Emily Alexander is a Partner at Thomas, Alexander, Forrester & Sorensen LLP, a law firm in Venice, CA.  She also has served as the Board Chair at New Roads School for the last 6 years. New Roads is an independent school in Los Angeles dedicated to authentic diversity and inclusion.

Daniel (00:02): I love the metaphor of a coin heads and tails, 50-50 shot. And often when we're looking at an experience and event, piece of feedback, anything in life, there's one side where we're a bit comfortable and we know what's going to happen and then on the other side. The other side represents the unknown and we could frame that as scary. We can frame that as dangerous, and therefore we go with the safe bet, but what is the cost of going with what we know, what do we miss out when we don't embark in the adventure of the unknown? That's where we start today's conversation with my guest, Emily Alexander, and not only do we discuss leadership, life and traveling the unknown. We also talk about the experience women in leadership have that's specific to them in male dominated spaces. We also talk about what it means to create a school that is intentionally diverse, not just on paper, but actually in how they live out their life and their education. Hey, it's Daniel and welcome to the better leaders, better schools podcast, a show for you, a Ruckus Maker, an out of the box leader making change happen in education. We'll be right back back after these messages from our show's sponsors.

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Daniel (02:43): Ruckus Maker, today I'm joined by Emily Alexander, who is a partner at Thomas Alexander Forrester and Sorenson LOP, a law firm in Venice, California. She also has served as the board chair at New Road School for the last six years. New Roads is an independent school in Los Angeles, dedicated to authentic diversity and inclusion. Emily, welcome to the show. Thank you very much. I'm glad you're here. Looking forward to digging into a number of topics that will really add value to the Ruckus Makers listening. I'd like to start with choosing the unknown and I want to start there because this is really what school leaders have been navigating in 2020, right? The unknown. Where did you find the courage to walk away from the consistency and the guarantees of a partner position at a law firm to take an adventure into the unknown?

Emily (03:44): I'm a big believer, and if it's not working, don't try to make your work, find something else. I'm also a big believer in just because everybody does it that way. It doesn't make it right. So I was looking at a partnership at a very large international law firm, which would then set me up for a career for life essentially and it wasn't working for me. I had two children. I didn't like having the partners of management structure very thick and deep. I had just come off a trial, which I enjoy doing very much, and I just want to do that. I just want to focus on that and be a mom and I couldn't do that if I became a partner. It came with a whole bunch of management issues and responsibilities and working for senior partners. It was kind of like, no, it's not for me. I had no idea if we would be successful or not, but I sort of always think I'm my best shot. So I was gonna take it

Daniel (04:52): This concept of not working. How did that manifest in the day to day? I mean, obviously there's the observations that you make and maybe you feel it in your gut or somewhere else in that moment. Was there anything else, I don't know if it was debriefing with the kids or journaling. Tell us more about that.

Emily (05:10): I would just say it felt every day that I couldn't use my authentic voice. So every day I was kind of pretending to be someone else, not radically, but enough that I could tell that I wasn't comfortable just being my true self. I'm pretty loose and not formal and I thought, I don't want to do this forever. I just want to be, I want to work in a place where I can just walk in and be me. And that was really it. It was that everyday I could tell that my voice, I wasn't using my true voice.

Daniel (05:44): Yeah, and then you've done the hard work. I'm sure to have a clear understanding of what that authentic voice sounds like, and you were just seeing a misalignment there and then had the courage to travel the journey of the unknown, but I'm sure people thought you were crazy at that moment. Right. How do you get to that because Ooh, the critics and the naysayers, it hurts sometimes to hear that feedback

Emily (06:09): Very much so I got criticized from my family, from the partners at the law firm and I would say my response to that is once I've made my decision, it's not changing, especially a big one like that. I just didn't respond. I just don't engage. That's their issue, not mine. I'd already decided and I find it very useful. You just don't say anything and people don't know how to handle that and they just stopped.

Daniel (06:41): You're not putting any more fuel into the fire. I learned that as a classroom teacher. What I realize is that kids, it's really funny, an adult acting crazy. Right. If I didn't play my part in that dance it just kind of was like water and let it flow off. The classroom management referrals, discipline, it all went away. I realized in that moment I was the problem, not the kids.

Emily (07:12): That's really smart.

Daniel (07:13): Thank you. Yeah. It caused me so much stress before that decision, but afterwards it was almost, I don't want to say it was easy, but the problems just absolutely disappeared and then we could work on the real stuff of school. Let's talk more about you and you're definitely a Ruckus Maker. You're somebody known for your unique choices. What has been your proudest professional moment?

