On the heels of graduation ceremonies in the Twin Cities, Joyce Ester, president of Normandale Community College, sent out a dinner invitation to her go-to support group: other African-American female Ph.D. holders in local education leadership positions.
Eleven of them marked the date on their calendars and showed up at the Bloomington ChopHouse last Thursday evening.
Reunion chatter filled the private dining room as they filtered in. Some noted that they were in the midst of contract negotiations. Others showcased personal milestones, like a new wedding ring. Two spare Lynx tickets found a new home as well.
When a member who’s “notorious for getting lost” made her entrance, the group greeted her with a hearty round of applause and laughter.
In each others’ presence, the women say they find solidarity and affirmation. They also re-energize, in being able to talk about things outside of work, like travel, family news and current events with others they can relate to on so many different levels.
Affinity groups are often used as a teacher retainment tool as schools and post-secondary institutions across the nation look to diversify their teacher corps.
In Minnesota, where only 4 percent of teachers are teachers of color but where students of color make up 34 percent of the student body, diversity in education leadership matters as well. Members of Ester’s grassroots affinity group — made up of presidents, vice presidents, superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals, deans and other top leaders in local districts and post-secondary institutions — are in a position to help shape policies and practices that affect teacher diversity and student success. They also serve as role models for under-represented youth who may aspire to become educators.
While doing that work in a predominantly white, male landscape, they’ve all prioritized spending time together. “We all share a similar story,” said Stephanie Burrage, assistant superintendent of Robbinsdale Public Schools, looking down the dinner table lined with women. “It’s like you made it to home base safe. It’s a safe space. It’s a support group.”
Finding each other
Ester had the idea to form this particular affinity group four years ago, shortly after settling into her role as the new president of Normandale Community College.
During introductions that first year, she says, her title often evoked a double-take: “Oh, you’re the president of Normandale?”
She could never figure out if that sort of reaction came in response to her gender, her race or her Ph.D. credentials.
Then, through some professional networking, she came to discover a few other black female Ph.D. holders.
A reaffirming thought crossed her mind: “I guess I’m not the only unicorn.” So she called them and asked if they wanted to go out for dinner.
“Society would have us believe we don’t exist,” said Ester. “But we aren’t rare.”
When someone told her that a group of unicorns is called “a blessing,” she knew she’d landed on the perfect nickname for the group.
What started out as a group of four has grown to 18, with recruitment efforts constantly under way. While most women work in education settings in the suburbs, the group has extended invitations to candidates located further out — like Mary Hinton, president of the College of Saint Benedict.
The group aims to meet every four to six weeks, at a new restaurant each time. By a show of hands Thursday evening, the vast majority identify as transplants from other states. That includes Sharon Pierce, president of Minneapolis Community & Technical College, who moved here in July 2016, from Maryland. By that October, she says, the group had extended an invitation to join them for dinner.
“For me, it was a network of people I needed to feel part of the community,” she said, noting they offered a sense of sisterhood and helped orient her to the local education landscape. “It was foundational for me.”
The group even proved instrumental in offering hair salon recommendations. “That night, things were getting desperate,” she said, laughing as she thought back to her first dinner with the group.
Carlondrea Hines, principal at Richfield Middle School, says these women help sustain her professional drive by keeping her grounded and encouraging her to “keep on doing the work” — especially once that work took her to the suburbs.
“I didn’t feel the need for it when I was in St. Paul,” she said, noting it was easier to find sources of affinity in a larger metro district.
Grateful for the new support network that helped ease that sense of isolation, Hines extended an invitation to Stacie Stanley, the assistant superintendent of Eden Prairie Schools.
Upon joining the group, Stanely says she found a sense of fulfillment that didn’t exist anywhere else.
She looks forward to re-energizing in an environment where laughter and family updates often take priority. Even when it’s not explicitly discussed, she appreciates the fact that everyone else at the table can relate to the experience of leading in the educator sector as a black female.
“There’s power in that,” she said.
‘A way to restore your soul’
Leadriane Roby, assistant superintendent of Richfield Public Schools, describes coming to these dinners as “a way to restore your soul.”
Latanya Daniels, principal of Richfield High School, agrees. She connected with the group early on, while she was still working toward attaining her Ph.D. She jokes that they all peer-pressured her into crossing that finish line — a milestone she celebrated just a few weeks prior — in order to maintain her membership.
She went so far as to acknowledge these friendships in the acknowledgements in her dissertation, she said, evoking some sentimental sighs around the dinner table.
The feelings of solidarity run even deeper when it comes to experiences impacted by both their gender and race. For instance, many spoke about the burden of “code switching,” or altering the way they communicate in predominantly white work environments.
When they’re together at dinner, though, Daniels says they don’t have to “worry about the second mask” that they wear when they’re “navigating whiteness.”
Many women also talked about the intense pressure they feel, in their leadership roles, to somehow serve as a magic bullet — solving achievement gaps, and creating a more equitable work environment. We’re often seen as “the voice of all of our students of color,” Stanley said.
Gwen Jackson, director of human resources for Edina Public Schools, says she’s been so many “firsts” in her career. It’s a designation that often comes with inflated expectations. But she stays grounded in a strong sense of mission — one that often drives her to shoulder more responsibilities. For instance, she’s mindful not to overlook opportunities like walking at the graduation ceremony every year to show under-represented students “you, too, could do it.”
“There’s an expectation placed on each one of us to serve as a mentor, a role model,” said Rhoda Mhiripiri-Reed, superintendent of Hopkins Public Schools. “I’m constantly managing that tension between managing my organization and mentoring.”
The Minnesota-native spent a period of studying and working in other states, most recently as associate superintendent in a public school district in California. When she came back to Minnesota in 2017, she had to learn how to lead in a new role, in a new community.
Thanks to a phone call from Ester earlier this year, she’s found an invaluable “sisterhood, network, community” in the affinity group.
“There’s been a sense of fulfillment,” she said.