An Interview with Rhonda Broussard, Founder & CEO, Beloved Community

Rhonda Broussard recognizes the importance of shared humanity as she advances sustainable economic equity and the tensions that emerge in this important work.  As a life-long educator, the murder of Michael Brown, Jr. challenged her to examine her assumptions about the ‘saving power’ of education, and in many ways, helped her to found Beloved Community.

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

Rhonda Broussard, Founder, and CEO, Beloved Community

Lovely. Creative. Strategic.

Twitter: @broussardrhonda Blog: One Good Question    LinkedIn

Tell me about your current role?

I founded Beloved Community almost two years ago and it’s my next step in my commitment to shared humanity. As a career educator, I founded a network of charter schools in St. Louis focused on total language immersion, serving majority minority students receiving free and reduced lunch. I was convinced that ‘getting it right’ in K-12 education was setting kids up for real choice and real access. When Michael Brown Jr. was killed, it was the most difficult year to be leading our work and navigating the physical safety of our kids. One of our campuses was across the street from St. Louis police headquarters, so there was a heightened police presence during the riots. Our second-grade classes looked out at the police department and got used to seeing protests. We taught kids how to organize and protest, make change in their lives, and offered reassurance for how to protect kids in our communities. If my education theories were true (about getting it right and having students graduate) then Michael did that; he had his diploma. The reality of his death made it more difficult to think that education alone could change our youth’s trajectory. (Rhonda Broussard pictured above.)

Eighteen months later, I was planning to return home to Louisiana. In a conversation with a funder, he challenged my perspective by saying that he understood why people talk about education reform as a social justice movement, but the federal budget has a $670 billion-line item for education. Great ideas for kids are not going to disrupt the power structure, if they don’t disrupt the economics. I had spent my entire career in public education but couldn’t have told you the federal budget. I appreciated his perspective.

We still struggle with the vestiges of slavery and went through a war to resolve that. What will it take to make appreciable, sustainable change on the equity front? Beloved Community was born out of that question and the recognition that education alone can’t solve for society’s inequities. I believe that we can build our communities differently than we have been — encompassing social justice, business/nonprofit, and government perspectives. These groups may have different reasons for being on the train, but if we design right we can get going in the same direction.

In Fall 2017, we launched Beloved Community to advance sustainable economic equity. We piloted our first two programs: Equity in Schools and Equity at Work last year. If we get equity right in schools, but students graduate to a workplace that doesn’t respect their humanity or provide a livable wage or access to professional growth, we won’t reach economic equity. We work with schools and employers to increase sustainable operations for diversity, equity, and inclusion for all of their stakeholders.

We’ve designed a set of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Standards and Indicators that guide organizations through a head and heart approach to equity. Governance, finance, operations, school pedagogy, or program, adult and student culture — these are the elements that need to be in place for diversity and inclusion to be achievable and equity sustained. Often, when organizations start their diversity, equity, and inclusion work, they center their initiatives around talent and people, but if organizations are not focused on finance, operations, and governance assessment, then they are not going to get to sustainable practices. We organize all the indicators into a single framework and create implementation plans to move the work forward. When we talk about sustainable practices, our goal is that even when the charismatic leader leaves, funding streams dry up, and legislation changes, the work continues.

What are some of your career highlights?

I started teaching at 17 when I taught middle school during summers with Summerbridge. The most courageous things I learned about connecting with youth and families and leading with joy came from that work. I learned about relationships and management through that experience. As a teacher, I moved around the country. I taught high school in Ferguson, dropout recovery in Los Angeles, and at an affluent, public prep high school in Connecticut.

I had my daughter while living in Brooklyn. I knew that I wanted to raise our kids closer to family, so we started planning our first move home. When Katrina hit that fall, we didn’t move back. We returned to St. Louis where my ex-wife was from, and I started the charter management organization there. There wasn’t a school for my kids who I was raising to speak French. I asked myself who will love my brown bilingual kids of lesbians? Which school will nurture them, let them be and not question any of that in their lives? How do we make space for the little Rhonda who is being raised by her grandparents? I aimed to create a sense of belonging for kids from all different kinds of family backgrounds.

Other highlights include being an Eisenhower Fellow in Finland and New Zealand in 2014, being an Aspen Fellow, and part of a charter school network accelerator focused on helping schools serve youth better at scale.

One thing I loved the most in that part of my career was watching my kids grow up in our schools (my daughter is now 13 and my son is 10.) I could stop by their classrooms for reading time or class projects. When I started building Beloved Community, I put up sample logos from the design team and asked my kids to weigh in. Both honed in on our current logo and, when I explained the concept of our work, my daughter said, “People are gonna pay you to do that?” (Laughter.) Having my kids understand what I do and why it matters is the biggest accolade.

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

There’s a Thich Nhat Hanh quote that sums up my leadership journey: “The larger your beloved community, the more you can accomplish in the world.” My leadership has always been about bringing more people into shared vision, investing in them to grow and lead in ways that only they can, and building something bigger than any of our individual strengths.