Emily (07:43): Definitely forming my law firm, which I did 12 years ago. I had two partners and I would say creating a workplace that worked for me, for example, back then, it was not common to have all your documents electronic and I created a completely electronic office. We did not keep paper, I set it up so everybody could access everything from any place, including home, which was very important to me. I also reached out to a number of women who I had known either in law school or previously at my former firm who had dropped out of the workforce because of children and offered them a job whereby they would work for the firm and they would get a formal title of counsel. The deal was they never had to come to the office and once they accepted a project, they had to finish it, but they could turn down a project at any time with no explanation needed.

Emily (08:47): Over the course of the firm, we're very small, but I believe we've had at least eight, maybe 10, and they've stayed with us for years. I've had six who have now gone on to full-time jobs as lawyers, as in-house counsel at startups in the UC system at a hedge fund because they had been able to keep work on their resume for six years, eight years when it's very hard to do that in other circumstances. I'm really proud of that. Being able to create that kind of space for women being able to stay in the workforce while also being full-time parents.

Daniel (09:29): Yeah. If I'm understanding correctly too, part of honoring your authentic voice, that's why you turned down that consistent and lucrative offer at the large firm. It started your own thing because that inside knowledge and yourself your experience there.

Emily (09:45): Yeah, very much so. Being able to spend more time with my children at the same time, having a way more fulfilling professional life was really, really special. I'm extraordinarily grateful to my two partners who we did it together. And anytime I said, I can't do this. I've got to be with the kids. There were no questions asked.

Daniel (10:09): Since we were talking a bit about how you create a flexible work environment for the women on your team I'd like to explore a bit what your experience has been as a woman in leadership and what it's like to deal with men seemingly everywhere in your profession. What tips do you have for the female Ruckus Makers that are listening and for the male ones, please expand their awareness.

Emily (10:34): I would say the key is you really have to be yourself. I think this is less so now, but certainly when I was starting out and I was in litigation, which is a very male heavy side of the law. I saw a lot of senior female lawyers, partners who really I think we're trying to be super tough and I think being emotional or kind as being soft and that's not how they got ahead and they didn't want any woman working under them to be like that. Despite being a litigator, I am not naturally antagonistic. That's not my style and I couldn't do it. I didn't want to do it. So I would say one, you have to be yourself and you also need to believe that you can do it your way without imitating how men do it.

Emily (11:32): That's I think a very important first step and then you have to find your way. I think you also need to understand that men are different than women and that's okay. Women are different from men and that's totally okay. But what you'll run into, if you work with a lot of men is they don't appreciate that. So you have to carry that water basically for both of you and you need to watch and learn how they process information, because I found that it's very different or at least it can be very different how men and women process communications and information, and you need to figure out how to do it for yourself, but then also how to communicate so that it's impactful on men. Otherwise, I found that if I didn't appreciate and work towards how they process information, it was extremely frustrating because literally I wasn't heard, I mean, it's kind of stunning because as a woman, I find I try to understand what everybody's trying to say to me, no matter how they're saying it, but I found repeatedly that if you're not saying it the way that they will process it, they just tune it out and that it can be different among men.

Emily (12:48): But I would say generally they do process information differently. So finding a way that you can communicate such that you don't get frustrated, but you're successful is key.

Daniel (12:59): Yeah. I appreciate you sharing that a lot of reading I've done on this topic, or even with the guests that have been on the podcast, I think we default to the natural communication style we enjoy and that works if you have the title and authority and power where everyone is made to listen to you, right. Anywhere that has any bit of nuance in where you want to have influence among all stakeholders and generally communicate well with everyone, you have to be more savvy. Your hand was forced, It sounds like, but you've figured it out by being able to observe right. How people receive messages and how they give them. It's helped you be a better communicator.

Emily (13:47): Yeah. I mean, I would say being a trial lawyer, you have to communicate in a way that the jury understands, which can be very different from a normal conversation, particularly if it's an area, for example, I sue and audit firms and so some of my cases involve audits, which nobody except an actual CPA could understand. So my job is to make that information understandable to a lay person and that has educated me quite a bit on effective communication.

Daniel (14:21): It might be called the famous technique, but if you can describe a complex topic or this or this financial audit stuff to a lay person, or I think the technique says in sixth grader sort of understanding, then you really know you have command of that topic and if you don't

Emily (14:41): Exactly. That's actually what we always say is that we need to be talking about our case in a way that, we actually say a fourth grader can understand because otherwise we can't even, we're not even going to start. It's not going to work.

