Leadership Team

The Surge Institute leadership team is dedicated to the mission of developing, connecting and empowering emerging leaders of color across the education landscape. The overarching goal in all of our work is to transform education to better serve our youth and communities, who are too often ignored or misunderstood.

Visit our careers page to learn how you can join our leadership team.

National

Connie Casson

Chief Operating Officer

connie@surgeinstitute.org

Connie Casson serves the Surge movement as Chief Operating Officer after serving as an advisor since the organization’s inception.  Connie’s ability to turn vision into plans and plans into outcomes has enabled non-profits, school districts, higher ed partners and state departments to achieve goals, empower people, and increase opportunities for students across the country.

A first-generation college student and Iowa native, Connie received degrees from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Texas at Austin. She serves on the boards of the Pottawattamie County Community Foundation, Iowa Extension Council Association, and the scholarship foundation for her alma mater.

Noemí Cortés

Program Manager, Surge Academy

noemi@surgeinstitute.org

Noemí Cortés has dedicated her work to building the capacity of people to speak up and speak back to inequities in the education system. She has worked as a teacher, teacher educator, administrator, and instructional coach.

A graduate of the Chicago Public Schools system, Noemí spent ten years in Arizona learning a new system and way of being in education. This, along with study in Cuba and Brazil, has informed her understanding of what else exists as possibilities for the education system. Noemí believes all children have courage, brilliance, and power they do not often see in themselves. It is from that position that she engages with people.

As Program Manager for the Surge Academy, Noemí carries the belief that change begins with the hope that change can occur. She does not begin from a place of dismantling and disrupting but from a place of growing and building in solidarity and community. In part, this belief is heavily informed by her position as a mother of two young daughters whose future is yet to be determined.

Sasha Dzubay

Director, Alumni Impact

sasha@surgeinstitute.org

Sasha Dzubay executes the direction and administration of Surge’s internal systems to support fundraising, external relations and internal infrastructure, all in support of high-quality program delivery and quality control. Marrying her degree in organizational leadership with an impressive resume of luxury service administration and event management, Sasha drives results for Surge.

As a Korean-born adoptee, raised in Minnesota, Sasha’s perspective of growing up as an undefined “other” inspired her passion for issues within non-traditional families. This passion flows from Sasha, through Surge, and into everything that Surge delivers. Sasha delights in doing the critical, behind-the-scenes work that defines this movement.

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Rito Martinez

Vice President, Fellowship Programs

rito@surgeinstitute.org

Rito Martinez is a giver whose own deep commitment to personal development fueled his passion to support the development of others. As Vice President of Programs for the Surge Institute, he is responsible for setting the vision and direction for the content of the Surge Fellowship, as well as the design of the Surge core curriculum.

Growing up in Little Village, a working-class neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago, Rito has overcome significant challenges to become an award-winning educator. He is deeply committed to impacting communities of color by supporting and developing the leaders who serve them.

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Marisa Muñoz

Manager, Marketing & Outreach

marisa@surgeinstitute.org

Marisa Muñoz brings to the team a strong marketing background, having engaged in projects in a variety of fields including digital marketing, newspaper publications, community event planning, and business development. A member of the Surge marketing team, Marisa engages in recruitment and fundraising related marketing, social media, and email communications. She spent three years as a volunteer dance teacher at Chicago Public Schools and is driven by a passion to help young women of color establish healthy communication and self-love.

Christopher Paicely

Vice President, Marketing Strategy

chris@surgeinstitute.org

Christopher Paicely has built a career in storytelling. As a journalist, Christopher saw his stories published in AOL News, Huffington Post, Uproxx and Chicago Parent before foraying into a new career. As a public relations consultant, Christopher worked with municipalities, school districts and businesses to help shape their public narrative.

Christopher’s passion remains in storytelling, with a specific focus on influencing the national zeitgeist so that people of color take center stage as credible voices. His goal with Surge is to grow the voice of the movement, to share the story and motivate support for the Surge mission to through strategic marketing efforts.

Carmita Semaan

Founder and President

carmita@surgeinstitute.org

Carmita Semaan’s career began in corporate America; however corporate could not contain her desire to lead high-impact initiatives benefitting urban youth and transforming urban communities – so she blazed a trail within the nonprofit sector.

Carmita’s commitment to empowering our country’s most underserved youth led to a decade of executive service, driving results for visionary leaders including Alma Powell, Gen. Colin Powell and former US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Carmita serves on the Board of Directors for the Academy for Urban School Leadership, Marwen, and America’s Promise Alliance. Carmita received the Chicago Business Journal’s 2016 Woman of Influence award.

