An Interview with Shereen Williams, Charter Board Partners
Shereen Williams, Chief Governance and Recruitment Strategy Officer, Charter Board Partners
Mother. Teacher. magical Black Girl.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
Shereen Williams.jpgThinking about this one, I’m brought back to something that I say when I introduce myself at the start of a training session: “I’m a teacher. I’m always going to be a teacher. No matter my job title, I’m still a teacher.” I have come to realize that the things I enjoy and do well are skills I developed and honed early in my career as an elementary school teacher in New York City. (Shereen pictured at right.)
What are some of your career highlights?
Interesting question. For me, it’s not necessarily receiving an award or raise — those things are great, but what keeps my tank full is when I can have an impact on someone’s life. It is an amazing feeling to teach a class of 5-year-olds how to read. You open up a whole world to them. Some of my work at DC Public Schools afforded me the opportunity to do things with older students that I knew would be life-changing. Whether escorting high school students to a luncheon at the White House with Michelle Obama or to an event to hear President Obama speak, I could immediately see that those were moments that would stay with the students forever. Raises and promotions are great — I never turn down money — but when I look back, those are some of the highlights I’m most proud of.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
I like when I am forced to come up with a creative solution. I’m always looking for creative and innovative solutions. I credit some of this to my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Kahn. Each week, we had new spelling and vocabulary words. Instead of just having a test, we had to take the words and create something. He called it our spelling and vocabulary usage. We made board games using those words, menus, TV guides. It was so much fun to see the creativity of the students week after week. It is something I will never forget.
I will also admit to being a tad bit competitive, so if it involves doing something a bit better than someone else, I am ready. Bring it on.
What types of challenges emerge in your current work?
The folks on my team and I are clear that so much of the work is dependent on relationships. A lot of our work centers on getting people to understand who they are in relationship with and to other people on a board or in the community. It can be challenging to deal with adult egos and emotions. We often remind people to “keep the kids in the room.” Boards can get bogged down in big meaty issues — financials, building renovations, a crisis — it’s very easy to get wrapped up in those things. Sometimes it is difficult to not focus on a problem, but they have to keep the kids front and center. Keep their focus on those who are most impacted by the issue. In different cities across the country, our job is to go in and help a group govern better; however, so much of the work hinges on relationships and helping people work well together.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
I read a lot, although I probably read more before I had a child.
When I think about my development as a leader, two things come to mind. One is a popular book written in 1978: The Road Less Traveled by Morgan Scott Peck. I read it in my 20’s and again after I had my daughter. It’s about living a fulfilled life by understanding what you’ve been through and how it impacts your relationships with other people. Many people, including those in positions of power and privilege, are broken, and instead of dealing with it, they just spread it around and make everyone else miserable.
I also love memoirs and biographies, especially by women and people of color. You get to see how people transform, how they grow, and how they handle adversity. Recently, I have read Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson; My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor; and Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning by Leslie Odom Jr. These books are filled with life and leadership lessons. And, of course, I absolutely cannot wait to read Michelle Obama’s book.
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?
We had a convening for charter school board members of color across the city. We wanted them to connect and to talk about their experiences on the board. Were their board’s inclusive? What were some of the challenges? At that meeting, someone said that often when you’re on a board, you are the diversity, it’s not very inclusive, and you feel like a token. I recall Nicole Baker Fulgham from The Expectations Project quoting scripture about not casting your pearls before swine. Her point was that you could stick with it, work hard, and try to help them move in the right direction, but at some point, you may realize that they don’t deserve your time or your talents. You may need to walk away.
This moment took me back to earlier in my career where someone I worked with would promise everyone the world. We worked with young teachers just starting out, and my manager promised them supports and resources that we were not 100% sure we would be able to deliver. When I shared my concern, it was acknowledged, but the behavior did not change. I decided to resign from that position. Back in the meeting when Nicole said that, it took me back to that situation. Sometimes people don’t deserve your time or your talent, and you have to be in self-preservation mode.
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?
This resonated with a lot of Black women. Looking back on it and what it means to me, it means (and this could be from age and experience) asking for the personal and professional resources needed to do your job well. I’ve been in many positions where I have been asked to make a dollar out of fifteen cents. There may not be a budget or staff for the program, but you are expected to pull off something amazing. And, it is not just at work. We are also running church programs, raising kids by ourselves, and caring for our parents. Black women have shown we can manage all of these things with few resources or supports, but at what cost to our health, wellbeing, and peace of mind? To me, reclaiming my time is asking for the resources and supports I need.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
This question was written for me especially at this time. I had a recent health challenge, so I have been centered and thinking about self-care a lot. I am a single parent, and my 6-year-old daughter is a bit of a firecracker. My parents are in their 60’s and experiencing some health issues. I’m the only daughter, the oldest, and the one who lives closest to my parents. Often, I am in a situation where I am managing my daughter’s needs in the midst of an emergency with my parents. So, I have come to understand the need for self-care. One of the best things for me has been my Peloton bike. I can get a spin class any time of day right in my home. My favorite instructor is Ally Love. She is very uplifting and encouraging. In the midst of the workout she will say, “Whatever is on your mind, put it aside now. This is your time.” Or, “Everything you are not, makes you everything you are.” It is kind of like having a therapist and a personal trainer all in one!
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
It starts with knowing yourself. Pay attention to what you’re good at and what you enjoy. What is it that keeps your tank full? What are you passionate about? What do other people say you do well? There’s a famous quote from Howard Thurman that I often share. He said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Right now, there are Black women thriving in business, politics, education, media, and the arts by sharing their authentic selves and I absolutely love it.
It’s also important to surround yourself with good people. You need mentors and friends who will challenge and support you. Like the meme says, “Behind every successful woman is a group text hyping her up!”