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Time for Transition: A Look Back at a Leadership Journey

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Dana Borrelli-Murray

I have started the process of transitioning out of Highlander Institute.

In 2006, I took a one-year leave of absence from my PhD program in anthropology to complete a new Masters program just starting off at Brown University, bringing me back home to my native Rhode Island. I wanted to put my social sciences training into action - learning and doing on the programmatic side rather than the academic. That was a tough year, and I was completely out of my element, questioning everything. I was placed in an internship within the back office of a small social justice-oriented school and its sister nonprofit, where I spent my year generally staying out of everyone’s way, stapling conference programs together, attempting (and failing) countless homework problem sets, and drafting a plan for an eventual high school expansion. 

Fifteen years later and I am still here. From intern to Executive Director. From a small team, good gut instincts, and a host of ideas, I’ve learned to lead a nimble learning organization and engage as a community partner ready and committed to creating more equitable, relevant, and effective schools.

Along the way, I got married, bought a house, had two kids, became a foster parent, brought two more kids into our family, bought a bigger house to accommodate said expansion, played countless band gigs, and joined life-giving and interesting boards, committees, and panel discussions. Sometimes, these worlds have unapologetically collided, like the time my activist street band played at a local drag show the same night as Highlander Institute’s national Blended and Personalized Learning Conference. It’s safe to say that I’ve danced and laughed more than any other organizational leader I know. 

I’ve pitched ideas to state leaders, poking holes in systems and filling the gaps. I’ve sat at tables with community members and national leaders. I’ve shown up, spoken up, learned and questioned some more. I’ve commiserated and eye-rolled with the best of them. Chances are, we’ve done these things together - and kept moving forward on behalf of educators, students, and families.   

Over the years I've dreamed about getting the Institute to a place where it was strong and sustainable and I was confident that I had contributed as much as I could. The last few years brought a whole set of unforeseen opportunities and challenges, which made it harder to know when I should step down.

But as we emerge from this worldwide crisis, it feels like the right time. We’ve literally done it all. I’ve done it all. I’ve left it all out there on the field. I believe that my work here has gone as far as I can take it and it is time for new leadership.  

This transition is completely driven by me. This is something I am choosing for many reasons. The first is my need for some space and time - to breathe and reflect on the whirlwind of 2020 and 2021 and the effort it takes to stay afloat personally and professionally each day as a leader, mother, spouse, daughter, friend, colleague, and ally. Closely following this is the belief that I am a full, whole human being with untapped potential that goes beyond whatever role I currently hold. 

Last spring, I coauthored a statement with Shawn Rubin, then our Chief Education Officer, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Shawn and I made a public commitment to the work we would do to dismantle white supremacy culture. We outlined the steps we would take, which included the statement “cede power”. 

I’ve taken those two words to task this year. Through personal and professional DEI training and reflection, I’ve learned to step aside and make space. I’ve prioritized the expertise of BIPOC colleagues. I have not made a single decision in isolation since that statement was issued. This also meant rebuilding our COVID-wracked organization with co-construction and ‘rebuilding days’, committees, and workgroups, ensuring shared ownership and input in our model. 

I’ve attempted to show up from a place of  inquiry versus my usual advocacy. I’ve developed the muscle and habit of asking questions and truly listening to answers, thoughts, opinions, comments, and feedback. Maybe this operating model would have started sooner if my time and energy weren’t so focused on the scarcity complex that afflicts most nonprofit cultures. I wonder if organizations would be more inclusive and collaborative if decisions weren’t driven by survival funding and urgency?  

Speaking directly to the funder community: thank you for your support over the last decade. We’ve been lucky to work closely and for long periods of time with some incredible philanthropies that believe in our approach to develop self-directed, empowered critical thinkers while building toward transformational and sustainable school change. You know who you are. You’ve buoyed us in moments of crisis and coached us to stay on track.  

But on a larger level, we’ve also experienced the tumultuous world of philanthropy to the extent that it has directly impacted our work and relationships with educators, schools, districts, and state agencies as well as our internal organizational psyche. We’ve felt pressure to pivot, implement, and pivot again to meet changing interests with silver bullets. Educators and systems are left with feelings of initiative overload as the funder world looks for case studies of positive impact. The nature of perceived scant resources creates an unhealthy competition that pits organizations like ours against each other in a way that seems counterproductive to the broader work we are all mission-driven to support.   

With each misstep and miscalculation, our exceptional team and colleagues in the field continue to persevere. My greatest accomplishment has been the people I’ve chosen to surround myself with and learn from every single day.  

To the educators and leaders: our goals and objectives have always been to create classrooms, schools, and systems that best meet the individual needs of each learner by supporting educators in their practice. This intensive level of professional development and systems change requires a significant school presence, a comprehensive understanding of each teacher’s implementation level, and strong, trusting relationships with teachers, school leaders, and district administrators as they step outside their comfort zones.  

The close study of our partnerships both before and during COVID has led us to understand traditional change management approaches as the central threat to scaling messier, more complicated student and community-focused school change initiatives. Our experience has shown that across partnerships of all sizes and shapes, a central challenge has emerged in the implementation of new teaching and learning models: the effort oftentimes does not spread beyond model classrooms established by highly talented teachers.  

So, what happens next? 

There continues to be an incredible learning opportunity offered up by this unprecedented situation. Collective realizations about change, support, accountability, engagement, mindset, equity, and values through this time have the potential to have a lasting impact on K-12 education.   

In terms of the Institute, I am thrilled by our leadership transition plan as Shawn Rubin, the Institute’s longtime Chief Education Officer, shifts into the Executive Director role. The best part of my job has been my 15 plus years working alongside Shawn, first as colleagues at Highlander Charter School, and then as we built the Institute to become the organization it is today. It is his vision and energy that lights a fire in everyone, including me. I’ve been his biggest fan since the day he came crashing into my office at the school with 5 MLL kindergarteners, where they happily counted my pencils, books, crayons and chairs. It didn’t matter that I was on a phone call with a potential funder - his commitment and fierce convictions rang true then as they do now. Nothing is more important than the kids.  

In every transition, there are changes great and small that help to define the next chapter. I truly cannot wait to see what the Institute has in store. I know that at its core, the organization will continue to lead from a point of truth, humility, and iteration. I will take with me a set of beliefs that will continue to guide my new journey each day: 

  • Those closest to the problem are often closest to the solution.  
  • Community member, parent, and student voices matter.  
  • All students, especially the most vulnerable, are capable of excelling. 

Thank you for the role you’ve played in my journey. We’ve made a meaningful impact, together. I wish all the success imaginable to my friend and successor Shawn Rubin, Highlander Institute staff, board, partners and community, but especially the students and educators we support each day.