Coffee Break: Carmita Vaughan on Comics, the Cool Kids in Education Reform, and Not Being Fake

Jun 15, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Caroline Bermudez

Carmita Vaughan is the founder and president of the Surge Institute, which selects and trains people of color to become leaders in education reform. In a previous life, she worked for Fortune 500 companies but changed careers to work as chief of staff of high schools under Arne Duncan, who formerly led Chicago Public Schools before becoming U.S. Secretary of Education. In a conversation with Carmita, she geeks out on graphic novels, shares the story of why she formed Surge, and explains the importance of being unapologetically herself. Are you a coffee or tea drinker? What kind? I am a tea drinker all day. As a matter of fact, I have hot tea with me right now. I think coffee is like beer—if you don’t start drinking it early enough in life, you never acquire a taste for it. What kind? It shifts during the day. I always start with black tea in the morning, which will either be Earl Grey or English breakfast with a little lavender. And then I shift to white, and my tea before bed is usually something herbal—it might have a nip of bourbon in it, to be quite honest. You used to be a chemical engineer. What drew you to the sciences? This is one of those nature-versus-nurture questions. My father is an engineer and though I didn’t grow up living with him, there’s a part of me that thinks there just might be something in my DNA. My mom was excellent in math. I’m a problem-solver. What drew me is that there is a right answer and I am obsessed with there being an answer. In business school, the ambiguity of some of our strategy work would drive me up the wall because I like things to be concrete. It’s why I do Sudoku puzzles every day. What don’t people typically know about you? I love comic books. I’m really into sports. I’m a huge music fan. What comics can you recommend? My favorite writer right now is Brian K. Vaughan. He’s done a couple of series. My favorite is Y: The Last Man, which was amazing. A more recent one is called Saga. Saga is about these two adults who are from different tribes and different worlds in the galaxy but have found love. They’re not supposed to be together, but they have a child. Was there a lightning-rod moment of inspiration that led you to start Surge? My best friend is a career educator, whereas I’m a transplant into the work. One of my lightning-rod moments was talking with her and recognizing that for someone like her who student taught, went directly into the classroom, became a National Board Certified teacher, worked her way up to an assistant principalship, and then got her Ed.D., even with all that preparation and doing all those steps—whereas I, a person who had just entered this work—in only four or five years was getting access and opportunities that she was far removed from. She said to me, “People like me, we feel homeless.” When I asked her to expound on that, she said, “On the one hand, there are people who have been around 35, 40 years who have no desire or interest in innovation or accountability.” On the other hand, she talked about what was the “cool kids’ club,” which are the folks who have done either Teach For America, or came into this work from another sector, or work in charters who see teachers like her, more traditional educators, as part of that old guard. Surge was about acknowledging that there are people—and for me, they were leaders of color—who have shown themselves to be solid thinkers and contributors in the space, but who are missing access to be able to continue their learning and development. Do you think there is a cool kids’ club in education reform? Is there a sort of exclusivity? We are unknowingly setting up these elite barriers to entry for people who have amazing skills but not the “pedigree.” What are your thoughts about Robert Pondiscio’s post on the lack of ideological diversity in education reform and the heated debate it’s sparked? To characterize this as a new conversation does a great injustice to a number of people, most importantly the leaders of color who have been pushing this conversation for quite some time. I think it was 2014 I sat in the audience at the NewSchools Summit—I’ve been going for lots of years—and heard Arne Duncan call out the audience, frankly, on their whiteness and their disconnection from the students we were there to talk about. You could have heard a pin drop. There were audible gasps. The Black and Brown folks in the room were looking at each other like: About damn time! It can’t just be the burden of the Black and Brown folks who are always pushing this. As for the article, it’s this odd conflation of politics and race because people want to make it about left versus right. Marilyn Rhames had an awesome response to this—just call it what it is, which is you’re uncomfortable talking about race and you’re uncomfortable talking about race as it relates to the work that we do. There isn’t an either/or. We don’t have to stop talking about instruction and academic performance in order to talk about the reality of race and equity and the role that social justice plays. Do you still find yourself straddling two worlds? Marilyn wrote in that post on NewSchools about people of color constantly having to monitor what they say or their appearance. I have grown tired of the monitoring. My work demands that I show up as authentic as possible at all times. We don’t have time to be fake. I had a conversation with a young Black man who’s just starting out in the work. He asked, “Do you talk about Black and Latino leaders? Do you say it that plainly?” I said, “Yes, every time! Full stop!” I never water down what I do, what I believe—at least when it comes to Surge—in order to make people more comfortable. I probably would have said something very different if you asked me five years ago. I’m sure that has sometimes made me rub people the wrong way and there are maybe opportunities I don’t have because of that. But what I have gotten in terms of support, advocacy, and true believers have far outweighed whatever I’ve lost.
Photo of Carmita Vaughan.

Caroline Bermudez

Caroline Bermudez is chief storyteller at the Charter School Growth Fund and former senior writer at Education Post. Bermudez has been a journalist for almost 10 years. She was staff editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, covering the nonprofit world, with a particular focus on foundations and high net-worth giving. She has interviewed prominent business, political and philanthropic leaders including Colin Powell, Ronald Perelman, Carl Icahn, Patty Stonesifer and Eli Broad. She also assisted with The Chronicle's Philanthropy 50, its annual ranking of America's most generous donors. A proud graduate of Chicago Public Schools, she has a B.A. in history from Swarthmore College.

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