‘It’s a rich, thoughtful program’: a conversation with Innovation School Fellow Geoff Fenelus
Roles: Innovation School Fellow (Cohort 6 & 7, 2019-2021), founder of Promise Prep, and member of Surge Academy Indianapolis’s inaugural cohort
Geoff Fenelus first heard about Surge Institute while attending an Education Leaders of Color convening in 2019 during his first year of his Innovation School Fellowship with The Mind Trust. A panel talked about Surge Institute and participants shared the impact it had on their leadership development. Later at that convening, Geoff ran across Surge Institute’s founder Carmita Semaan. He recalls, “When I met Carmita I thought, wow, she is a dynamic leader. But at that point in time, Surge was nowhere near Indianapolis.”
Little did he know The Mind Trust would soon be partnering with Surge Institute to launch Surge Academy Indianapolis starting in 2020. When Geoff found out the program was coming to his backyard, he jumped at the chance to be involved. He credits Carmita’s leadership and track record in leadership development as critical selling points for why he desired a spot in the inaugural Indianapolis cohort. Beyond that, he recognized the power of participating in a local cadre of systems’ leaders driving change across the city.
When The Mind Trust and Surge Academy Indianapolis announced the sixteen Black and Latino leaders in its inaugural cohort, Geoff had some familiar company. His wife, Ava, also applied and was selected for the cohort. Ava works on the national team for Relay’s Graduate School of Education.
Despite the initial excitement of him and his wife being selected, Geoff knew the proof would be in the pudding. Experience told him not all leadership development programming was created equally and the pandemic forced some shifts on Surge’s methods as the cohort neared its kickoff in fall 2020. Any worries he carried were quickly dispelled. “A lot of times you do these Fellowships or convenings and it’s a waste of time. But Surge does what they do extremely well. It’s a rich, thoughtful program that caters to the group and the individual. Not one second has been wasted.”
Geoff especially credits Surge with facilitating deep bonds among cohort members, something made all the more notable given the virtual format for fall sessions due to ongoing public health concerns surrounding COVID-19. “We’ve only done two sessions and it already feels like we’ve known these people for years. [Surge is] very thoughtful about who makes up the cohort; it’s a range of diversity that extends into personalities and ideologies.”
Over the first couple of sessions, the cohort has engaged in research-based reading and dialogue and authentic, deep conversations regarding leadership and racial equity. All of it has been permeated by a refreshing candidness for Geoff. “Surge broke down barriers to engagement. You can say what you need to say.”
One reading that stuck out during the initial sessions was Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements by Charlene Carruthers and her three leadership-connected solutions for achieving justice: collective leadership, healing justice, and radical honesty.
When he considers the importance of a program like Surge for our city, Geoff emphasized the collective power he has already noticed across the first couple of sessions. “Surge is providing a space for different types of people who want to expand their leadership and learn together and network so we can move forward with accountability and connectedness in mind.”
As he continues to refine his school model for Promise Prep, Geoff is bringing Surge’s leadership learnings back to his leadership team and board. Thus, Surge is not just impacting Geoff, but his entire school team in their critical, final pre-launch year.
It’s often said it takes a village to educate a child. Maybe, regarding effective school leadership, it also takes a village. For Geoff and Promise Prep, his experience in Surge Academy is another piece of his leadership village, one he highly recommends to other leaders of color. “This will push you and develop you as a leader. The tools and experience they provide are so strong.”
About Surge Institute
Founded by Carmita Semaan in 2014, the Surge Institute’s mission is to educate and develop leaders of color who create transformative change in urban education. Surge is the preeminent pipeline addressing the dearth of leadership of color at the decision-making tables within education. Through its national programs, Surge educates, empowers, and energizes educational leaders of color who will create transformative change in the communities they serve.