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Keynote speakers look forward to Power & Possibilities leadership conference

“The path to leadership in the broadest sense doesn’t have anything to do with position. It has to do with courage. It’s about not being silent on things of importance; it’s about going in the direction that is for the common good,” says Bernadeia Johnson. “And it is knowing that when you take that path, you don’t do it alone; there are many people to help you along the way.”

Johnson is Superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools. Her counterpart, Valeria Silva, Superintendent of Saint Paul Public Schools, adds, “As women we need to always stay focused on what our beliefs and our values are and keep them in the forefront of our actions and decisions.”

Both women will be keynote speakers at the upcoming Power & Possibilities: Leadership Conference for Women on Wednesday, April 13, to share their own experiences in their leadership journeys.

“As far as leadership is concerned, I didn’t start out my life with the intention of becoming the superintendent of a large urban public school district,” says Superintendent Johnson.

Johnson’s job history started at McDonald’s where a customer noticed how personable she was, and offered her a job at the bank across the street. She became a teller and eventually a financial analyst. At the same time she was volunteering with the Minneapolis schools, which prompted her to get her license to teach and have a greater impact on the children and the community. Recognizing her ability to work with other teachers, she pursued a role involving the professional development of teachers. The rest, she says, is history.

Valeria Silva came to the United States from her native Chile at age 24. “ I had a formal education, I had my degrees, and I spoke both Spanish and French, but I had no English.” She hit the ground running when she came to Minnesota and taught for three years as an elementary school teacher at the Adams Spanish Immersion School. Over the next nine years, her English not only became more proficient but she was also moving into positions of increasing responsibility until she was made principal at Adams.

“I still speak English with an accent, and it’s my biggest cause for self doubt,” Silva says. “While it’s my own reality that I have to deal with, I know in my heart that in spite of that, I persevered in pursuit of my goals and in achieving my place in the world. What motivates my leadership is the challenge of providing equal opportunities to all children, particularly children with troubled histories.”

Johnson looks to her 94-year-old grandmother as a role model. “She has her doctorate in Education and she was the principal of Elizabeth Hall School in Minneapolis where I got my first principal assignment,” Johnson says. “She is and always has been a servant leader. Even at 94, she is still tutoring at her church.”

In the State of Minnesota, Silva believes there is more diversity in the field of education with a good mix of both men and women in leadership positions, especially in Saint Paul. “I feel like I’m paving the way for other young women of color, and I want to tell them, particularly the Somali and Hmong immigrants, there is no dream they cannot reach. Even if you come to this country at age 12 or 14, don’t feel you can’t do it; believe that nothing can stop you.”

“For women of color, the challenge is to establish our own credibility,” says Johnson. “You have to find your own voice. Valeria and I are in really challenging districts, and some of the challenges were face include the diversity of our stakeholders, but both of us see it as a tremendous opportunity as well.”

April 8, 2011 by Julie Michener

See also: Leadership