3 Questions for…Adjunct Professor Ife Lenard
Adjunct Professor Ife Lenard, who earned an MSW from our School in 1999 and an EdM in Education Leadership from Teachers College in 2008, also works as a transformational leadership coach for both K-12 principals and higher education administrators. Drawing on experiences ranging from working as a teacher and a clinical social worker to serving as an assistant principal, a dean of students, and a founding principal, she advises schools to put greater emphasis on the social and emotional aspects of their students’ lives in addressing roadblocks that occur as a result of social and racial disparities. At CSSW, she is a popular teacher of several foundation-year courses that incorporate issues of power, race, oppression and privilege—known as the PROP curriculum.
We are pleased to have her as a guest for our “3 Questions for…” series. She talks to CSSW Communications about her remarkable octogenarian mother, her servant-leadership work ethic, and her determination to serve as a change catalyst for the people who are in the room. This interview has been edited and condensed.
#1: What are the formative experiences and influences that led you to get involved with the work you are currently doing?
My mother has been a tremendous influence. She is also a clinical social worker. She’s 80 years old, but still has her own private practice. She believes in health and wellness of the mind and was my earliest model of an inspirational leader. She’s phenomenal. I was also very inspired by my father. He worked for the U.S. Postal Service, and was a closet anthropologist. Both of my parents were avid readers about Black liberation, the African diaspora, slavery and its post traumatic effects, and the historical underpinnings of many incredible journeys of resilience.
Unfortunately, my father was murdered by the NYPD in 1976. My siblings and I survived this trauma because of my mother. She was forward thinking and put us all into therapy immediately. I remember this time almost as a wonderful, and very healing, experience. My siblings and I found it restorative, and still do. My mother told us to read every book my father had read, and we literally did that. It afforded me multiple opportunities to be intimate with his thoughts because of all the notes he made in the margins of books. Besides this book collection, we still have all his recipes and jazz records. We were taught to celebrate and honor his life, and not focus on the horror of losing him…because we still had him.
Those were some of my most personal formative moments. As far as my career goes, one of my most influential experiences occurred when I worked in the Beacon Youth Programs, which are school-based community centers for children, youth, and adults across New York City. These programs provide wraparound services, everything from dental and eye care treatment, to support services for victims of domestic violence, to courses in parenting. The Beacon experience shaped my thinking about how schools can serve as a hub for resources. I learned that when schools placed greater emphasis on social-emotional learning and holistic family development, the residents of the neighborhood, whether they are students or family members, come to rely on them as a source not only of education but of community engagement and care.
Eventually I became a Community School Leader with the goal of providing services that support the whole child, engage families, and strengthen the entire community. That step marked a natural progression in my path to becoming a thriving and impactful educational leader. My work has always been about interrupting the layers of toxicity around racial and social inequities, and that continues to be my focus now that I am a professor and educational consultant. My aim is to truly strengthen partnerships between school campuses and their local communities.
#2: Is there some success that stands out in your mind that you’re really proud of?
First, it’s imperative to mention that raising my two children is my greatest success. They are beautiful and divine. They deserve to feel that they are worthy. They deserve to be in spaces where their wellness matters. They are both very smart and precious to us. I’m very conscious that my son is a young Black man in America. We want him to come home every night alive and well. My daughter is confident, and we want her to be free from anything that may harm or taint her spirit or destiny. My success is also when they feel successful and cherished, safe and happy.
As far as my career goes, my students and the families, educators, and the people in the neighborhoods and campuses that I serve—seeing them thrive supersedes any “success” that I might have personally. I’m a practitioner first and foremost. I’ve been engaging professionally with people since 1993, as a servant-leader. I know the marriage and the magic of clinical social work and educational leadership, and this is meaningful to me: to give, to be a helping aide, and to guide people as they navigate pathways for success.
#3: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned doing this work and what do you wish you’d known when you started that you know now?
There’s this book by activist Grace Byers, called I Am Enough. It speaks volumes to the most important thing I’ve learned. To quote from the book:
We are all here for a purpose. We are more than enough. We just need to believe it.
The most important thing to know is that I am enough. You are enough. We are all enough.
I share this with educators, clients and my students all the time. It’s something so simple, yet so profound. Sometimes people say to me, “Let’s look to the experts.” I share with them that we are the experts—right here in this space. Everything that we need to make this happen—to make a positive change—is already here, with the people right here in the room. Whether we are having brave conversations and addressing harm, or building relationships and moving forward courageously, we are the experts…and can be the change we want to see.