“When you take the elevator up in life, you should always send it back down for others to follow,” says my friend Dario Collado of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation.
True leaders, mentors, do just that. I thank Irma Zardoya for being one of those leaders, for sending the elevator down to me and countless other current and aspiring educational leaders over her 45-year career. Her role as a Latina leader and mentor has had particular importance given the racial leadership gap in this country. Fewer than 20% of board members and CEOs of nonprofit organizations in the U.S. are people of color. Women of color fare even worse. The reasons for this are largely rooted in deep systemic inequities, about who has traditionally had access to leadership opportunities, but a lack of role models and networks, which are so important for becoming a leader, certainly plays a part.
Irma has been a natural role model. She came from humble beginnings, grew up in the Bronx, the daughter of Puerto Ricans, and when New York State issued a call for bilingual teachers, she seized the opportunity to teach in her home borough and her impact didn’t stop there. Over her career in education, she has served as a paraprofessional, teacher, school leader, superintendent, regional superintendent, and central office administrator before taking the helm of the Leadership Academy.
I first learned about Irma in a Harvard Business School case study I read during my doctoral studies. The piece highlighted the work of the NYC Department of Education under Joel Klein’s leadership, including the inquiry team process under the Children’s First Initiative which Irma led. In my studies, I rarely came across Latina names, let alone Latina women who had come from backgrounds similar to mine and who had dedicated their careers to working in their home communities, as I had done for the first decade of my career.
Irma became my North Star. I admired her for the “street cred” she earned in the field and for the wit and courage that enabled her to expand her influence and impact, all on behalf of her community.
Over her 45-year career in education, Irma has made a remarkable impact on students and educators. She has had a deep longstanding commitment to developing leadership in others, in building and encouraging others to build learning communities within their schools and districts. At every step she has spoken of the value of mentors and coaches, and she has been those things to those of us lucky enough to work with her, lucky enough to catch the elevator she sends down.
Leaders like Irma show other women of color that it is possible, that we can be true to our identities while developing and expanding mission-driven organizations that support our communities. I am indebted to Irma for forging this path, for defying the “sal si puedes” (get-out- if-you-can) mentality—that success is not about leaving one’s community but about using any and every opportunity to represent who we are—to change the narrative and inspire others by always sending the elevator down for the next generation of leaders.
*El Ascensor means “elevator” in Spanish
Nancy Gutiérrez will take over the role of President & CEO of the NYC Leadership Academy from Irma Zardoya on Oct. 1.
Nancy B. Gutiérrez, Ed.L.D.
President & CEO
Dr. Nancy B. Gutiérrez joined the NYC Leadership Academy in 2014 and was named President & CEO in July 2018. Nancy is a Fall 2019 Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow and was named one of New York State’s 100 most powerful leaders in education by City & State NY in 2020. Nancy’s belief in education as a critical vehicle for equity and social justice has inspired her dedication to education. Growing up in a disenfranchised Latinx neighborhood in East San Jose, California, she witnessed first-hand the impact of limited resources and low expectations. Nancy began her career as a teacher and principal in her home community, where she was the founding principal of Renaissance Academy, the highest performing middle school in the district and a California Distinguished School. Achieving that success, she went on to lead an effort to turn around the district’s lowest performing middle school, located only two blocks from her childhood home. Nancy was named the UC Davis Rising Star and Association of California School Administrator’s Region 8 Middle School Principal of the Year in 2010. Since she joined the NYC Leadership Academy in August 2014, Nancy has led such accomplishments as launching the organization’s district leadership work, developing principal supervisor leadership standards and aligned curriculum and programming including the popular Foundations of Principal Supervision institute. Prior to working at the Leadership Academy, Nancy launched a program for executive leadership advancement for the New York City Department of Education that led to superintendent certification. Nancy is a graduate of the inaugural cohort of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) program where during her tenure she served as a Teaching Fellow for Harvard’s School Leadership Program, a mentor for Harvard’s Latino Leadership Initiative, and co-chair for Harvard’s Alumni of Color Conference. Nancy served on the national board of the Coalition of Essential Schools for more than a decade. She is an adjunct instructor at NYU and is a frequent speaker and instructor for the Harvard Principals’ Center institutes for School Turnaround Leaders, Urban School Leaders, and Race, Equity, Access, and Leadership. Nancy is on the Latinos for Education (L4E) teaching team, a graduate of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) Aspiring Superintendents Academy, and is a member of Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC) Board of Directors which aims to break through the polarizing divides that have consumed efforts to improve public education. Find Nancy on Twitter @nancybgutierrez or LinkedIn.