Daniel (14:57): All right. Well, there's definitely diversity in terms of communicating messages. After the break, I want to dig into the idea of building truly diverse communities. Right now we're going to pause here for just a moment, for a message from our sponsor,

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Daniel (17:18): Alright, and we're back with Emily Alexander, who not only is a partner at her firm, but she has served as a board chair at an interesting independent school called New Roads School. The reason Emily and I are talking right now is they have a really unique approach to building truly diverse communities. Emily, can you explain how independent schools and New Roads have tackled this?

Emily (17:46): Sure. I mean, I think we've acknowledged in a way that I think a lot of independent schools don't and that in order to have a truly diverse community of students, you need as a first step, you need to give out a lot of financial aid. Given where we are with this country, it is clear that you need socioeconomic diversity and if you get that, you tend to get a lot of the other kinds of diversity as well. So New Roads dedicates 30-40% of its budget every year to tuition remission, which is financial aid such that almost 50% of our families received some form of financial aid, which is honestly, I think we give out at least double if not triple the amount of financial aid as any other independent school that we know of, but it doesn't stop there. We also have, for example, 40% of our faculty is people of color. Our administration is similarly diverse and we've really worked to create an entire community that is diverse, such that we don't have pockets of diversity.

Emily (18:54): The whole system needs to be diverse. The other thing that I like that I'm very proud of about New Roads is that it's not just racial or ethnic diversity or socioeconomic diversity. We also really celebrate and hold a space for differences in learning. We have a dedicated program called the Spectrum Program for children who are on the autism spectrum. We also have a lot of kids who have diagnosed learning differences because it's not about intelligence. It's about styles of learning. We do a lot of professional development of our teachers, such that they can teach to all of those different styles of learners. I think that's a real key to me personally, because like we were talking about there's different kinds of communication and that's part of how people learn. If a school doesn't embrace that and solve for that, they're excluding any number of children. It's not on the basis of so-called intelligence it's on the basis of these people just process information differently than the norm, whatever the norm might be, right. The sort of old school official norm and we've really tried to throw that out the window.

Daniel (20:14): So currently New Roads has systems and structures that support and promote diversity in many different domains of the school. I know because of our intro call, it wasn't always like that, even though it might've been the stated mission, I was just gonna say, I'd love for you to go into that a bit because a lot of the Ruckus Makers listening have bold ambitious ideas or their guts telling them, "Hey, this is what we say we're about, but are we really about it." Please tell us, tell us that story because you really are encouraged to shift there to live out the mission.

Emily (20:54): New Roads was founded 25 years ago with what I would call kind of the old-fashioned dream of diversity, which was sort of like, okay, we'll just put a bunch of diverse kids in a classroom and that's it. I think it was also founded on a kind of old fashioned idea of charity, in which the wealthier families come and support the less wealthy families and everybody feels good about it and that's just not enough. When I joined the board of New Roads, I realized that most of the administration and almost all of the board were elderly white men and yet we were promoting ourselves as a truly diverse community. I was fortunate enough to overlap with a new head of school, Williams. Both of us took a look at this place and said, we're not doing what we're saying.

Emily (21:52): We're doing with integrity and between the two of us, we've really taken a top-down audit of the school and are fulfilling the mission, which is a fantastic mission. Honestly, while we've somewhat changed the wording of the mission, it was sort of a few words here and there. The mission has remained the same, but I would say the execution is totally different than it used to be because we've really worked to make it truly diverse including the administration and the faculty. I would say another part of it is we realized that giving children financial aid wasn't enough. So it may be that they can't afford the books, or they don't have enough money for lunch or transportation, or if they want to stay after school to be in the play, then they can't get home and so they don't participate in the play.

Emily (22:49): So really leveling the playing field so that every student can participate in the full offerings of the school is a bit of a large focus and we call that meaningful access. We have raised, I think in the past six years, maybe $600,000, just for that purpose. Whereby we provide extra tutoring. If a student needs to go visit a college, come home for Thanksgiving once they've been in college, a new mattress, we've even renovated a bedroom when a home situation required to move to a grandma's house where she didn't have a space for the child, lunches, all of that because you can't just invite children into the community and not recognize that they might need additional support rather than just tuition.

Daniel (23:41): I mean that resonates with me. Don't have to sell me on that idea, but can you express how to work on mindsets that might believe right, that this is a good goal to achieve but then when you get into the work you're talking about providing resources that, well, this falls under what the school's responsible for. How did you see that?

