Featured Fellow: Mario Estrada Earnest on Being Your Authentic Self

Mario Estrada Earnest is a data guy.

While there was a time when Mario was not sure what do to with that title. His journey through the 2017 Surge Fellowship has led him to take ownership of it in a big way.

Mario’s Dream

As Director of Special Projects at Intrinsic Schools in Chicago, Mario has not only developed systems that help the school run more efficiently, but he has connected with the students on a personal level.

“It’s just so important to me that we provide role models to students of color, people who look like them or grew up in places like they did,” Mario said.

While Mario loves his job, he has also been perpetually aware that he could be doing more, and his Surge journey has pushed him to take the next step. Mario is launching a business venture—a data analytics consultancy—which he envisions connecting him even more with improving the way education institutions serve communities of color.

“I’m really excited to bring data expertise in partnership and collaboration with school leaders around the Chicago area and beyond.” Mario said. “I’m looking to work with foundations, schools and districts to help people make better decisions that benefit our students.”

Mario’s Background

Mario’s passion lies in public education. His experience as a student and educator in both public and private institutions shaped his perspective on the disparities in opportunity for today’s young people. Mario is dedicated to bringing educational and economic parity to Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods. Though he met opportunity with preparation, much of his opportunity was and continues to be inaccessible to millions of youth throughout our nation. He believes students should be deciding “which college” rather than “if college.”

Mario began his professional career as a management and strategy consultant with the Boston Consulting Group, advising Fortune 100 company executives across a variety of industries and functions. He quickly learned how to navigate the business world, gaining experience in C-level strategic decision making, as well as the skills needed to successfully create change and execute those decisions. At his core, Mario is a thinker and a change agent. Along with his work for Intrinsic Schools, Mario serves as an advisor to National Louis University’s Harrison Professional Pathways Program.

The Full Circle

by Ashley Richardson 

Back in May, I was having breakfast with a friend, who was interested in applying to become a 2018 Surge Fellow, when a number I did not recognize appeared on my phone.  We were deep in conversation so I ignored the call. After my friend and I said our goodbyes, I realized the urgency upon seeing multiple missed calls from the same number along with a voice message. As I headed to my office I called the number back. What happened next would prompt a major shift in my professional life and leadership journey.

Less than two weeks after that call, I accepted a new role as Executive Director of Spark in Chicago. Like many transitions in life, the opportunity was unexpected. Yet as I reflect upon it now, I realize this moment, this new role, completes a full circle journey that began more than three years ago.

When I applied to join the inaugural Surge Fellowship cohort in 2015, I did not get accepted.  I was crushed. But I sought feedback, and after receiving it from Carmita Semaan and the Surge team I knew I had work to do if I was wanted to be fully prepared for the opportunity the next time around. Despite my disappointment, the Surge application and feedback process helped me articulate my aspiration to lead a nonprofit organization focused on creating mentoring opportunities for students.

Growing up in middle class neighborhoods across the Midwest and East Coast, I was fortunate to be exposed to a myriad of opportunities that expanded my view of what was possible for my future.  All of this exploration was made possible with the support of mentors who inspired me to dream big and a strong educational foundation that equipped me with the skills to succeed. Yet far too many young people in Chicago do not have these opportunities. It is the reason I am deeply passionate about helping black and Latino youth gain exposure to diverse experiences and make connections to caring adults who can help them realize their potential.

A year and a half later, I applied to the Surge Fellowship again. In the time between applications, I had transitioned to a new role and refined my vision for my leadership. I was still passionate about providing students with mentoring opportunities but focused less on the job and more on the impact.

This time I was accepted.

I am now an alumni of the 2017 Surge Fellowship. The experience prepared me to seize the opportunity at Spark when it arose. My Surge journey was not only about gaining the executive  skills to be a more effective leader but—most importantly—Surge allowed me to develop confidence in the distinct perspective I bring to the work as a black woman.

In my new role at Spark, I’ve found my dream job and I am in a position to provide students with the opportunities they deserve.  Yet my story doesn’t stop here.  In fact, this is just the beginning. I have a renewed sense of responsibility, an obligation to remember where I came from and use those experiences to shape how I lead. I must dream bigger and fight to ensure middle school students understand, experience and pursue what’s possible. That doesn’t mean self-doubt doesn’t still creep in or that I won’t face challenges, but through Surge, I now have a village of supporters to help me combat any obstacle I face and whose work I can amplify to create even greater opportunities for our kids.

