The Transformation of a Board by Samantha Wilson-Jones

I am the Board President at KIPP Philadelphia Public Schools. I am the first Black Board President since KIPP Philadelphia’s founding seventeen years ago, and one of only 11 Black Board Presidents across the national KIPP network. I believe that you cannot impact your circumstance if the governing body isn’t reflective of you. You have to be in the room. When I began volunteering with KIPP Philly my goal was to help students see themselves in various career fields, so Black people could be better represented in industries and disciplines that were historically and perpetually lacking diversity. I didn’t imagine then that those efforts would turn into a board seat, and certainly not the presidency. But God had a plan.

I was asked to join the KIPP Philly board just as the 2016–2017 school year was about to begin. I would sit in board meetings where well-intended white board members made decisions impacting students, families, alumni, staff and communities of which they had little to no understanding. When I would speak up, my voice was usually singular. I’d often think to myself, ‘how do you impact change when you’re the only one in the room?’ Fortunately, there were a few white board members who began to take notice of the optics of what the board composition reflected. While that didn’t initially result in the addition of any new Black board members, I was fast-tracked to board leadership.

I stepped up, because representation matters. At that time, it especially mattered as KIPP Philly welcomed Jessica Cunningham Akoto, an unapologetically strong Black woman, as its new CEO. During my first year as President, I put forward a recruitment objective that would make the board more reflective of the demographic KIPP Philly’s schools serve. My Vice President, who is also our Governance Chair, and I got to work. I can’t remember how many prospective board members we met with, but it seemed like there was someone new to meet every week. The hard work paid off. At our March board meeting we presented a slate of five candidates …. ALL Black! All five were voted in and four of them accepted our invitation. KIPP Philly walked into the 2020–2021 school year with a board composition that was 55% black, 45% white. Success? In part. With the newly composed board, now it was time for the work to begin.

I had done the work to change the board composition, but there was more work to be done. I was now faced with the task of integrating the board, making it function like a well-oiled machine with parts from very unique and different places. The board, my board, was now comprised of a majority of Black board members who were rightfully frustrated and angry and a minority of white board members who were in a state of culture shock. In the middle sat KIPP Philly students, alumni, families, and staff, all reliant on our strong and steady leadership and governance as they were simultaneously on the frontlines of dealing with the effects of a pandemic disproportionately affecting their communities and those that they served, and the outcry for social, economic and racial justice as the virtual Zoom hallways echoed the chorus “Black Lives Matter.” In collaboration with a white board member we charged headfirst through the door that had been kicked down by George Floyd’s murder. We furthered a dialogue that we had begun in December 2019, only now with greater urgency. We encouraged and had (and continue to have) the uncomfortable conversations previously tiptoed around. We did and continue to do the work. We committed to becoming the change we want to see because we recognize that our actions as a board impact the lives of those we have pledged to serve. Our representation of them matters!

So, going back to the question of how do you transform a board? Looking back over the last four years, I would say by focusing on the end goal, being customer focused to use ‘corporate speak.’ My goal was to make the board reflective of its students, families, staff, and community. I wanted our end customer’s voice to have a seat at the table, to be in the room … because representation matters! I subconsciously knew then, and upon instigated reflection, consciously know now, that true transformation happens when everyone is represented and on equal footing.

KIPP Philly’s Board journey continues. Where are you on yours?

We create joyful, academically excellent schools in North and West Philadelphia.