Black History Today: Dr. Kiesha Sopher-Scarlett, Guiding Light for Seattle’s Students

by Marcus Harden

(Black History Today is published in collaboration with Rise Up for Students.)

“I tell my students, when you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else”-Toni Morrison

Leadership is lonely at times. It’s a place we often romanticize, urging young people toward aspirations of leadership without telling the whole story — that real leadership often comes at a cost.

It’s lonely at the top, as they say, and the same can be said of leadership. It’s lonely in the front, and a little scary sometimes. It’s lonely on the vanguard, as the trailblazer, because in this position you are creating a path where there had been none. You are conjuring from nothing a guiding light for others to follow. You are leading the way.

Truly great leaders find a way to not only power through the lonely times, but to live in that space of would-be loneliness with grace and joy by empowering others. In creating more space for others to show and grow, their own work and their own journey toward the greater good become amplified. And with the light growing ever brighter, they continue to lead the cycle of growth, pushing again and again past perceived boundaries to spark new growth and innovation.

This form of leadership as endless growth is embodied inside of Dr. Keisha Sopher-Scarlett. She sits at the apex of trailblazing by finding the way, and then holding the door open for others to follow — and oftentimes go in front of her.

Keisha is a proud Seattle native and Garfield High School graduate, and an equally proud alumnus of Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, GA, where she studied chemistry before becoming the face of the University of Washington Danforth program.

Her accolades speak to the culture of power. In 2014, she was named the Washington State Middle Level Principal of the Year. In 2020, she was named Chief Academic Officer of Seattle Public Schools. Yet, her personhood speaks to the culture of the people she is committed to serve, her brilliance being on display inside of systems that historically have not made space for women, especially black women, even moreso for black women who don’t surrender their voice as she knows her voice is the amplification of the people she is committed to serve.

Spend 15 minutes with her and you’ll no doubt experience her genius and grace. You watch her brilliance on display as her mind works through complex human systems like Neo dipping a toe in the Matrix, while simultaneously exuding the presence and generosity of spirit to ask questions about you, about your family, about what the children are doing, reading, seeing and most importantly being.

I have to believe both of those are innate parts of her, passed down from her parents in live-in service in the Skyway Community through their faith. Along with Keisha’s sister, the entire family is cultivated by her backbone in her family with her husband and her children. The lonely moments of leadership are made softer by the cadre of family and friends who’ve become family that she surrounds herself with.

You know you have a trusted friend and colleague when you can go to them and ask for advice that is not just going to make you feel good, but challenge you to be better. My fondest memory with Keisha was in one of the most uncertain times of my professional life. She listened, she reasoned, she emoted, she laughed, she caused me to think — and she paid for lunch! Most importantly, she helped me believe in myself again, because that’s the type of leader — and the type of powerful Black woman — she is. 

Dr. Keisha Sopher-Scarlett. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Keisha Sopher-Scarlett)

Keisha’s ability to work inside of systems without being consumed by them — to transform them without allowing it to change her — is a leadership trait so admirable it should be packaged and sold. I once heard it said, “You can’t change the system from the outside complaining and throwing rocks. You oftentimes can only change the system from the inside, opening the windows for the rocks to get in and then turning around and implementing a new vision.”

Keisha Sopher-Scarlett doesn’t just open windows, she opens them wide and slides a few rocks down just in case those of us following her need an extra handful to throw on our way in.

Her sacrifice for the greater good — for all of us, but especially for “her babies furthest from educational justice” — doesn’t go unnoticed, though she is often overlooked. She is the leader that we need in Seattle’s schools, and she’s the leader our kids deserve.

So, it’s with honor that for just a day we trade in those imaginary rocks for imaginary flowers — and real, heartfelt words, which we offer in grateful recognition of her leadership, her sacrifice and her steadfast commitment to transforming environments that weren’t designed for people like her. She does it for the people, for her children, for all of us. And in the process, she is undoubtedly making Black History Today!

Marcus Harden is the creator of Black History Today, an annual series honoring Black History Month that pays tribute to the living legacy of Black history in our community and beyond. He is a seasoned educator, with experience as a teacher, counselor, dean, administrator, and program and policy manager. Marcus focuses his work on creating better culture and climate for students, families, and staff. He believes deeply in restorative justice practices and in mindset and resiliency work that leads to excellent and equitable educational outcomes for all students.

Featured illustration by Devin Chicras for the Emerald.

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