An Interview with Soenda Howell, Principal, Charter School Growth Fund
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Soenda Howell, Principal, Emerging CMO Fund, Charter School Growth Fund
Reflective. Advocate. Learner.
Soenda Howell reflects on her career highlights, her quest for equity and the upliftment of Black and Latinx communities, and why she has a “word ritual” that guides each year.
What would you like to share with me about your current role?
I am an Investment Principal of the Emerging CMO Fund at Charter School Growth Fund. I lead the work that focuses on supporting the growth of high-performing charter schools led by leaders of color. Through the Emerging CMO Fund, we provide philanthropic and technical support to leaders who want to add one to two more schools. (Soenda Howell pictured at right.)
What are some of your career highlights?
Two: being principal, and my current role. The first highlight is having the opportunity to be with the same group of students for four years and seeing them become young adults. Members of the founding class graduated from college this past year or are on the path to college graduation, which is incredibly exciting.
The second highlight is my current role. In this role, I work with leaders of color who are leading high-performing schools that serve predominantly Black and brown communities. I think these two experiences pop because they affirm the importance of us—Black and Latinx people—truly leading the charge and leading our communities to positively influence future generations of leaders. The only way to see positive, lasting change is for us to take a lead and own it. In my work, I get to see that in action every day.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
Lead with your values. There were many different choices I could have made along my journey. When you have a good sense of your values, you can draw on them when making decisions—especially difficult decisions. It doesn’t necessarily make decisions easier, but values make the path clearer. Knowing my values have helped me to feel anchored, feel consistent, and eliminate a lot of the noise and distractions.
Another one is linked to the Mandela quote, “I never lose. I either win or learn.” Any time I feel like I made a mistake, I always come back to that mistake leading me to another opportunity. Keeping this in mind helps me not to over-dwell.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
My strength is Restorative on StrengthsFinder, so apparently, I love solving problems. (Laughter.) I love challenges where I am building something from scratch or sustaining beyond me. I love to figure out ways to realize a vision or idea and then create systems to sustain it so it can continue without me. I get energy from setting vision, throwing lots of ideas to the wall, and coming up with a path forward. When it comes to sustaining an idea or vision, I am most excited if it is something that ultimately leads to equity. I like moving from idea/vision to launch, but in the end if what I’m solving for doesn’t drive towards equity, I’m not as invested.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney C. Cooper. I read it recently; it was thought-provoking and affirming. It digs into how Black women can own their rage and keep on persisting. Beyoncé, Serena, and Michelle are fierce Black women and are examples of this. Rage reminds us that we, as Black women, don’t have to settle for less. The book is honest and goes into how racism, classism, and sexism intersect and oppress Black women and we have to persist. We persist by not being silent or submissive. We use rage to garner strength and sisterhood. It truly captures Black feminism and what it means today. In a way, the book gave me permission to feel all the feelings around how the deck is stacked against me, but also didn’t let me off the hook for being less than great.
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?
I was working for an organization where we were interviewing principal candidates. During the interview, a candidate shared struggles that her high-performing school faced. She talked about how often she felt unsafe around the school, but inside the building was a safe space for students and teachers. As she kept talking, I realized she was talking about the neighborhood school I was zoned to attend. She went on to talk about the violence, drug activity, and fear of kids going out to recess. Part of the interview asked about the community’s barriers and assets. With multiple probes, she couldn’t think of one real asset of the community.
I really struggled in that conversation, personally and professionally, based on how she was talking about the community. This candidate checked all the boxes: strong data analysis skills, instructional practices, and classroom management. I had to make a choice about how to speak up, and how fiercely to speak up, based on my interview with her. Her other interviews went well. I knew that if I spoke up, I would have to share parts of my background that I wasn’t expecting to share in that setting. It made me question whether the rest of committee—people I worked alongside for years and respected—would value the ability to see strengths in a community versus having strong technical skills.
Ultimately, I decided to speak up and share my opposition to her candidacy. It was hard. I had to keep persisting so that others “heard” me, and I felt the rage and frustration rising. What helped were two other women of color who “heard” me and validated my point. Our voices combined made it clear that the candidate wasn’t the right fit for our kids. That experience affirmed two things for me: 1) always speak my truth and that my truth is valid; and 2) it’s incredibly important to have more leaders of color at the table where key decisions are made about our communities.
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?
First, let me just say I have an Aunty Maxine pin that I wear when I need a good reminder of my own strength. This is something I’ve gotten a lot better at over the years. I’m really comfortable giving feedback or pushing back, especially when someone has infringed upon or tried to take my time. I have gotten better at being my strongest advocate.
The clip of Representative Waters reclaiming her time was a good reminder for me to reclaim my time, my joy, my strength, my rage—all of me. I have control over me, no one else does. I reclaim my time and energy and use it for what is most important to me. Having a good sense of what’s important to me makes it easier to reclaim my time. As I’ve gotten older, it’s a lot easier to stand with strength and confidence in that.
What’s your approach to self-care? Do you have any rituals to survive and thrive?
It has definitely evolved over the years. Earlier in my journey, I wasn’t as good at it and had a few moments where I was stopped in my tracks by my body saying, “Ha! You think you’re going to ignore me? I will show you.” Now self-care is a non-negotiable and really about balance for me. There will be times when I need to grind, and I will now make sure that I plan accordingly so that I can restore.
I’m a huge introvert, so people-ing takes a lot of out of me. I restore by journaling and writing to fill my tank. I’m also mindful of what I need to do physically: sleep, diet, exercise, and being kind to myself. It requires being incredibly self-aware of what my body, mind, and soul needs and then giving it to her.
A yearly ritual that I practice is that I choose a theme word that embodies my vision for the year. I am intentional in how I live that word and will set goals to fully live my theme word. It guides how I make decisions and I regularly reflect on how I’m honoring my theme word. What does my theme word look like in action? For example, two years ago my theme word was Leap—it was about taking lots of swings. Last year it was Slay, and it was a year of grinding. Last year, I had to be intentional about self-care because I knew it was a year of hard work. This year, my word is Emerge, which is about savoring and reveling. My theme words have helped me to focus my time, energy, and attention throughout the year.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
Be brave. Take more swings and leap more. Don’t limit yourself. Anything and everything is possible.
Be yourself. If that means doing work to get to know yourself better, then do it.
Keep your sisters close. The connections that you have with other Black women are important. They can see your struggles and wins in ways that others can’t.
Be smart and make smart choices. Make choices that allow you to be you and are aligned to what you believe.
If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?
It would be around beliefs and mindsets. In the social sector, particularly in education reform, there are beliefs and actions that are anchored in replicating the same systems that have gotten us to this place and have created these social issues. It’s not about empowering communities but “saving” them. The power and autonomy need to return to the communities “where these social issues lie” to solve the challenges themselves, which generally means that voices that have not been included in power conversations—women and Black women—should be included and be a major part of the decision making.