This month, we’re featuring the work of Black leaders at BES to shine a spotlight on what drives them to do this important work on behalf of leaders, children, and communities.
Dawn Hicks is a Senior Director of the BES Fellowship. Throughout her career, she has coached and grown professionals, led strategy, and improved organizational culture. Prior to founding her own coaching firm, Dawn was a school leadership coach for UChicago Impact, where she partnered with school and district leaders to drive culture and climate initiatives for students and staff. Dawn has held a diverse range of leadership roles throughout her career including Chief Program Officer at Umoja Student Development Corporation and Assistant Director of the University of Chicago Charter School’s North Kenwood Oakland campus.
Why did you become an educator?
My family prioritized education from a very young age. Conversations about college were centered around where I would attend, not if I would attend. When I went to high school, it became apparent that this was not the case for all of my peers.
I grew up in the inner city of Detroit where we had “schools of choice” – schools that kids had to test to get into. Half of my high school was a neighborhood school, and the other half was a school of choice. There, I noticed a stark difference between the access, quality, and choices afforded to children even within the same building. I’d observed that education was something that could drastically improve a person’s life trajectory. While a high-quality education doesn’t solve inequality, it opens up doors and opportunities and allows people to expand their thinking of what those opportunities could be.
What I saw in Detroit was that schools in certain neighborhoods weren’t able to serve children effectively, and that is beyond unfair. I firmly believe that where you live and what you look like should not define the quality of education available to you. I became an educator because our current system is not set up for all children to succeed. I wanted to create spaces where all children can utilize their talents and strengths.
What drives you to support school leaders to find purpose and sustainability in their work?
I originally majored in finance and marketing, but I’ve always cared about kids and their well-being. I changed my major to social work to be more in alignment with my passions and entered education as a school social worker. My first job post-graduate school was at a charter school. In addition to providing counseling to kids and families, I ended up teaching a character skills class and substitute teaching for classroom teachers when needed. A lot of students were sent to my office and my classroom that teachers felt were too challenging. These students were being stereotyped and tracked due to systemic issues of racism in public schooling. The students were great–it was our system that wasn’t allowing them to thrive. This realization started my journey into educational leadership.
As a school leader, I realized how under-supported teachers and school leaders are. Adults need many of the same things students need–honoring their identities and strengths, social-emotional learning, structure, and support. Though my work is still in service of students, my passion has shifted to supporting adults to be knowledgeable, whole, and healthy.
School is the place where our children are spending the majority of their days. The adults in schools are helping to raise and inform our children. I want to make sure that I am helping adults create school spaces where I would want my own daughter (pictured above) to thrive. And, I want adults to thrive in those spaces as well. That motivates me to this day.
How do you encourage your team during this difficult and unprecedented time in education?
I treat the members of my team as human beings first, employees second. We have a culture of checking in on each others’ lives and celebrating each other for big and small wins. We communicate open and honestly and I solicit feedback often. I trust them to do the work, stepping back and offering support when needed. Our goal is to support our school founders in the same way. As a team, we are encouraging founders through empathy, discussing both adaptive and technical leadership skills, and showing them that they have exactly what it takes to do this work at this time.
What is your advice for Fellows and founders?
I recently listened to a podcast on “Rest as Reparations” by Tricia Hersey that directly relates to the work of school founding. Society has ingrained in us as people of color to work ourselves into the ground. That is white supremacist thinking, and it is wrong. Giving ourselves moments to rest and slow is a form of resistance to the system. It gives us energy to do the work we have been called to do.
I also read an article titled “Reclaiming time to think” by Margaret Wheatley. In part, she commented, “Thinking is the place where intelligent actions begin. We pause long enough to look more carefully at a situation, to see more of its character, to think about why it’s happening, to notice how it’s affecting us and others…Don’t expect anybody to give you the time to think. You will have to claim it for yourself. No one will give it to you because thinking is always dangerous to the status quo. Those benefiting from the present system have no interest in your new ideas. In fact, your thinking is a threat to them. The moment you start thinking, you’ll want to change something.” What I want to highlight is that pushing ourselves instead of pressing pause is actually perpetuating and recreating systems of oppression, and does not help us question what exists now. I encourage leaders to consider how we can unlearn the white supremacist thinking that we have been conditioned to accept. I think one aspect of this is being intentional about prioritizing your emotional well-being.