Chicago

Cecily Relucio Hensler

Program Manager

cecily@surgeinstitute.org

Cecily Relucio Hensler is an accomplished professional educator with nearly two decades of professional experience working in, with, and outside the Chicago Public Schools.  She believes that the challenges of fighting for an equitable, just and humane education for all Chicago youth—especially those who have been most systemically disenfranchised—are immense, and that educational leaders of color are critical to the transformation of the present system and conditions.

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. 

In addition to her work with Surge, Cecily is a doctoral student in Curriculum Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Her research and teaching has been centered on using Critical Race Theory and praxis to critique and transform urban teacher education and teacher professional development. Her research seeks to identify interventions that contribute to diversifying the teacher workforce, by addressing structural barriers that interfere with the recruitment, preparation and retention of preservice and in-service teachers of color.

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.

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Tamara Prather

Executive Director

tamara@surgeinstitute.org

A mission-driven leader with a history of building effective teams and delivering top-tier results, Chicago Executive Director Tamara Prather is the chief brand ambassador for The Surge Institute in Chicago, responsible for building and maintaining relationships with partners and funders while ensuring exceptional delivery of the Surge Fellowship program. Tamara brings over 17 years of combined experience in the private sector and education through her past work at GE Capital, Kraft Foods, Chicago Public Schools and most recently, A Better Chicago.

As managing director and head of marketing at A Better Chicago — a venture philanthropy fund focused on improving educational opportunities for low-income youth — she led marketing initiatives to enable the organization to achieve its aggressive growth targets. While there, she developed and executed an inaugural education summit that convened over 260 business, civic and academic leaders and 30 world-class speakers to explore how philanthropy can accelerate change and deliver a high-quality education to every Chicagoan. Additionally, she was a member of A Better Chicago’s management team, working closely with the CEO and other managing directors on organization-wide strategies and decisions.

Tamara transitioned her career from the private sector to education when she was selected to participate in The Broad Residency in Urban Education program in 2013. She completed her residency at Chicago Public Schools, where she led initiatives to increase stakeholder engagement and developed a strategy to improve student achievement during school transitions, periods of time when students across the spectrum of achievement are more likely to fail without sufficient supports and interventions. Tamara also created the first-ever district-led student advisory council to provide a forum for the CEO and other district leaders to hear the voice of students directly and engage them in hands-on work to help solve problems that concern students most, such as violence, inequity, and lack of college preparedness.

Tamara is intimately aware of the opportunities education affords and is passionate about leading change that makes quality education accessible to all. As a first-generation college graduate, she has witnessed the widening gap between the opportunities available to her and those available to those closest to her – this gap she is committed to closing. Tamara holds a BS in business administration from Ohio State University and an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Sandra Rush

Program & Development Coordinator

sandra@surgeinstitute.org

Before deciding to bring her expertise to the nonprofit sector, Sandra held numerous management positions, both in academia and at Fortune 500 companies, gaining valuable experience in talent acquisition, project management, training and development, compliance and governance, and management and supervision in human resources.

As a project manager at BMO Financial Group, where she was a senior advisor in Diversity and Inclusion, she developed new start-up guidelines for Employee Resource Groups. Her coaching of BMO emerging leaders and committees, from seven corporate groups, led to the development of highly successful enterprise-wide sponsored events and programs to highlight, recognize, celebrate and engage the diverse employee workforce.

Prior to BMO, as a talent acquisition manager at AT&T and its spin off companies, she developed and implemented new employment recruiting strategies and designed databases, utilized by a team Recruiters and Researchers, as well as process improvement and territory management tools. She led multiple cross-functional teams on organizational initiatives, resulting in implementation and standardization of team’s quality improvement recommendations.

Her contributions to the community include leading a Professional Women’s Network committee that culminated in annual 5K scholarship awards to female high school seniors; a former Firman Community Services board member and committee chair; and Chicago Chamber of Commerce, Youth Motivation Program, Corporate liaison and facilitator for CPS High Schools.

Sandra holds a master of science degree in education from Chicago State University. She is a Chicago native, avid jazz lover and a collector of African sculpture, African-American art and literature.

Oakland

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Yvonne Rodriguez

Program Manager 

yvonne@surgeinstitute.org

Michelle Seijas

Executive Director

michelle@surgeinstitute.org

A passionate career educator, Michelle Seijas, Ed.D, served as a school leader for more than a decade before joining the Surge leadership team as the Oakland Executive Director. Michelle has previously served as a school principal and as a district-level administrator. She has earned her Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy from the University of California-Davis. Michelle is passionate about serving youth and communities of color and carries that passion with her into elevating and empowering Oakland’s emerging education leaders.

Hazel Gutierrez

Operations Coordinator

hazel@surgeinstitute.org