Representation in Academic Leadership

with Carmita Semaan of the Surge Institute

While U.S. student populations and communities of color continue to grow year after year, there continues to be a gap between the communities being served and the leaders serving them.

Carmita Semaan, Founder and President of the Surge Institute, reflects on the value of diversity in educational leadership, and the importance of inspiring a “surge” of talented leaders of color.

Posted on:

Dec 13, 2020

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: Student populations in communities of color are growing year after year across the country, yet there continues to be a gap between students being served and the leaders serving them. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Lack of diversity at the leadership level in education can directly impact black and Hispanic students. Joining me to talk about all of this is Carmita Semaan. She is the founder and the president of the Surge Institute. And Carmita, thanks so much for being here.

Semaan: Thanks so much for having me.

Anderson: So we know that the National Center for Education Statistics says that 80% of the principals across the nation are white, and that does not go with the demographic makeup of the students in our nation's school. Just under 50% of them are students of color. Why is this of concern to you and to Surge?

Semaan: It should be of concern to all of us, honestly, Tetiana, because we know that principals who identify as black or brown are more likely to attract and retain teachers of color. And there is considerable research that shows that teachers of color lead to higher student outcomes for all students, but particularly for low-income -- low-income black and brown students. And teachers of color are also more likely to identify gifted and talented black and brown students, which can change the trajectory of their educational experience.

Anderson: So what is it that Surge is doing actively to sort of shift this demographic mismatch between students, educators, and administrators?

Semaan: Well, thank you. You know, administrative numbers are even more abysmal than principals and teachers. 6% of our nation's CEOs or superintendents in education identify as black or brown and only about 11% of our board members. So at Surge, we are unapologetically aiming to address that by providing an injection, or a surge, of amazing, talented leaders of color who are committed to the access, outcomes, and opportunities for all students in this country.

Anderson: So I know this is personal for you. I mean, you left the executive world in education. You left the world of nonprofit to start Surge. What made you say you had to do this and it had to be done now?

Semaan: Well, 15 years ago, I left corporate America to start working in education and was, frankly, haunted by a lack of representation in leadership in education. As a person who myself identifies as one of the students that we serve -- I grew up very low-income. I had teachers who identified me as gifted and talented at a very early age. And I saw that my story was not the norm across the country. And I recognize that if we did not have individuals who have shared experience with our students at the most influential tables of leadership, it would impact the strategies, it would impact funding, and ultimately it would impact opportunities for young people, their families, and the broader communities.

Anderson: So Surge started in 2014. You've been doing this for some time. What lets you know that this is actually working?

Semaan: Since we started this work, I have such pride in those who have gone through our cohort-based experience through our fellowship. We have trained about 185 fellows across Chicago, Oakland, California, Kansas City, and those 185 alums are impacting over 3.4 million students. And we've seen a number of our fellows increase their leadership impact. They are now in C-suite positions. They are leading nonprofit organizations. And again, their impact on the hundreds of thousands, millions of students that are within their care is being done differently. It's being done with students and communities and not to them. And we're ultimately proud to be able to support, amplify, and elevate the genius and brilliance that exists within these communities to support the education of young people.

Anderson: And Carmita, quickly, where do you go from here? What's next for you and Surge?

Semaan: We have demand from all over the country and some internationally, so our aim is to continue to respond to that demand through our fellowship programming, as well as grow our other programmatic offerings to support institutions who are looking for ways to better support and retain their talent of color.

Anderson: If people want to know more about Surge, where can they go online?

Semaan: they should go to, where you can find out more about our work, as well as links to all of our social media and YouTube channels.

Anderson: Carmita Semaan, thank you so much for being here.

Semaan: Thank you.

Anderson: And thanks to our viewers as well for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, be sure to log on to I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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