Q&A with Idrissa Simmonds-Nastili, Director, NextGen Network, Pahara Institute

Last week, the spring 2016 cohort of Pahara Institute's NextGen Network was announced--and two EP Alumni, Lisa Ahn and Jelani McEwen were selected.

This week on the EP blog, we revisit a Q&A with EP Alumna Idrissa Simmonds-Nastili, Director of the Pahara Institute’s NextGen Network. Idrissa talks about what Pahara looks for in leaders, why diversity in the most senior levels of leadership in education is crucial for excellence and equity in education, and why all education leaders must have a “heart and mind for listening and learning."

1. What was your educational experience like as a kid, and when did you see education as a potential career?

I loved the arts and humanities as a kid. You couldn’t get my head out of a book! I excelled in English, and history fascinated me: I had deep curiosity about how the past led to the present world in which I lived.

Despite being a strong student in these respects, in eighth grade I was tracked into a math class for struggling students. This experience forever informed my academic identity. I bought into the narrative that I just wasn’t smart enough – a sentiment that I’ve since heard countless bright kids express. I didn’t realize at the time that my career path had begun to be shaped in that eighth grade math class.

I’ve always been a fighter and advocate for the underdogs, because I see myself as one. My career choices have been shaped by a desire to change such narratives for other students, and in particular, support the development of others to be able to do the same.

Idrissa Simmonds-Nastili

Idrissa Simmonds-Nastili

2. Tell me about your current role with the Pahara Institute and the NextGen Network program.

I am incredibly excited about this work. Pahara uses dialogue and a cohort-based experience to engage education leaders in questions about their leadership and their impact in the field.

NextGen was born out of a need to address the lack of diversity in the most senior levels of leadership in education. We believe that a more diverse leadership will lead to a stronger movement for excellence and equity in education, so a wider range of perspectives, identities, and lived experiences can work together to inform our work. It’s important that the experiences and perspectives of the communities and students many of our organizations serve are reflected in our leadership.

NextGen selects two cohorts of leaders per year. Participants gather three times over the courses of one year for leadership development focused on their values, practices, and the role they play in promoting excellence and equity in education for all students.

In my role I lead the selection, curriculum development, and alumni planning for NextGen. I also co-moderate each seminar. NextGen leaders have described the experience as one of the most transformational of their professional lives and it is exciting to lead work that I believe has the potential for tremendous impact on the field.

3. What do you look for in NextGen leaders?

We have a rigorous, multi-step selection process focused on learning where a candidate is in his or her career and how NextGen could factor into his or her ongoing development. The cohort dynamic is the cornerstone of the NextGen experience, so it’s important that we bring in leaders who can contribute meaningfully to the group.

Issues of race, bias, and equity frequently factor into our conversations, so leaders must feel able to engage in dialogue about cultural competence and equity. Ultimately, a strong NextGen candidate is an emerging senior leader who is eager for both professional and personal growth with the benefit of a “posse” supporting them along the way.

4. As a leader, you’ve worked in academia, in health education in Ghana, in charter school organizations, and more before your current role at the Pahara Institute. Tell me about your journey to become an education leader and what has guided you along your path.

I am guided by work that enables me to bring justice, integrity, and love to the table. I crave work that breaks my head open, forcing me to think in new and innovative ways, and always work where I’m collaborating and connecting with others.

Despite the apparent diversity of my professional roles, these values have been the consistent thread. I am Brooklyn-born, from a very large extended family still in NYC, but I moved to Canada with my parents and siblings when I was young. Both of my parents are immigrants so these experiences led me to have a very global perspective about my place in the world.

That global perspective resulted in my work in health education in Ghana. A year focused on educational access and opportunities for Ghana’s most vulnerable youth led me to think a lot about how similar inequities were playing out for Black and Latino students in the neighborhoods of my roots in Brooklyn. I chose to move back to New York and study Educational Leadership, Policy, and Advocacy at NYU.  

My summer with Ed Pioneers is a core experience in my path, not only for the great people I met in my cohort, several of whom have become friends for life (shout out to NYC 2009!), but because it led me to my role with Uncommon Schools, where I supported the training and hiring of Black and Latino teachers.

Eventually my work evolved to focus on Uncommon’s organizational-wide diversity strategy, and it was here that my professional mission really crystallized – to engage in human capital and talent development work that leads to a more equitable and diverse education reform movement. 

It’s important to me that we are looking beyond the numbers of diverse teachers and leaders, and really looking with courage into ensuring our practices and policies are rooted in equity and justice.

5. How did EP fit into your growth and development as an education leader?

Six years out from my fellowship experience, EP continues to factor into my professional and personal life. In conjunction with grad school, EP gave me my first community of peers who were thinking deeply about US education. I was challenged and pushed in my views on education.

Spending two years on the NYC Alumni Board enabled me to continue engaging in dialogue with peers, and these conversations have absolutely informed my work. I have a small group of chums from my cohort that I get together with for lunch a few times per year. We support one another through both career and life decisions.

Additionally, there are parallels between my roles with Uncommon and Pahara and EP: I learned a great deal about talent development and running a successful cohort experience from my own EP experience. Like any experience, the value of EP is really found in how you continue to leverage the great minds and people you connect with long after the summer experience is over.

6. What would you say to someone considering a career in education?

Have a heart and mind for listening and learning.

The movement for excellence and equity in education is a collaborative effort between students, families, communities, schools, and all other stakeholders. Learn from the experiences and stories of those on the ground: they are our best teachers in this work.


This post was originally published in August 2015.

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