FEBRUARY 2023 | DR. CHRISTINA KISHIMOTO
Dr. Chase is my sister. My South Bronx sister, that is. We share some common experiences that get us fired up when we talk. We know the same streets, the subways, and the NYC thruways. At the age of fourteen we both went alone to file for our working papers, as required in New York City at that time, to seek part-time and summer employment. “On my fourteenth birthday I took two city buses and went down Arthur Avenue to get my working papers. I was always self determined and self aware,” Dr. Chase told me.
We have common stories that our parents told us about who we were as beautiful ethnic girls and as their daughters. We also have many shared stories we heard along the way about what made us an “other.” We both get goosebumps (or chicken skin as they say in Hawaii!), when we think about where we came from and where we are now. We both had supportive families and homes that supported our dreams, despite the unfamiliar pathways we chose as we worked our way through college and into the superintendency.
Our families gave us an alternative narrative and a deeper understanding of our histories than typically learned in school textbooks, giving us a strong sense of self worth and calling to serve all members of community. As we shared our common experiences in a racialized America, where we both continue to stand up as strong women despite the false narratives about who we are as BIPOC women, we found ourselves smiling as we talked about how we now use our personal power to reach for others who are just starting on their path to leadership, because we know that together we all rise!
“I’ve had many strong women along the way in my journey who embraced me and I learned from them. These women helped me on my path in education, and helped me build my skills. I will never forget them and now I am in a position to support other women.”
– Superintendent Dr. Tahira A. DuPree Chase
Tahira is an Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. sister from Norfolk State University, an HBCU in Virginia where she experienced an empowerment that changed her perspective of the world. “My life changed when I stepped on campus. I was embraced by my HBCU professors who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, and they helped to bring it out of me.”
Yet, the transition from high school to college, like for so many students of color in this nation, was more of a self initiated right of passage. Tahira attended Truman High School in the Bronx, and she stated, “I remember a high school counselor telling me college was not an option for me,” a common “piece of advice” frequently given to black and brown students. But this did not derail Tahira’s strong sense of calling to serve others by pursuing personal growth opportunities. While not everyone who crossed her path during her youth extended their arms, Tahira says she had a kinship of women who surrounded her and supported her. “I’ve had many strong women along the way in my journey who embraced me and I learned from them. These women helped me on my path in education, and helped me build my skills. I will never forget them and now I am in a position to support other women.”
While she never intended to be a School Superintendent, Tahira’s passion for teaching, her service to community, and her leadership skills caught the attention of her district board who invited her to serve an interim Superintendent position for several months. Several months turned into seven years at Greenburgh Central School District. Tahira was completely bought-into the executive leadership role, discovering her passion for systems leadership, change leadership, and student-centered designs.
Today, Dr. Chase is on her second Superintendency, in a Hispanic and Black majority district, the Westbury Union Free School district in Long Island, New York. She speaks passionately about her district, praising their stance on equity and taking pride in continuing the work that started with her predecessor and the board members that brought her in. She is a conscientious leader who recognizes the importance of representation. One of her first tasks was to hire a DEI leader, the only one in Long Island’s Nassau County. She believes there is a clear message that is internalized by students when they see that a woman of color can lead in executive leadership. “I did not want to be a leader that talks about equity, but continues not to do anything about it.”
As Tahira and I talk story, I can’t help but notice her long beautiful braids. It was not long ago that black women were told that braiding their hair was not a professional look. Women of color have been held to standards of whiteness in hair, makeup and clothing in the workplace – a reminder of “otherness” in terms of both race and gender. “In school districts we all face similar challenges as female leaders. There are people who don’t believe in our leadership because we are female. There are people who will look at me as a woman of color, who has braids in her hair, and think that I can only work in urban settings and I can’t sit at the table with the Rockerfellers.” These are matters that need to be talked about, because they go unnoticed and casually passed over.
Her Equity Perspective
Tahira shared what I’ve heard consistently from women I have interviewed this past year concerning women in leadership. “Wherever women are leaving or retiring from the Superintendency, they are being replaced by men.” Tahira and I further talked about the discrepancies that are perpetuated even by professional organizations that espouse equity values, and yet their aspirant programs are majority men. “There are many reasons why women are leaving the Superintendency. We’re in that sandwich generation where we are taking care of the family, the school district, and taking care of our aging parents. This is why we need forums, like Voice4Equity’s Summit, where we can have a safe space to talk about what we are experiencing. We need to talk about our own challenges and our own milestones and strengthen from within. We need our own dedicated pipeline for women leaders.” Tahira keeps herself grounded in equity by being intentional about where she serves and networks, such as with her current board service on the New York State Association for Women in Administration (NYSAWA).
Longevity in the Superintendent Seat
Research shows that women attain the Superintendent seat at an older age than men. More research, though, is needed around how women of color experience the Superintendency as compared to White women and as compared to men. Tahira shared, “I’ve been a Superintendent going on ten years, and Christina this length of service is almost an anomaly for women of color. Grounding oneself in your purpose and your why, while being able to constantly brush off negativity directed at you as a woman and a person of color, is tiring.”
Regarding New Zealand’s Prime Minister
Women leaders are often forced to explain themselves. Something men often are not asked to do. The recent story about Jacinda Ardern, who resigned as Prime Minister of New Zealand is such an example. This story drew a strong reaction from Tahira (as it had for me, too!) who says a women leader, like a man, can self determine.
“You have to know your limitations. You need to know when it’s time to go. Sometimes you have to leave a position in order to grow as leaders, as daughters, mothers and wives, and sometimes we have to go to find ourselves. It’s very easy to get lost in a position like this, the superintendency. You can’t neglect your health, your family or yourself. I applaud the Prime Minister. There is nothing wrong with taking a break, taking care of ourselves. It’s not a sign of weakness, Christina, it’s a sign of strength. It’s a strong attribute.” Yet, often what is considered a strength in men is a double standard on how it is applied to women.
The Socio Political Issues of Today – Hope or Fear
Tahira passionately shared her strong belief that the work of civil rights leaders in the past is now in our laps, as current leaders. “There’s so much at stake. We can’t give up. We have to be outspoken about what’s right. The leaders that came before us passed the baton.” Tahira further stated, “I do not believe the socio political issues we are facing today will go away tomorrow, but I do believe that having forums such as what you are doing, such as your summit, a space to engage in meaningful conversations unapologetically, will help us move in the right direction. The more we call out these injustices, and come together for what is right, we will chip away at the block. It’s hard work, it can be discouraging work. But there are these people called scholars and students who are relying on us not to give up.”
It was hard to end the interview – we were just warming up our conversation around significant equity issues. I’m glad we will see one another in a few days at AASA, where we will continue to link arms with one another and others to do this important work to create a culture of inclusivity for our nation’s children. This is the promise and hope of freedom for humanity.
Dr. Tahira DuPree Chase is Superintendent of Schools for the Westbury Union Free School District in Westbury, New York. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Communications Arts from Norfolk State University, a Master of Arts in English Education and Master of Education with a specialization in School Administration and Supervision from City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center and Mercy College, New York, respectively. Dr. Chase earned a doctorate in Executive Leadership at St. John Fisher College.
Learn more about Dr. Chase and her more than 25 years of experience as an educator at her website at https://www.tahiradupreechase.com/