An Interview with Nicole Brisbane, Executive Director NY, DFER

For more about the Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership series, click here.

Nicole Brisbane, Executive Director NY, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER)

Education is Liberation.

Twitter: @DFER_NY

As a former teacher, “education is liberation” is Nicole Brisbane’s mantra. In this interview, Nicole shares her wisdom on building political power and why it’s necessary to define leadership on your own terms.

Tell me about your current role.

As the New York State Executive Director for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), I work mainly on the political side of influencing education policy. A lot of times in the world of education and education reform, folks think they will win since they have the right ideas; that they will win based on merit. The system is based on influence. Ensuring that good ideas have political teeth is DFER’s focus in New York. (Nicole Brisbane pictured at right.)

What are some of your career highlights?

I think one of them was definitely being a middle school reading teacher in my hometown of Miami. I knew I would be a lawyer most of my life, but teaching was the most exhausting, rewarding, and challenging experience. Being trusted with people’s most prized possessions – their children – and being trusted to teach them when I was 22 years old and fresh out of college. That was about 13 years ago and I’m still in touch with many of the students I taught. Some have graduated from college, gotten married and had children. There’s no greater impact outside parents than teachers.

Another highlight was graduating from law school. That was very exciting and I was the first in my family to do that.

The first time I asked someone for over $1 million and actually got it. I’ve done a lot of fundraising and a singular ask for a seven-figure gift is a pretty big milestone.

If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?

I feel like the headline is, “Don’t Let Anyone Define Your Leadership but You.” Oftentimes Black women in the work space are constantly being criticized for one thing or another. I’ve seen it in almost every job I’ve ever had – whether it’s being micro-managed or critiqued for your style of leadership. Our commentary on the way work is being done is often judged as aggressive in white dominant culture. We are taught to be passive aggressive which isn’t natural for us. We don’t have time or the luxury of being passive aggressive. A lot of the Black women I work with are direct. Folks will try to mold you into what they think leadership looks like, but you need to define it for yourself.

What are your favorite types of challenges?

Ones that have a clear end point. I really like working on projects with clearly defined goals where I know whether I was successful or not. In the political space I have a hard time since there is not a clear end goal to impact policy for Black and brown families and children. Seeing incremental progress towards larger systemic social problems is harder to grasp since there does not seem to be an end point for educational equity anytime soon.

What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?

The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz. Those four agreements have been so grounding for me in doing a self-check when having challenges in the work place and in life. There are overarching themes. One is being impeccable with your work. Earlier in my career, I over promised and underdelivered. I had to learn to under promise and overdeliver by doing more than what was expected. It changes others’ perceptions of your work quality and product when you can do that. Plus, the expectations for women of color are often higher without that ever being explicitly stated. The other is don’t take anything personally which has been challenging in my professional career. If I didn’t accomplish a goal, it felt like a personal failure to me. I didn’t consider the external factors. I use tenets from the book to self-check when I’m facing a myriad of challenges.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho offers the idea that the universe conspires to get you exactly what you need. This idea is helpful personally and professionally when I run into absurd roadblocks. You will get where you need to be eventually. If it works out it was supposed to and if not then it wasn’t supposed to.

Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?

In my current role, I work with two major constituencies – elected officials and donors. Both have key interests in the political process. Elected officials generally want to serve their constituents and donors want to influence those elected. Oftentimes, donors want the elected officials to support their views independent of any intersectionality. Politics and decisions policymakers craft are not in a bubble. I find myself trying to educate donors who are politically strategic that choices elected officials make are all interdependent. I work to get donors to look at systemic change in a more holistic way. I try to bridge the gap and educate donors on the values held by Black and brown people when they have no context for that. I also still need their funding when we disagree.

Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?

Early on in my career I worked with a boss who went out on maternity leave. I was hired, we worked together for two weeks, and then she was gone and left me in charge. I was a senior person and had to assume a lot of responsibilities while she was out, including community relationships. When she returned she wanted to reclaim those relationships, though folks wanted to continue working with me. I knew the community, was educated there and taught in that school district. There was tension between who owned which relationships; she started checking my calendar and micromanaging me which felt oppressive. She felt threatened that I was trying to take her job or that I had more credibility than her. I had to directly reassure her that I wanted to work collaboratively and suggested ways for us to own different relationships. I reclaimed my time by managing that process and affirming her leadership.

That sounds miserable. Why didn’t you quit?

I didn’t have the luxury of quitting. It was my first job out of law school and I had a lot of debt. I was on a regional team and had interest in working on the national team. I finally got promoted, but she blocked me the first time it was offered. I still got the job, but it wasn’t until I built the relationships with people on the national team myself. The universe conspired to get me the job that I wanted at the right time.

What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?

I live in New York, but my family is mostly in Miami. I’m the oldest of seven siblings and spending time with my family is so rejuvenating; they are so fun. My parents are both remarried so essentially, I have four parents and a fun, energizing, and amazing family. My youngest sibling is 16. It’s helpful to put my life in perspective when I can go home and hear about some of the challenges my parents and siblings are facing. I think they see me as a beacon of strength and support; it’s nice to go home and be that for my family.

What advice would you offer other Black women trying to amplify their voice and become self-advocates?

You need to know yourself – your strengths and the things you’re not good at. I think it’s important to find jobs where you can leverage those strengths and not be expected to lean on your weaknesses. I think they are weaknesses for a reason and you should be in positions where you get to be your best self every day. Find ways to build that into a job even if it’s not a central responsibility – take on projects that will allow you to leverage your strengths.

Find people who will tout your success and value outside of your direct manager. Having colleagues that will speak up on your behalf, who have worked with you, and know your skillset speak up for you is critical. Be that for others and you will see people start to do that for you too.

If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?

Putting more Black women in leadership, decision-making positions. We are often the supporting cast to someone else – it’s like a formula in the social sector. We are in external facing roles to liaise with the community because we lend credibility to white-led organizations. We are not in a position to be heard, rather in a position to tell others why the white-led organization is legitimate. It’s a hard place to be because when we voice concerns internally, they get seen as criticism. If social sector organizations are supporting Black and brown communities then they need to be led by more Black women.

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