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

One of my favorite recommendations is Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance by Jonathan Fields. Fields aptly illustrates the start-up journey across lots of sectors and really hones in on what it feels like to step into uncertainty. I feel like it captured my experience as a social entrepreneur and helped me normalize lots of the challenges that I faced.

In times of reflection, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is always helpful. Each time I read it I think I know the answers about where I’m supposed to be in life, but then something shifts. It reminds me to put my own hubris to the side.

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?

The most chronic tension is, ‘are we doing things to community or with community’? It’s something that has guided me since my earliest experiences in education. Young people are already powerful leaders in their lives, not leaders for the next generation — but leaders who can do this work now. If we adults make space, we can build in concert with them. This tension shows up in every single aspect of my work. Starting my teaching career at Summerbridge, in a space that valued young voices and young talent, set me up for lots of confrontations everywhere I went afterwards. Throughout my entire professional career, I’ve had locs. When I had job interviews in the 90s, friends would ask me what I was going to do about my hair. I said, “Look, if a team can’t accept me, my hair, and my physical presence, then they won’t be able to handle my pedagogy either.” My appearance has always shown up as challenge. Once a board member asked if I could make my locs a little neater. Early on I learned how to show up as young black teacher — often as the only black faculty member and only out gay faculty member.

At one point, I was chairing the diversity committee for a school and had proposed a series of professional development workshops for the district. One included supporting LGBTQ families and students. A state education group had designed the training and teachers could to sign up to attend during early release professional development time. The assistant superintendent refused to include the LGBTQ support session as an option for teachers. She didn’t just refuse to include it — there were two to three months of belligerent and demeaning communications from her and her office. This culminated in a meeting with her, me, my department chair and my principal. I was 24! The assistant superintendent said she was there to protect me from the shame if no one signed up for workshop. I let her know that I didn’t need protection, nor would I be embarrassed by low turn-out. That was the clearest exercise of power and control I had seen in my young career. The high school ended up doing the workshop just for our teachers, but that was a really painful experience. I am 43 years old and still tear up telling that story.

There is a point where we are expected to be more concerned with self-preservation, but if we are making space and providing actual cover for kids to get what they need, then we need to accept the repercussions. Those tensions are the biggest ones. I built shared power at my charter network and taught kids to go beyond adult-presented content and advocate for themselves and their own learning. It was amazing to create a network where that was expected pedagogy and to bring more educators into the possibility of elevating student voice; it’s not just parent and faculty climate, student climate matters.

In the D&I (diversity and inclusion) sector there’s often a push on inclusion and whether there is a seat at table. Does voice matter? To what extent does one’s voice impact decisions? This requires that named leaders are ceding power. I work with leaders on how to cede power.

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?

I operate in spaces where I have formal and informal power. As an organizational founder, I don’t usually have to experience demeaning, adversarial exchanges with folks. The biggest one was with the board of my charter school network. We had honest communication, and on most things, collaboration. Towards the end of my tenure, they were definitely wasting my time. The board questioned our expansion viability and my recommended model. They brought in an independent evaluator who reinforced my model recommendation. The board wanted more data and model analysis. They spent months wasting my time and my staff’s time to run new models and still get the same outcome in terms of the proposed recommendation. Ultimately, the board’s model wasn’t the strongest one. When I left the organization, it was evident they were not going to uphold work that was right for kids because they just wanted to be right.

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

I’m a dancer. I practice a number of styles represented by the African diaspora from Cameroun, Mali, Congo, Senegal, and Ivory Coast. I started studying West African dances twenty-three years ago and more recently I’ve added Haitian, Cuban, and Brazilian dance forms. I need to move my body. I’m in a local dance company here [in New Orleans] and my kids are stilt walkers with the company. I breathe differently when I’m dancing and it’s the one place where I am not thinking about any other societal problems, crazy board members, planning my next talk, or doing budget scenarios. On a good week I dance three times a week.

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

Spend time to get to know yourself, your identities, and your values. We get lots of input from home, faith, school, and work about who we should be and how we are supposed to operate in the world. If you can quiet those external voices and spend time with self, set aside ego, that will tell us what we need to amplify and how we really need to show up for ourselves in any space. Understand where you are centered and where your power is. Build on that.

Sometimes we get stuck thinking there is only one way to lead and we try to perform in that way — especially when we are the only black woman in the room. Make space for your leadership to be true to you and your leadership style.

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

The first thing I would change is the space for us to show up in the skin and hair that we are born in. It doesn’t seem so radical, but I wish I had a timeline of when my locs became acceptable — even to other black women. Media representation has shifted in the last five years to include more natural hair and dress, and it impacts how we show up for ourselves. In the social sector, there is a lot of status associated with approximating male power for our voices to be heard. I’m trying to think of when I freed myself from the heels and pant suits and was able to show up in earthier outfits. We are making strides; I would like to see more of it.

To check out Beloved Community’s Equity Audit, click here.

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