Is education reform too white? Surge Institute equips people of color to lead the movement.

Author:Goode, Robin White
Position:BE SMARTx`

WE OFTEN HEAR ABOUT VIOLENCE SNUFFING OUT THE life of a young man. We grieve over them, but what about the young men--the brothers, friends, and cousins--they leave behind? DuJuan Smith, assistant dean of students at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has dared to envision a standalone youth group to address these young men's needs. "It will be an educational initiative that partners with their schools," Smith says. "They'll get healthy tools to process their emotions and the violence they've become numb to." Smith, a Chicago native who grew up in a single-parent household, knows about the needs of such young men because he was one of them. He credits his college experience with opening his eyes to his own need.

Smith's idea is just one of many percolating at the Chicago-based Surge Institute (, where Smith was accepted into the organization's inaugural Surge Fellowship. Each fellow must develop a capstone project, which the Institute will support for one year to help bring it to fruition.

Started by Carmita P. Vaughan, the Surge Institute develops leaders of color who are committed to bringing education equity to underserved communities. "I come to this issue not as a technocrat, but as someone who lived this," says Vaughan, whose mom fought to keep her gifted daughter out of the wretched public schools near their housing project in Birmingham, Alabama. Vaughan would grow up to earn a degree in chemical engineering and an M.B A, and work in strategic planning, global marketing, and engineering roles at Fortune 500 companies, including Procter & Gamble.

Vaughan transitioned to the nonprofit space and worked as chief of staff of the Chicago Public Schools Office of High Schools when CPS was led by Arne Duncan, whom President Obama would tap to become U.S. Secretary of Education. She also worked as chief strategy officer for America's Promise Alliance, the youth development and support organization founded by Gen. Colin Powell.

The experience of childhood poverty isn't Vaughan's only asset. "I did not come up through a traditional education background," she says. "I started my career as a chemical engineer. I went to business school. People value that outside experience." As someone in a position of decision-making and influence in public education, she encountered few people at that level who came from the communities being served. She met "bright, innovative" folks who knew more than she did--because of their...

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