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Charter Board Partners

Perspective & Commitment Impact School Leadership

August 01, 2017 | by Chinesom Ejiasa

As part of our ongoing initiative to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in charter school governance, we asked board members of color who are participating in our efforts to write about some aspect of their experience or observations of race and diversity at play in the charter school board setting. This is the first in the series. The views expressed here are the author's own.

Chinesom Ejiasa served on the board of Washington Latin Public Charter School for six years, including as chair, and was, until recently, Director of Investments at Africa Integras.

Chinesom EjiasaI served six years on the Washington Latin Public Charter School board in Washington, D.C.—some of the best and most influential years of my career, bar none. During that time, we undertook the financing and development of a $24 million facility, the creation of a 5-year strategic plan, and a successful executive search to replace our head of school, who was the heart and soul of our institution. A lot happened in those six years and it required an engaged board. It's important to know the circumstances of the school you'll be serving and, thus, the corresponding dynamics required for your board.

When I joined the board, my focus was not on the fact that I was somewhat of a significant anomaly in that I was Black and relatively young for serving on a board. My focus was on my pure desire to do right by students of Washington Latin. I really was bright eyed and bushy tailed and that served me well because it made my objectives quite basic. If you're thinking of joining a board, do so for similar reasons that transcend any personal interests or objectives, otherwise you won't stay long in the role—it will feel too burdensome otherwise. 

Not focusing on my race was subconscious but proved deeply helpful. I'm no different than my colleagues who served with me on the board, and I knew (subconsciously) they were going to see that through my work ethic. I immediately enveloped myself in the finance committee, the governance committee and the academics committee. I knew I had a lot to contribute and moreover that I had a lot to learn and wanted to learn and I dove right in in all respects. And this energy and commitment served me well when it came to matters of diversity (particularly because I served on a predominately white male board) later in my tenure (years 3-5). Don't get me wrong, the conversations weren't easy, but no one (or at least very few) questioned my objectivity or my commitment to the school's mission, and that allowed my opinions to resonate more soundly across the board. So in short, my initial piece of advice is know and act like you belong.   

Diversity is unequivocally critical for many reasons we don't talk about. We often simply talk about the diversity of skin complexion, which is very important because, let's be honest, we define some, if not many, of our role models by who looks like us. So if you don't see anyone who looks like you in leadership positions, that can have adverse impacts; in particular in the context of youth. But it's more than the complexion—it's the cultural background, the upbringing, the life experiences, and so on that breed a certain perspective that adds volumes to a conversation, particularly when as a board you're serving a diverse population. Diversity of thought can and should impact a board's and leadership's decisions around leadership composition (e.g., strive to ensure your teacher and faculty body mirror your student body), pedagogy (e.g., don't just read the conventional classics; rather, infuse other equally rich texts from other cultural backgrounds into the curriculum) and other matters. So when you speak of diversity ensure that it incorporates not only skin color.

Be willing to listen and "educate." If our goal as a minority base is to effect positive change, it often times means you have to show patience, because surprisingly these matters are not well understood by all. We all have our blind spots and you have to show patience and be willing to educate. 

Our board, fortunately, had key members who were vocal: Black and non-Black members. This made the conversations more fluid, so leverage your vocal "champions." At times you have to tease them out a bit but other times they are more than willing to proactively state their opinion. And in that vein, know that the matter of diversity is not about any one individual (yourself included) but rather about the betterment of the school. It really is such a critical component to the success of a school and if the topic is framed in that manner, you'll be certain to gain support.  

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