This powerful woman is changing the world. Carmita’s talent is in amplifying and elevating the genius and power of emerging education leaders of color. Lifting people up and making a positive impact in communities across the country takes compassion, commitment, courage, and resilience. Her emphasis on making a difference in people’s lives is inspiring, and speaking to her was such a rewarding experience. Enjoy!
An interview with Carmita Semaan,
Founder and President, The Surge Institute
Chicago, IL USA
The mission of your company, Surge Institute, is to educate, support and elevate leaders of color who can create change in public education. What would be your advice for future women leaders?
Operate in excellence and integrity in whatever you do. Also, choose your mentors and advocates well and you will be afforded more opportunities than you could ever imagine. And when all else fails, be your own best advocate! 🙂
You once said that you spent your childhood well below the poverty level and experienced instability. When was the moment in your life when you decided that you would break out of that cycle and live differently? What were your dreams, hopes, and aspirations?
I had a great mother and that was like winning a lifetime lottery. She was very clear about the fact that education would be my pathway. She made lots of sacrifices to ensure that I had access to high-quality opportunities. Also, I had an amazing network of family and friends who believed in me and were committed to what I needed, no matter what. I wanted to live up to those expectations. I experienced ‘situational’ poverty in that my mother suffered a stroke at 29 and was left permanently disabled and battled medical issues the rest of her life. I had examples in my family of others who were middle class and living much more financially stable lives, but my mother and I had a different experience. I wanted to succeed to offer a better life for my mother and to model something else for those around me. And that meant that I had to be committed to pursuing excellence in everything that I did. I was determined. I’ve had a job since I was 12 years old and excelled in school. When you have a vision for your future, and you know that you aren’t financially well off, you have to work extremely hard.
You have to surround yourself with amazing people; a tribe who wants the same things out of life. People that love you and respect you and will lift you up even when you can’t lift yourself up because they see greatness in you and are willing to be a part of that journey with you.
Who influenced you the most during your childhood? Did you have role models?
My mother was my greatest role model. As someone who was physically disabled, single, and poor she was just a phenomenal example of resilience and strength. She was also wicked smart and funny and everything in between. She didn’t set any limits for me. She modeled that no matter what labels might be placed on me, I could and SHOULD be anything I wanted to be.
A second role model was my uncle (my mother’s brother). My father lived in another state and our visits were limited to summers and holidays so my uncle was in many ways like an everyday father to me. He was a gay, black man in deeply religious Birmingham, Alabama. It was an open secret that wasn’t openly discussed among others but certainly accepted by me and my mom. Just watching the way he walked through the world, with such confidence and grace, was inspiring to me. Watching him being who he was taught me to walk in my truth. I owe that to him. Also, this relationship made me see people for who they are and appreciate and love them, even when the world seems to be against them.
You’ve got to live your way to your truth. We don’t all come out knowing exactly who we are and what our purpose is. But, when you find it, you’ve got to walk confidently, boldly and with grace in it.
How do you define empowerment? How do you empower yourself and others on a daily basis?
I’ve stopped using the word empowerment. My calling in life is not about empowering anyone. People are innately powerful. My aim is to actually amplify and elevate the genius and power that already exists in our people and get them to see it and believe it themselves so that they can use that power to change the world.
I tap into my sources of power on a daily basis – it starts with making sure that I’m surrounded by people who actually believe in my strength and my genius and support me. This tribe helps me to acknowledge and leverage my strengths, even when I don’t see them in myself. I also look to people that I consider my “North Stars,” people who I aspire to emulate. Those who are walking in their purpose and having a profound impact on the world. And those aren’t always famous individuals…they’re people in my family, people in my neighborhood, women with whom I work on a daily basis. I look for inspiration, sources of power and enlightenment in the daily examples of leadership, beauty, and power that I have in my life.
What would your advice be to girls that lack opportunity, mentors or the confidence to view themselves as leaders in their schools, communities or future careers?
Expand what you believe your universe is and what you believe is attainable. There is beauty and possibility in being able to go online and read books and feel connected to characters, knowing that your village is not limited to the people that you can physically see.
It may seem silly, but when I grew up I loved Wonder Woman. I thought she was the greatest character and I thought I could be her. She was such a display of power and strength, while also being unapologetically feminine. I loved it! Your role models are only limited by the span of your imagination and willingness to broaden what you believe your village to be.
I often say to young women, “Who are the people that you see on online or out in the world that are sending messages of positivity, love, and light? You can follow their readings and their teachings and the example that they set in the world.”
Broaden your horizons and look for one friend or just one person who has some shared interest, beliefs, or values with you. I call them “the unusual suspects.” They aren’t necessarily at your school or in your neighborhood, but when you find them you know it. We owe it to ourselves to lean into the things and people that bring us joy.
You will attract the energy that is most aligned with yours when you spend time aligning yourself with the things that bring you joy. I believe like attracts like, you emit and project light when you are operating in your purpose and from your place of joy. So, my ‘lived’ experience, is that when I have leaned into being really unapologetically who I am and exploring and investing time in the things that are most pleasing to me, I have attracted people (friends, teachers, and mentors) who are aligned with my life’s joy.
In the Marvel comic universe, there’s a teenage superhero. Her name is ‘Ms. Marvel’. I have bought that comic for a number of young women because she also happens to be a woman of color. I think young women seeing themselves through different lenses is just important. If you want to be a princess, that’s awesome…be the best princess. But know that it’s because you want that, not because that’s what the world wants of you, or wants for you. I am all about exposing young women and young girls to lots of different examples of what female strength and power look like so that they can choose their own path.