About Ashley Richardson

Ashley Richardson is the Executive Director of Spark in Chicago, a non-profit that engages communities to provide career exploration and self-discovery opportunities that help middle school students understand, experience and pursue what’s possible. As Executive Director, Ashley has overall strategic and operational responsibility for Spark Chicago’s regional staff, program, expansion, development and mission execution. In addition, Ashley is an active member of the organization’s national leadership team, shaping key opportunities and strategies for Spark organization wide.

Ashley previously managed special projects at The Chicago Public Education Fund (The Fund), an organization whose current efforts seek to more than double the number of high-quality principals in Chicago. Ashley holds an Master of Education in education policy and management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from Vassar College. In her free time, Ashley enjoys exploring Chicago’s great restaurants, volunteering with iMentor Chicago and developing her salsa-dancing skills.

25 Chicago Education Leaders Selected for 2018 Surge Fellowship

The Surge Institute has further expanded the reach of its signature yearlong fellowship program, accepting a diverse cohort of 25 equity-minded, emerging African American and Latino Chicago education leaders.

The 2018 Surge Fellowship cohort was selected from a large pool of impressive applicants and is comprised of Fellows from across the education landscape – including Chicago Public Schools, various charter schools and networks, higher education institutions and non-profit youth-serving organizations.

Over the course of the Fellowship, Surge Fellows receive extensive executive skill training, leadership development and exposure to respected leaders and policymakers in education. The cohort will also develop their own leadership and advocacy skills. As a culminating final step of the program, Fellows will complete individual capstone projects to advance the work of a new or existing Chicago education initiative.

Dominique McKoy, a 2018 Surge Fellowship awardee and Director of School Partnerships for OneGoal, says he is in the work of dismantling systems of oppression that work against our students. “I understand that this work is greater than any one institution, organization, politician or community,” McKoy said. “The Surge Fellowship offers me an opportunity to become part of a legacy of committed leaders of color making their own contributions to this work, while also—most importantly—providing us with the space to align our efforts as a collective movement.”

Below is the full list of 2018 Surge Fellows:

On August 26, 2017, the 2017 Fellows graduated with a private graduation ceremony held at McDonald’s Hamburger University. New Alum and Executive Director of iMentor Chicago Halleemah Nash beamed about the future, stating, “We are exiting this sacred space with an elevated brand, a greater capacity for advocacy, a deeper self-identity, and the charge to truly live out what it means to be [2017 Surge Fellows].”

Behind the Surge: Cecily Relucio Hensler on Empowering Educators

Cecily Relucio Hensler got the Surge crash course.

She joined the Surge team in July and was immediately introduced to the central culminating work of the 2017 Surge Fellows: Capstone Presentations. She then spent a weekend with the fellows as they experienced their final session before graduating. And somewhere in between, Cecily assisted in interviewing 44 candidates and selecting the cohort for the 2018 fellowship.

Yes… a crash course.

And Cecily loved it.

As the Chicago Program Manager, one of the architects of our fellowship sessions, Cecily needs to understand this movement better than most, and joining the leadership team amidst this transition has provided her with a condensed look at both the ending and the beginning of the fellow’s journey.

Watch the video above to learn what attracted Cecily to the Surge movement.

Cecily’s background

Cecily began her career in education as an elementary classroom teacher at a public school on the southwest side of Chicago. Since transitioning from the classroom, she has been privileged to serve as a professional developer, instructional coach, university-based teacher educator, and program leader. She has served in leadership capacities in both teacher education and new teacher induction programming and policy, developing a specialized focus on diversity, equity, and social justice education.

Through her professional experiences, Cecily has developed a nuanced understanding of the educational system—the challenges as well as promising interventions—from a range of vantage points. She brings her lived experience of the barriers that educators of color face on a daily basis and difficult lessons learned about leadership, as well as clarity about how her experiences and knowledge as a woman of color are an asset and strength that she brings to her work.

While her identity and experiences as an educator are central to who she is and how she hopes to make an impact upon the world, Cecily’s most cherished, important and challenging role in life is mothering her two biracial daughters, Vanessa and Mia, ages 14 and 9.

Read Cecily’s full biography