Emily (24:13): I think we're lucky to have a community that believes that diverse, true diversity is not just a moral good, but an educational imperative. There's a lot of research now about how diverse groups make better decisions and companies. It's now that research is now starting to include educational settings. And we've done a lot of education for our community on that. So that we're not just saying, Hey, come to us because it's a moral imperative that we have diversity and help people who are less fortunate than you might be. Rather it's "Hey, come to an authentically diverse and inclusive school because your child, regardless of where they are socially or economically will benefit from being with other students who are not like them and that's been a real key for us. I think that's a sort of foundation for us moving forward and getting out the word of why it's not just a good thing to do, It's an essential thing to do if we really are trying to educate kids to their full potential

Daniel (25:22): Question with true diversity. I think a lot of schools have many excuses about why their staff's not as diverse or it doesn't reflect the student body. The easiest and most used excuse is that there's people who aren't supposedly qualified, which I don't buy. How has your school, New Roads figured out how to increase diversity around this thing?

Emily (25:49): You have to commit to it and then go find those teachers. I mean, it's sort of the idea. You can't just wait for people to come to you, which I think is the excuse. A lot of companies use it as well. We just didn't have anybody who wasn't white applying to that position. Well, that's not good enough anymore. You have to go and find them. So our administrators who are in charge of recruiting faculty are always actively researching for teachers who, and it's not enough that they themselves are diverse. It's really important for us to have faculty and administrators who believe in the mission because it comes out in everything we do is a belief that everyone has value. Knowing that you might have to work differently for each person to unlock that value.

Daniel (26:46): And that puts responsibility on you as the leader, right. To figure out what's going to work for them and how to magnify their strengths. I really appreciate it. I mean, really the gist of what you're saying there is to be active. If you say you're about this, then do it right. Otherwise don't accept anything less. Great. You've been a wonderful guest. I'm going to ask you the last two questions I ask everybody. So the first one is about school marquees. If you could put a message on all school marquees across the world for just a day, what would you put on the market?

Emily (27:18): That is such a good question. I'm probably not going to say it right, but I would be pulling off something that I just said, which is that everyone has value and it's our job to find yours.

Daniel (27:32): You're building a school from the ground up. You're not limited by any resources. Your only limitation is your imagination. How would you build your dream school? And what would be your top three priorities?

Emily (27:46): Number one is diversity inclusion by which I mean all kinds of diversity, I'm a real believer in diverse learners and supporting them. So I would have that support system for example, kids on the autism spectrum, kids who have learning differences, but then also the kind of meaningful access support that I talked about so that we have kids from all over. For example, at New Roads, we have kids from I think, 90 different zip codes. I think that's really important in a large city like Los Angeles is that we have a lot of different neighborhoods and a lot of different places. Having kids come together from so many of them is really, really crucial. So having the kind of support system and outreach such that we would get those kids from a diverse geographical area in a large city would be very important to me.

Emily (28:41): So then I would say, I mean, really it's New Roads writ large, right? I mean, right now we're a school of, I think 520, and I would love us to be double that. So I would like to have a school that's able financially to support having a thousand kids K through 12, where at least half are on substantial financial aid, if not full financial aid and then third I would say is I want to support our faculty. One thing that Luther and our new head of school, he's not new anymore, but he was new when I joined, was to really build a robust professional development program for our faculty. And I think listening to them about what they need, um, and supporting them and giving it to them is critical for the success of any school.

Daniel (29:34): Emily, thank you so much for being a part of the better leaders, better schools, podcast of all the things we talked about today, what's

Daniel (29:42): The one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember? Do it your way. It's going to be. Right.

Daniel (29:50): Thanks for listening to the better leaders, better schools podcast for Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel F better leaders, better schools.com or hit me up on Twitter @alienearbud. If the Better Leaders, Better Schools Podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter @alienearbud and using the hashtag #BLBS level up your leadership at better leaders, better schools.com and talk to you next time until then class dismissed.

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Show Highlights

  • Build true authentically diverse and inclusive schools 
  • Navigate the unknown with courage to embark on what is best
  • Yield the power of silence and find your authentic voice
  • Create “Meaningful Access” not just on paper, but actually in how you live and education.
  • Process the way men and women communicate
  • Tips for women in leadership to expand awareness 
  • Avoid the old-fashioned dream of diversity
  • Build a robust professional development program for your faculty
Emily Alexander: Building true diversity in school

“I think we’re lucky to have a community that believes that diverse, true diversity is not just a moral good, but an educational imperative. There’s a lot of research now about how diverse groups make better decisions and companies. It’s now that research is now starting to include educational settings.” 

Emily Alexander

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