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Claiming Their Space as Black Women Superintendents, Panelists Draw Knowing Nods

By Bryan Joffe |

Six black women superintendents addressed AASA’s National Conference on Education in a wide-ranging session, “Navigating Leadership Under the Microscope: Black Women Superintendents Share Personal Perspectives on Race, Gender, and Leadership,”that covered everything from racism and sexism to self-care and superheroes.

The superintendents, in a panel taking place on Thursday, Feb. 18, talked about the fine line that women leaders, leaders of color and especially women leaders of color must walk due to the systemic inequities that surround race and gender in education.

Superintendent Wanda Cook-Robinson of the Oakland, Mich., Public Schools talked about how some people try to label her as “aggressive” in her dealing. “I’m not aggressive,” she countered. “I’m assertive. And I’m not angry, I’m passionate about helping young people.”

The other panelists knowingly nodded along, having endured the same struggles. These women are part of a lineage, albeit a small one with the latest AASA survey data showing only 2.5 percent of the nation’s superintendents are women of color. These representatives have broken down the doors of diversity and equity in school leadership and they have no intention of letting those doors close behind them.

“We have to not only lead our districts effectively, but we have to mentor women and leaders of color that will come behind us” said Kyla Johnson-Trammel, superintendent of the Oakland, Calif., Unified School District.

While these women have taken on challenging jobs, they also know that they are not superheroes, and they wanted to make sure others’ expectations reflect that fact.

“You end up failing someone every day because you can’t be at every event for your staff, students, your own family,” Janice Jackson, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, said. “You have to learn to become OK with that and continue the necessary and hard work of doing the best we can for the children and families we serve.”

While being black women provides valuable life experience on racism and sexism, it doesn’t imbue all black leaders with the skills to lead a community-wide conversation on race, bias and systemic inequities. Monica Goldson, CEO of Prince George’s County, Md., Public Schools talked about leading 1,000 learners in a common reading of the book, Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, to become a better learner and a better leader on matters of race and bias.

Ann Levett, superintendent of Savannah-Chatham County Public School System in Georgia, charged that for leaders like her fellow panelists “there is no lazy way to do this job. But our history (the history of black women in America) is one of finding a way, making a way and persevering.”

Levett added: “We cannot separate ourselves from who we are or the history of the country, but we are in a position to make it better.”

All six of the superintendents admitted they have experienced racist and sexist comments and treatment over the years, but they described public education as “a calling” to which they had proudly answered and said they would continue to claim their space, without apology.

The panelists discussed ways to ensure their sanity in a job that takes a toll, especially during this past year. Carol Kelley, superintendent in Oak Park, Ill., wanted her fellow leaders and the audience to remember to make time to care for themselves and instructed listeners to “protect their peace.”

One member of the audience, Marion Smith, superintendent in Summit School District in Colorado, summed up the feelings of many in attendance with this tweet: “We see you. We hear you. We appreciate you. We honor you. Thanks for an honest, reflective, poignant & informative session & for all you do for our scholars across the country!”

(Bryan Joffe works for AASA’s Children’s Programs Department)

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