I assumed that I had heard it before, so I didn’t pay attention to the words.  All of a sudden, it seemed, that his words got louder as if tapping me on the shoulder.  They began to shake me.  They began to cause my nerves to vibrate at every utterance of this incredible reminder for all of us that seek to serve.  As soon as I got to my hotel, I began to dissect this inspiring piece of work.

Rev. King charged the congregation to seek greatness, but to do so through service and love.  He put forward the idea that deep down within us, we all want to lead and be out front, just like the drum major of a band. Rev. King also warns us that we must be careful not to fall victim to the pretensions of privilege, titles and accomplishments.  He calls it the “Drum Major Instinct.”  It’s a shorthand way of speaking about the relentless, though perhaps unconscious, desire to be number one. While those in the social justice, peacemaking and civil rights movements might assume that Rev. King was only addressing the wealthy and the powerful, it would be a mistaken assumption.

As an education reformer, I have observed the dialogue shifting from debate to pontification.  I’m guilty of this, and I assume that we all are guilty of this behavior at some point. The most recent example I can point to is the fierce public debate of the appointment of our new Secretary of Education.  At some point, I noticed the message of the movement getting drowned in corrosive political dialogue. I stopped to reflect and ask myself, “how is this serving our kids?”  The fact of the matter is Betsy Devos is in her role, and until she isn’t, we must remain vigilant.  Now more than ever is the time for Ed reformers to decide how we’ll invest our time.  We’ve spent nearly 40 years trying to disrupt the system of inequity that is determined to subjugate the most vulnerable. The current administration cannot undo this work unless WE fall asleep on the job.  We must stand out front and guard our babies with every ounce of ourselves.  We must not fall into the trap of allowing our desire to be heard to be turned into pernicious, dangerous and unharnessed ambitions.  

I’m calling on my fellow ed reformers to properly harness our drum major instinct and allow it to fuel true human greatness: “to be first in love, to be first in moral excellence and to be first in generosity.”  It does, at times, feel as if our progress is being erased by breaking news alerts and executive orders, but Rev. King called on us to lead committed lives.  We cannot get wrapped up in accomplishments and accolades.  We must commit our lives to peace, justice and righteousness.  Only when we do this can Rev. King’s message of inclusivity, humility, and charity be fulfilled.

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that’s all I want to say.”

Let’s model this for our kids, the way Rev. King modeled it for us.


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.

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.


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