Nearly 10 years ago, Carmita Semaan founded the Surge Institute with the intention of educating, amplifying, and elevating leaders of colors who could create transformative change for young people, their families, and communities.

Today, the Institute operates in seven cities across the U.S. and boasts more than 300 alumni. But, the real impact? More than 3 million students have benefited from their experiences with these leaders of color.

Photo credit: Surge Institute

Because of this inspiring work, Semaan was recently recognized as one of five Luminaries by the 1954 Project, a Black-led education philanthropy initiative to fund diverse Black leaders. In the following Q&A, Semaan shares more about The Surge Institute and offers advice for donors.

Q. What inspired you to create the Surge Institute?

The Surge Institute was born of my impatience. After making the transition from corporate America into public education nearly 20 years ago, I was baffled and haunted by the lack of leadership of color in organizations throughout the sector. As a participant in various fellowships, I had seen the unique benefits of the cohort-based approach to professional development and worked diligently to increase access to these tables for other leaders of color. The Surge Fellowship, the Institute’s signature program, emerged from my desire to ensure that leaders are appropriately prepared, supported, connected and elevated to fill the pipeline of leadership in education that often falls woefully short of representing the populations of children and families served.

Q. How is your organization helping to create a more equitable landscape for education in the U.S.? 

We unapologetically invest in the amplification and elevation of leaders of color because we truly believe that proximate leaders who have shared experiences with students, families, and communities are best positioned to drive sustainable and impactful results in equity across the entire education ecosystem. We’re also modeling what it looks like to tend to the head, heart, and spirit of ALL leaders so they are nurtured and cared for in ways that sustain them through the difficult work of transforming and occasionally dismantling systems that have underserved students and families for far too long.

Q. What do you see as the biggest challenges facing students of color in the United States today? What makes you optimistic? 

Two things that come to mind as current challenges facing our students are 1) the current attack on culturally relevant studies and texts and social-emotional learning and 2) the impact of COVID – both through massive learning setbacks and declining mental health and overall wellness.

First, in many states students of color are literally having their history wiped clean as politicians and misguided parents whitewash their textbooks and curriculum while stating that ethnic studies lack “educational value and historical accuracy.” The horror of being told that the stories of YOUR people don’t hold any educational value is difficult to stomach. But I find optimism in the fact that students – of ALL races and demographics – are speaking out in droves against this backlash. In every major social justice movement of the past, it has been young people who constantly challenged authority and agitated systems that did not serve them. I’m optimistic that this current generation will successfully lead us into a new day, as the ones before them have.

Second, reading and math scores are not at all a full measure of student wellness and success, but they do tell a story. And with the average student losing a half a school year of learning in math and a quarter of a school year in reading, it’s clear that massive interventions are required to get students back on track -- particularly those who were most vulnerable before the pandemic. Even worse, what test scores don’t show are the devastating effects of the pandemic on the mental health of young people. Increased levels of anxiety and stress, low levels of emotional support and peer relationships, and increased suicidal thoughts all paint a dismal picture. 

However, I’m optimistic about the response of individual educators and organizations directly supporting students. We’ve seen a tremendous upswell in mental health support for students being offered nationwide, philanthropic dollars encouraging greater wellness for students and educators, and promising innovations that are proving to be catalytic for student learning. These are all promising trends that speak to a commitment across the ecosystem to prioritize the needs of students and families at this time.

Q. What results do you hope to achieve with The 1954 Project's support and funding?  

In 2021, Surge embarked on a new strategic plan – The Surge Ahead – that will expand our efforts and help us grow to serve and support 5,000 leaders by 2030. Support and partnership from The 1954 Project will significantly catalyze our growth plans to invest in even more of our people in new and different ways, deepen our alumni impact, and prioritize financial sustainability. Specifically, funding from the 1954 Project will enable us to make investments in infrastructure, human capital, and systems that will lay the foundation for continued regional expansion of our cohort programs, growth of the Black Principals Network, efforts to support executive and C-suite leaders of color, and pilot programs to increase revenue generation.

Q. How can philanthropists help reimagine our education landscape and better support Black education leaders in the United States? 

Philanthropists often unwittingly drive the strategies pursued by education leaders because their funds drive what gets prioritized by systems of schools, nonprofits, and education policy efforts. When their priorities shift to the next “silver bullet” to drive improvements in student outcomes and opportunities, some leaders are left scrambling to choose between contorting their work to fit those priorities or rolling back all that they’ve built due to limited funding.

Philanthropy would benefit from allowing lessons from leaders most proximate to education efforts to drive their strategic priorities and by understanding that solutions exist across the entire education ecosystem that will drive systemic change. Human capital/talent solutions, improvements to pedagogy, out-of-school time advancements, technology investments, and school design innovation are all necessary for students to truly thrive and realize the promise of their potential. Forcing the field to narrowly focus on one or two silver bullets through the power of their influence will at best minimize the potential impact of these efforts and at worst may thwart promising opportunities for true breakthroughs.