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From Ednium: Lead authentically as yourself

Photo of four women with a gold balloon and an award plaque

Editor’s not: This is the latest installment of monthly contributions to Boardhawk from Ednium: The Alumni Collective. It was written by Liloni S. Ramos (see bio at bottom of article). Here is a link to the Ednium podcast featuring her.

The weeks leading up to first grade at Johnson Elementary School in southwest Denver were anxiety ridden for my six-year-old self.

I was driving in the car with my mom, a Denver West High School graduate, posing the question “what if I never learn how to read?” She quickly assured me that my teacher was the best in the building to help me learn.

My mom could guarantee that because she had the forethought to advocate for me and my learning by requesting I be placed in a specific classroom with a long-time educator that had a track record of taking deep interest and ownership of her student’s success.

First grade was a foundational year for me. Rest assured I learned how to read, and it is now one of my favorite hobbies as an adult, but more importantly I experienced an educator who invested in me, my learning, and my future success.

Her investment in me empowered me to believe I had ownership of my own learning. While I learned fundamental skills, my teacher knew exactly when to challenge me, and when I needed a little extra support. She encouraged me to embark on my first chapter book before I thought I was ready.

I would set up school in my bedroom, ready to emulate her charismatic and loving teaching style to my stuffed animals. The years of playing school in my bedroom, coupled with the many teachers and mentors that invested in me, led me to want to pursue a career in early childhood education.

I had every intention of being the charismatic and loving first-grade teacher for so many students that would come through my classroom.

Fast-forward a few decades and I was recently named Ednium: The Alumni Collective’s leader of the year with the Table Builder Award. It was my first-grade teacher’s investment in me that gave me permission to invest in myself from a relatively young age which is why leadership development is so important to me.

As leaders of color, we are oftentimes fighting for our seat at a table where decisions are made in our schools, our communities and our workplaces. I work to support leaders in building their own tables of support for their personal leadership journeys.

I believe that each leader builds their own table with their own mentors, sponsors and coaches, therapists, and supporters to guide them through different seasons of life.

In my work as the program manager of the Piton Fellowship at Gary Community Ventures, we work to support and invest in predominantly leaders of color on their leadership journeys.  The Piton Fellowship was created from the notion that the Denver community already has great talent in our backyard so companies and organizations shouldn’t scour the coasts for qualified diverse staff.

So many leaders choose to stay, move to, or live in the Denver metro area for a reason. And what if all leaders of color felt advocated for, sponsored and supported to be leaders in their communities, the way I did as a first-grader?

During our kick-offs for the Piton Fellowship, we start by sharing that the work they will embark on as fellows of the program will not be something they can google; it will not give them all of the answers to challenges they are facing, and most importantly, we are not asking them to prescribe to a specific set of values or principles.

We remind them they are whole leaders as they walk into any space. They are already the leaders in their families, their schools, their jobs and their communities at any given moment. They have years of lived experience that make them subject matter experts in their own lives.

Although I didn’t realize it until decades later, my mom advocating for my learning set me on a completely different educational path than some of my peers. Our learning differences became obvious to me almost immediately, even as a first grader.

The educational inequities didn’t stop when I moved on to second grade, rather they persisted and continued to widen an achievement gap. Far too often because of lived experience or systems that were not designed for us, leaders of color seek external validation to make the ‘right’ next step rather than looking inward and listening to our intuition on what the right next step is for us.

I envision a future where all DPS students, especially students of color, have educators like I had who have the capacity to invest in them. I strive for a time when all our current leaders of color see themselves as completely as their supporters see them and give themselves permission to be authentically themselves as leaders.

As I think about future tables to be built, I can’t help but wonder if there will ever be a time when we no longer must build tables for us to show up authentically and drive change in meaningful ways.

Supporting and investing in local leadership can be done nearly anywhere, but Denver will always be the place that shaped me and there are so many others who do not have the opportunity to live and lead here anymore.

My mom shouldn’t have had to submit a special request to ensure someone cared about my learning.  I am invested in the work we do with the Piton Fellowship because I believe in a Denver where everyone has access to lead and ignite fundamental changes in our city.