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!

Happy MLK Day!

I hope that you had a wonderful weekend and have found some way to recognize and honor the rich legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I’ve been reflecting on the legacy of Dr. King and the countless others who fought for justice in the face of dangers, threats and turmoil I can’t even imagine.  It gives me pause to be reminded that he was assassinated at the ripe age of 39.  I’ve thought, “What have I done with my 38 years of life?  Whose life has been changed based on the work I’ve done? Am I an example that inspires others?”

And in the midst of those thoughts, I saw a great message from my dear friend, and leadership consultant Terra Winston.

“There’s greatness inside of you waiting to be released.  When your legacy is written it won’t be defined by your mistakes.  It will be a reflection of your best, as long as you are willing to share it.” — Terra Winston

I had the great privilege of moderating a panel of 6 amazing, witty and thoughtful young people in Los Angeles this past week. Hearing their candor and openness about their challenges, accomplishments, joys and fears filled my heart with awe and hope. I realized in that moment that my doing something as small as moderating and facilitating a conversation was BOTH allowing an audience of educators to hear directly from students their true needs, desires and experiences AND catalyzing and encouraging a next generation of leaders, trailblazers and game changers. In that moment and with that opportunity all that was required was my best – for the adults and students in the room. I simply needed to be the spark to allow greatness to flow through and to others.

As we start this new week, reflect on the example you are providing to others. Are you sharing your best at all times? Even when the stakes seem low? Even when you aren’t being rewarded or acknowledged? Dr. King’s life epitomizes this and is a wonderful reflection upon which to ponder for 2016. Sharing the very best of you has immeasurable ripple effects. So here’s to being the change.

Leadership Diversity: Go Big or Go Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Here By Mistake

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

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

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

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

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


Pearls of Wisdom for Leadership

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

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

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

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

Speaking Truth to Power

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

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

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

I was absolutely floored!

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

Surge is Here

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Love is in the air and The Surge Institute is officially on the map!  Today I received news from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that they are investing in the launch of Surge!  That amazing investment, coupled with funds from the Walton Family Foundation and Schusterman Family Foundation plus early start-up/business planning support from New Schools Venture Fund, means that Surge has now topped the ONE MILLION DOLLAR mark in fundraising in just over 15 months! (Yes, I DID just have a Mike Meyers/Austin Powers moment) How amazing is that?!?

This support from large institutional funders is totally game changing for Surge.  Not only does it allow me to build a small team to bring the organization to life, but it also gives us tremendous credibility throughout the sector. And this is just the tip of the iceberg!

Expect to see social media and other outreach in the near future as we try to spread the word about this work which we believe will greatly impact the future of education equity and reform efforts – first in Chicago and then throughout the country.

Snoopy Dance time!!!


The Founder’s Story

Carmita Semaan is the founder of the Surge Institute. Carmita grew up with her mother, Wanda Burnette, in Birmingham, Alabama. Wanda was unfortunately disabled by a debilitating stroke shortly after Carmita’s birth, resulting in harrowing medical issues and life below the poverty line for this divorced mother and her child. This backdrop has greatly shaped who Carmita is, what she values and what she believes her life’s work is destined to be.

Through grit and assertive coaching by Wanda and a network of supportive adults, Carmita pursued the honors track at her public high school, graduated with a Chemical Engineering degree from the University of Michigan and landed a position with Procter & Gamble. She later studied at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where she thrived as a student leader and was selected to study abroad at the London Business School. She then took a role with Danaher Corporation, where she engaged in global product management before deciding to connect her skills to her passions for urban education, eradicating poverty and revitalizing urban neighborhoods through the Broad Residency in Urban Education.

Through the Broad Residency, Carmita joined Chicago Public Schools (CPS) under the leadership of Arne Duncan, who became the US Secretary of Education under President Obama. Carmita served in a variety of roles, including launching the Office of Graduation Pathways and serving as the Chief of Staff for High Schools.

After four years at CPS, Carmita left to become the Chief Strategy Officer for America’s Promise Alliance, founded and led by General Colin and Mrs. Alma Powell. She returned from Washington, DC to Chicago to lead Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy, known as CURE, in honor of her deceased mother who suffered from the disease.

In 2012, she left CURE and began to pursue her dream of creating an organization that assists often ignored and underrepresented education leaders of color in accelerating their impact and influence across the field of education.

As a participant in various fellowships, Carmita has seen the unique benefits of the cohort-based approach to development and has worked diligently to increase access to these tables for other leaders of color. The Surge Fellowship is born of her desire to ensure that 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.