Surge Fellowship: Developing Leaders of Color in Oakland

Recent Surge Oakland Fellows (Photo courtesy of the Surge Institute)

If you are interested in learning more about the Surge Fellowship please visit their website at or contact them for more information at [email protected].

Roxanne Rose is an assistant principal at Achieve Academy in East Oakland. One of her career goals is to become a principal. She saw an opportunity to develop her leadership skills in a way that felt authentic to her identity as a woman of color, engage in critical conversations about education with other leaders of color while also learning and growing alongside them. She found what she was looking for in the Surge Fellowship.

“Where else could I get this kind of development, where else could I get this kind of support?” said Rose, a 2020 Surge fellow. “You don’t often see people who look and sound and think like we do in educational spaces, spaces which are often run by white folks and can hold onto these ideals of a white supremacist culture.”

Dr. Charles Cole, III is a national speaker, writer and founder of a non-profit organization. He was looking to grow that non-profit, Energy Convertors, and expand to other cities, while also planting deeper roots in Oakland, his hometown. He also found what he was looking for in the Surge Fellowship.

“For me, it was about developing myself as a leader, where I’d have the skills to build out whatever I wanted to build out,” said Cole, an inaugural Surge fellow. “That could be Energy Convertors and student voice, or the national stuff I’m working on now. It was just getting some more foundational pieces to help me think about what it means to be an entrepreneur, a leader in this space, and the type of impact I want to have.”

Roxanne Rose (Photo courtesy of the Surge Institute)

The Surge Fellowship is the signature program of the Surge Institute. It’s a one-year, cohort-based fellowship that “unites, accelerates and empowers emerging leaders of color in education.” There are more than 120 alums of the fellowship working in various aspects of public education. Surge is currently recruiting for its 2021 fellowship.

Surge fellows meet for 11 sessions throughout the year, with content a mix of “the head and the heart,” said Dr. Michelle Seijas, the Executive Director of Surge Institute. The work incorporates the four main objectives of the fellowship: dream big; focus inward; know the landscape; make an impact.

The fellowship in Oakland (there is another in Chicago) is aimed at Black, Latinx, and Asian-Pacific Islander leaders across the education landscape who have at least six years of experience in a youth-serving role. Fellows represent district schools, charter schools, nonprofit organizations, government entities: “If you are serving the youth in our community in some way you are welcome to apply,” Seijas said.

“This movement building will not happen if we all remain in our silos,” Seijas said. “So it’s very intentional that we want to focus across the landscape. So I would say one mentality for a person who would be joining us will be somebody who wants to engage across the landscape as well.”

Rose said she has appreciated the actionable items that come out of fellowship meetings, with a session on school budgeting as a driver of educational equity being especially powerful. She said she really values being part of a group of like-minded people who she can build community with, and who understand the same challenges. She called it “being around people who remind me of my ‘why.’”

“Having a group of people who you can feel joy with, and to laugh off some of the hard situations that we are faced with day-to-day, where you don’t really feel like you can be vulnerable, or be comfortable with others around you,” Rose said. “Knowing that I always have someone to call or text if I need to think through a problem or if I’m just having a hard time with something and want a trusted colleague to problem-solve with or to vent with.”

Cole, on the other hand, is a self-described loner who was looking for a way to elevate his own voice and skills to make a lasting change. He uses a basketball analogy to describe his frustration with some of his previous roles in education, feeling like he was on the sidelines instead of making an impact on the game.

Dr. Charles Cole III (Photo courtesy of the Surge Institute)

“Most teams have a star who will take the shot, and we will win or lose off that shot,” Cole said. “You get to a point where you’re like, well, I can take the final shot and miss. I wanted to get to a place where I wasn’t dependent on someone else to take the final shot.”

As someone born in Chicago and raised in Oakland, Cole sees the Surge Fellowship and developing leaders of color as critical for the future of his city.

“Surge is needed for Black leaders, similar to myself, to get the training and support so we can remain in Oakland, have leadership positions and actually have a say in what Oakland becomes,” Cole said.

With recruitment season open, what is Surge looking for in a potential fellow? “You come into the fellowship wanting to explore certain ideas or building a vision of what education can be, and you are also in a position where you are able to move into something else in the next year or two,” Seijas said. “You want to be a speaker, or maybe you start writing, or you want a promotion in some way. You’re wanting to make a change in the way your leadership shows up.”

Rose said she leaves fellowship meetings challenged but energized, reminded that the work is really hard “but you have to dismantle systems and you need to reimagine what is possible.” She sees the fellowship, and the community she has been building, as critical supports for the often isolating job of leading a school.

“Honestly, it has changed my life in the sense that I can’t undo what I have learned,” Rose said of the fellowship. “That is going to impact every day moving forward: how I show up and lead and be in community with students and teachers, and advocate for what I know is best for our kids. There’s no undoing all the amazing skills and practice.”

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