The personal and public power of change: from CEO to Board Chair of Streetlight Schools.

I am proudly announcing my transition from the CEO to Chairperson of the board of Streetlight Schools, responsible for governance and strategic direction. Founding Streetlight over the past six years has been the most meaningful work I have ever done and has changed me as a person. This moment is bittersweet for me but it is an immense privilege to successfully hand over executive running of Streetlight. Here’s why:

 

I started Streetlight in a storeroom with some children running a jumbled afterschool program. Since then we have graduated teachers, educated hundreds of learners, helped bring on drastic changes in the community, and flourished into a fully-fledged school with a proven, world-class education model. For years to come, the lives our children will testify to the impact of our work. Sometimes I walk around the school and I still can’t believe what we have managed to achieve.

 

But it has also been challenging: the long hours, the weight of managerial and financial responsibilities, the stress, and bearing witness to the hardships of poverty takes an immense toll. We do this work because we care. Because we care, the work consumes us. In our commitment to the dignity and humanity of others – we sometimes neglect our own.

 

In the past year, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I have received some very bad news regarding my own health, and I suffered an emotional breakdown. Facing these personal hardships reminded me of something I had lost sight of a little bit: I am a person, with needs and vulnerabilities.

In these times, I kept remembering a scene from the Harry Potter books, which I was so fond of as a teenager. Harry is in Professor Dumbledore’s office – he is in trouble for something and waiting for the headmaster to arrive. He pokes around because he is stressed out and curious. He sees a bird on a perch – it’s old and sickly. Harry looks more closely at the bird, and suddenly it combusts. Harry looks at this sickly bird in flames, and panics. How is he going to explain to Professor Dumbledore that he killed his bird?

 

Often in my last year as CEO, I felt like that bird: exhausted, unable to carry on, ready to fall apart. And I felt like Harry: terrified that anyone will see. That I’d done something wrong. That I’d get caught out, even though I hadn’t done anything wrong.  

 

For those who read the books – they know that when Professor Dumbledore comes in, Harry mumbles a frantic apology, and Professor Dumbledore says something like: “oh, thank goodness, he’s been looking dreadful for days!” He shows Harry that, from the ashes, a new baby bird has emerged- a young phoenix, called Fawkes. Later in the book, Fawkes (glorious now, and fully grown) comes to save Harry from a perilous situation.

This is the good news: in the past year, handing over my daily responsibilities helped the organisation to be reborn, grow stronger and be energised under the new leadership of David Fu, the new CEO of Streetlight, who has so courageously stepped up from his role as COO. I met Fu nearly five years ago in New York, and two and a half years ago, he gave up his whole life to move to South Africa to help me build this organisation. I will let him articulate his vision for the organisation in his own words but Fu has been there to help me build this organisation every step of the way. Along with the rest of the remarkable leadership team – Tatenda, Beve, Nosisa, Brian and Tinashe –  and the Streetlight Schools team as a whole, I know that the running of the organisation is in gifted, caring and passionate hands. Each team member comes with extraordinary stories of commitment to education, a heart for making the world a better place, and the drive to change the world. Each has been with the organisation for a long time and is deeply invested in the culture and values of the organisation. I cannot imagine a better team.

 

We have always treated our vision as shared, and bigger than any one of us. Our organisation was founded on values that made room for people to grow. Those values have placed us in good standing now.

 

Currently I spend one to two days a week at Streetlight. I have had time to start writing a book about Streetlight Schools, and Jeppestown, focusing on the lives of women in the school and community. I have had a chance to spend more time in the school and think more deeply about the long-term strategy of the organisation and build capacity where needed. I feel proud and happy to contribute to the organisation I started in this new role. I am also driving the Streetlight Scholarship Fund- to provide scholarship places for our most vulnerable learners – especially those who have lost a parent. I have enjoyed my role as board chair and I value having the time and flexibility to spend time on outward relationships, strategic planning and mentorship.  

I started Streetlight with the desire to create visionary, audacious, South African education that redefines schooling in the next century. In the process of doing this work, I have come to be completely in awe of the courageous journey people go on when they become teachers. I have come to love, profoundly, the children at our school: their curiosity, liveliness, courage and humour. I remain amazed at the infuriating contradictions and extraordinary stories of the people of Jeppestown.  

 

I am also immensely grateful to the support of the Streetlight funders, my mentors, family and friends who have shown me such compassion and support towards the organisation and myself personally during the past year. It would not have been possible without them.

 

I ask that you continue to follow our work , support our scholarship fund and continue with me on the lifelong journey to making the world a better place for children through the magic of education.