Starting with the “Why”: A Conversation with Emerging School Leaders

It is up to each of us to look in the mirror and make a choice about where we fit in this struggle.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Collective is Teach For America’s National Alumni of Color Association. It is founded on the belief that alumni of color play a unique role in helping students achieve educational equity.  On February 1, 2013, The Collective hosted its first School Leaders of Color Conference in Los Angeles.  Rick Esquivel and Melody Levine, two attendees at the conference, reflect on their experience.

Rick: One of the themes of the day was about how to refuel ourselves in this effort to ensure that students of color in this country have equal access to a quality education.  Which parts of the day offered you the most fuel and sustenance?

Melody: I’ll admit that I didn’t have a good idea about what I was walking into.  I knew that we’d be digging into diversity and talking about educational equity issues, but I had no idea that we’d spend that time learning from some of the most successful and inspirational leaders in education today.  

I was immediately taken aback by the opening keynote from former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent and education leader Dr. Howard Fuller.  Dr. Fuller has been supporting school leaders in charter networks across the country to rise up to be strong student advocates.  Dr. Fuller reminded us that as school leaders we must understand how to achieve educational excellence within school walls, and also understand the context of the community outside of the school.

Melody: Given your experience of growing a school and leading families and faculty through change, I’m curious: How do you inspire and mobilize communities?

A series of concentric circles, with the words "What, How Why" in them.

Rick: I reflect on this every day. I currently lead the secondary school at Larchmont Charter School, where every year we introduce a new grade level.  Ensuring that our student body is diverse and representative of our community is critical.  

A major part of doing this work is to empathetically listen to people to ensure we respond in ways that speak directly to them.  The Golden Circle is an ideological tool that I often reference when thinking about how to inspire others. The golden WHY in the center is where the most inspirational leaders start.  All of the conference speakers reminded us of the importance of delivering messages that are grounded in the WHY.

During my first year, I devoted a significant amount of time talking about program, teachers, classes, and facilities.  I invested very little time talking about the vision of the school and WHY Larchmont’s educational model is special. The following year, I modified my recruitment plan to ensure that I focused less on the day-to-day and tapped into the emotional state of families looking for the best school choice for their children.  I delivered a message that provided families with a vision for their child in high school, college and beyond.

Rick: After more than a dozen years working with traditional public school districts, you’ve recently joined the PUC (Partnerships to Uplift Communities) charter network of schools in Los Angeles.  Do you think you heard Dr. Fuller’s message differently now that you work for a charter organization?

Melody: Dr. Fuller’s message was relevant for all leaders in the room, no matter their color or educational “denomination.”  He reminded us that “50 years after the decision much of the promise of Brown still awaits fulfillment.” He asked us to be courageous, passionate, and have the courage to break the rules of our past success.  

If traditional public school districts aren’t moving fast enough to educate our children, educate our children faster somewhere else.  Leaders are needed in every educational system, so it is up to each of us to look in the mirror and make a choice about where we fit in this struggle.  Will we be the leaders or will we stand aside to cheer on others who are more courageous? 

Rick: Did you leave the conference with a stronger sense of who you are as a female leader of color?

Melody: Absolutely. Dr. Ref Rodriguez’s words still stand out in my mind: “Intersections of self-interests help us build relationships to achieve goals.”  If you know your mission, you will find others working toward a similar mission, and you can pool your strengths to collaboratively achieve your goals.

This was a time for us to show ourselves, a time to explore the role we want to play in the mission of educating students who look just like us.  


Join our diverse force of leaders shaping the course of our nation.