Bold Leadership: Black Leaders Discuss Identity, Responsibility, and Collaboration

Millicent, Carmen, RecyIn our BOLD Commitment to EQUITY series, members of Team 2020, our Executive Leadership Team, share how their work helps to eliminate educational inequity to advance social justice. In this installment, we interviewed Chief Financial Officer Millicent Chancellor (top left), Chief of Staff Carmen Darville (top right), and Chief Operating Officer Recy Benjamin Dunn (bottom left) about how their individual identities and backgrounds guide their work, their responsibilities as Black leaders in executive seats, and collaboration.

How does your individual identity and background guide your work? 

Carmen Darville (CRD)– My identity as a Black woman committed to service through education is the lens through which I view my work.  As the youngest daughter of a school counselor and an attorney called to become a pastor, service and education were deeply embedded in my formative experiences. My mother was bussed across town to integrate schools on the south side of Chicago and my dad was the first Black partner at a predominantly Jewish law firm. Despite being the only Black girl in my class until fourth grade and my parents’ historical experiences, my identity as a Black woman still was not crystalized. I remember vividly seeing Ann Best, former Executive Director of Teach For America, and realizing that if someone that looked like me could lead in such an impactful capacity, I could lead too. While the emulation of my mother and women like Ann were undoubtedly foundational in my own identity development, it became an unwavering priority when we had our daughter and I realized that I would be her primary source of influence as she matures and grapples with her own identity. I hope to be relatable in that same way for others – I hope they can look at me and see possibilities for themselves. Fun fact: When I was a teacher, they were always confused about “what I was.”  My students said they, “had never met a Black person who looked or sounded like me.”  Maybe it was the eyes, maybe it was the name, maybe it was because I could understand Spanish, but it allowed me to be a utility player as multiple student groups thought I was “one of them.”

Recy Benjamin Dunn (RBD) – My dad is Black and my mom is white. They were married in Galveston in 1969, two years after the Loving decision that struck down the anti-miscegenation law in Texas and 15 other states. Back then, there were not a lot of mixed marriages. My dad was a student in the first Black class to integrate Ball High School in Galveston, the school my mom attended. The prejudice and mistreatment they endured was despicable. When I was born, my parents moved to the suburbs of northwest Houston, but it was not much better. I remember from an early age the stares from people when we are out in public as a family. Stares of wonder, disdain, and disgust. I remember the nigger jokes told by my childhood friends, who would afterwards say, “No offense.” I remember the labels of Yellowbone, Redbone, Mulatto, Halfbreed, Zebra, Oreo, High-Yellow, Mixed, Mutt, and some choice expletives. This early experience of not fitting in with Black folks or white folks sparked a fire whose embers smolder to this day. I bring that edge and my unapologetic desire for large scale systemic change to my work. Because of this history, I want to fight for Black and Brown folks and underrepresented voices across this country.

Millicent Chancellor (MYC) – My siblings and I were the first to go to college in our family and we grew up in a very segregated town in the south that is still largely segregated today.  When my parents made the decision to send my oldest brother and me to the ‘white’ schools before ‘full’ integration, it was very controversial, and I often felt like we lived in two worlds: one black and one white. In my community, the most educated black people were teachers and they were highly respected.  And although, my childhood aspiration was to become a teacher, I chose a different career track to pursue the area of finance and accounting in Corporate America in hopes of escaping the small-town attitudes that I faced while growing up and making life easier for my parents and me.  I encountered many affronts being the first black woman to reach new management levels at both PWC and Halliburton, but I loved the work of accounting and finance and the ability to help other people succeed along the way.  After leaving a long career in Corporate America, I volunteered for several organizations to fulfill a desire to help people in need and use my talent to ‘give back’.  When an opportunity to support the mission of YES Prep doing something I loved for decades came about, I leaped at the opportunity.  While I enjoyed my previous work in Corporate America, it has been more enjoyable to have an opportunity to do the same work to help underserved children have and achieve dreams of success.

As Black leaders sitting in executive seats, what additional responsibilities do you have? 

CRD – In my role, I try to use my voice on behalf of the people we serve – our students, their families, and the staff who make it all happen.  Fundamentally, the chair that I sit in is not meant for just me.  I sit in that chair trying to capture the voice of authentic Blackness, unashamed femininity, professional mothers, and the ‘against all odds’ students. It is my responsibility to make room for others including teammates not present whom I represent and those who will come after me and are currently sitting in our classrooms. I live with the double consciousness DuBois describes as I try to be true to myself while representing the voices and beliefs of so many others who don’t have the opportunity to be in the room.

RBD – I feel the need to be a positive role model and reach into the organization to mentor and provide access to other people of color. A Black CEO of a non-profit once told me that we (Black people) were never going to be able to network our way into the room. I take that to mean that, while we continue to gain access and seats at the decision-making table, those who have power will often find ways to hold onto that power or to have a conversation at another table we are not a part of. As a Black leader, I strive to call this out when I see it and advocate for justice in all spaces. As MLK said in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. …We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it is demanded by the oppressed.” I believe it is my duty to demand freedom and to blow up the status quo.

MYC – In Corporate America, I felt part of my role was to make certain that I represented my race very well and prove to white Corporate America that the stereotypes that were held about black Americans and other non-whites were false. Consequently, I felt I worked harder, built the most diverse teams, fought for pay equality of my team and in many cases produced more than my counterparts along the way. It was a long time before I realized that it wasn’t my responsibility to prove the stereotypes were wrong, but it was Corporate America’s responsibility to see the error of their ways. As a Black leader in an organization serving the underserved, I am compelled to ensure that I use my financial talent to put people and systems in place that will ensure that YES has a secure future poised for growth. It is my responsibility to ensure that YES has the ability to serve the underserved for as long as the need exists, especially for kids who look like me and are trying to overcome the same obstacles that someone else helped me to overcome along the way.

How does your experience differ when you are not the only Black leader at the table? 

CRD – Working with other unashamed Black leaders provides an opportunity to share the responsibilities of advocacy, consciousness, and education.  I never have to speak for all Black people and can maneuver as an individual–not a token. When I have had the privilege of sitting beside others in executive spaces that share elements of my identity, it adds a sense of community and an unspoken understanding.

RBD – Being a leader can be lonely. Being a Black leader in education is especially lonely. Seeing Carmen or Millicent sitting across the table gives me hope and makes me feel happy to not be alone. I appreciate that we have the opportunity to speak our own truths and for our white colleagues to have the opportunity to hear that Blackness is not a monolithic identity. My experience has shown me that the generation before us was connected by a common struggle. Leaders in civic organizations, schools and churches often came up together and knew one another in ways that this generation doesn’t seem to. I hope there are ways we can recreate some of that ethos from days past—an ethos that is about connection to a Black community, a common agenda, and a common path toward social justice.  If we know other Black leaders, we know we are not alone and can find ways to check for each another.

MYC – My experience at YES differs on many levels.  The primary difference is working with a team of like-minded individuals whose sole purpose is to serve the underserved.  Having other like-minded Black leaders at the table is icing on the cake.  I am humbled by their boldness and unwavering dedication and although I am the gray-haired leader, I learn so much from their approach to our mission and their work.

How are you engaged in local, state, and national Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work, given your roles at YES? 

CRD – I collaborate with other Charter Management Organizational (CMO) leaders locally and nationally by comparing resources and lessons from our experiences.  When possible, I try to attend events to engage more deeply with the DEI thought-leaders of color and our allies who are maneuvering successfully through dominant spaces. The DEI work is complex and unending, so the opportunity to shorten my educational journey through the lessons of others is energizing. The energy I gain from learning more about the work across the landscape assists me in positioning myself to be a more empathetic, better-educated, and thoughtful practitioner of the work.

RBD – I collaborate with other leaders in K12 education on the work of DEI. I have tried to be a voice of truth in those conversations. While I am excited about the ever-developing work of DEI, it strikes me that many of these conversations didn’t start in earnest until some of the founders and leaders of charters and related organizations began to have school-aged children. I feel conflicted as I find myself wondering about the motives for such changes. It seems that we as an education reform movement began having conversations about diversity issues when the largely white leaders and voices in education reform decided they were ready to have such conversations. I remain hopeful that we will continue to challenge privilege and power as we drive for more diversity, equity and inclusion. I am excited to see positive momentum with the work by Jeanine Fukuda at Portland Public Schools, Sonia Park at the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition, and Carmita Semaan, founder of Surge Institute.

MYC – I meet often with my counterparts at other CMOs who are also serving predominantly black and brown children. We readily share best practices and together explore solutions to problems that we face because there is so much work to be done and because we can do it faster and in larger ways when we engage with one another.  I often chuckle at the fact that in Corporate America, I would never have been able to reach out to may counterparts who served the same customers and delivered the same products because we were hardcore competitors (not to mention there were laws against certain interactions).  It is so refreshing to not have to re-invent the wheel so to speak and to discuss with my CMO counterparts uncharted solutions to issues that we often face together. There is so much to be done in the area of finance and accounting, most of which happens behind the scene, to ensure YES’ students of today and tomorrow receive an education that will give them a leg up in a world that has yet to value diversity, equity and inclusion for all people regardless of race, sex or color.

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