Honorary Degree Ceremony for Chancellor Kaya Henderson

Gaston Hall
April 21, 2012

Chancellor Henderson, honored guests, members of the Georgetown community: welcome, I want thank you all for being here with us today on this very special occasion. I especially wish to recognize two of our distinguished guests. First, the Chairman of our Board of Directors, member of the Georgetown College Class of 1962, Paul Tagliabue. And I, too, would like to welcome the Mayor of this great city of Washington, the Honorable Vincent Grey.

And I also would like to express my gratitude to the Woodrow Wilson High School Jazz Ensemble for their very special performance. Thank you.

Today, we are grateful to have the opportunity to honor the excellence of a member of our alumni community, who, since her time as an undergraduate, has exemplified the ideals at the center of Georgetown’s mission and identity: service, passionate leadership, and the determination to change the world for the better.

In living out these ideals, Kaya inspires those around her to wake up, as she recently told a group of our MBA students, “on fire” for the goals they seek to achieve, and for the impact they hope to make.

The piece of the world that Kaya has chosen to affect is fundamental to the strength, progress, and prosperity of our city, our country, and our interconnected global society. If you ask her why she has been able to achieve success in her own life, Kaya immediately will respond that it’s because she received a good public education.

The depth of her commitment throughout her career to ensuring that all children are given this opportunity is extraordinary.

In coming together today, we honor her persistence, her courage, and her devotion to giving young women and men in Washington, DC and cities across the country the chance to discover and to become their very best selves.

Yet the path toward education reform – of striving for higher standards of excellence and more expansive student success – is complex. It requires a special kind of leader, willing to make numerous personal sacrifices in service of a greater good.

I wish to offer brief reflections on four distinctive qualities that, to me, are characteristic of Kaya’s leadership: her deep sense of purpose; her dedication to the empowerment of others; her unfailing commitment to the highest standards of excellence; and her ability to connect on a very human level with those she works with and serves.

While each of these qualities is exceptional, Kaya embodies their combination, and has leveraged this unique strength to benefit children and their families, the District of Columbia, and our broader nation.

I.  Sense of Purpose
It is nearly impossible to speak with Kaya about education without understanding that her work is motivated by a deep sense of personal purpose, and a clear and poignant set of values.

Last spring, Kaya was here on campus for an event hosted by our Woodstock Theological Center entitled, “Faith in the City: Believing You Can Make a Difference.”  And during her panel discussion, she reflected on the importance of a lesson at the heart of her upbringing. From Luke’s Gospel: “To whom much is given, much is required.”

She described the role of her mother, the first to go to college in her family, who served as a public school teacher and principal for many years, in ensuring that service was not perceived as a good deed, but rather as a responsibility.  Within this context, Kaya developed a deep understanding of the interconnectedness between being her very best self and making a difference for those around her by giving back to the community. As she eloquently summarized in her Woodstock talk:

“Each of us is on this earth for a very unique reason…. I have an obligation and a responsibility to be the best Kaya Henderson I can be, and so I strive everyday to be incredibly authentic.  And if I believe that’s going to make a difference… I have to believe that [every other person] has the capacity to be the best they can be… and that is what we are called to do.”

Kaya’s understanding of our human “calling” to be our best selves – and the personal passion that this belief has fueled – allows her to work with purpose, authenticity, and humility. It also has enabled her to help others seek out and live up to their own potential, causing waves of impact far beyond what she alone could create.

 II. Empowerment
The idea of empowerment, the second aspect of her distinctive leadership, is embedded in Kaya’s fundamental acknowledgement of the good in others.  From the time when Kaya was an undergraduate here at Georgetown, she has made it a priority to motivate others, empowering her peers, her colleagues, and her community members with the courage and will to execute difficult tasks in service of meaningful outcomes.

We saw this skill on campus, when Kaya was the Vice President of our Georgetown chapter of the NAACP and a leader within numerous service organizations, and have watched its power unfold through each of her professional endeavors: whether teaching middle school Spanish in the Bronx, directing the Washington, DC office for Teach for America, or developing innovative reform measures through the New Teacher Project.

Through her work with DCPS, Kaya’s commitment to collaboration and empowerment only has become more representative of her leadership. To provide just one example, over the past several months, Kaya has attended dozens of Town Hall meetings with parents, teachers, and administrators throughout the city, seeking to listen and to understand the priorities and concerns of those she serves.

Her honest and humble engagement during these meetings is embodied in the hugs that she gives at the beginning of each session, creating a spirit of open, respectful dialogue and an unspoken acknowledgment that every voice in the room matters.

This same quality has characterized many of Kaya’s other initiatives, including the development of a “Principals Cabinet” to gain the perspectives of excellent school leaders from across the District, the broad efforts currently underway to design a city-wide public school curriculum, and now, the five-year plan for DCPS that Kaya announced just this week.

Asked what distinguishes this new plan from the current five-year plan, Kaya said, “This is not about me. This about us… Before we developed the plan, we asked people what they wanted to see.”

In each of these examples, a clear theme emerges: Kaya always seeks to “work with” rather than working alone, acting with a profound awareness that the advancement of others enables the betterment of all. For Kaya, empowerment and excellence are intrinsically linked.

III. Excellence
It is in part because of her acknowledgement of this critical connection that Kaya in turn demands the highest level of excellence, both of herself and in others. This third aspect of her leadership is widely felt: Kaya doesn’t insist on good schools, teachers, and school leaders, but great ones.

She does so because the stakes are extremely high for young women and men in our city and our country.

As Kaya told our MBA students, “We are losing generation after generation of kids every year that we are not able to get [the public education system] right…. We are the nation’s capital, and we should have the very best urban public school system for the world to see.”

Kaya’s passion for excellence informs all that she does.  It has helped her to lead the development of new recruitment practices and evaluation standards for Washington, DC teachers that link teacher performance with student outcomes – the first system in the country to do so – and to advance a serious revision of teacher compensation scales to reward excellence and student improvement.

Kaya’s work in building support and understanding at the ground level has been essential, inspiring teachers to acknowledge the value of these reform measures, known widely here in the District as IMPACT, and to strive to achieve the highest levels of success in their classrooms.

The pursuit of excellence also has characterized Kaya’s efforts to advance a redesigned, more well-rounded curriculum for DCPS students. The curriculum prioritizes diverse learning experiences including the arts, technology, athletics, community service and international opportunities, that help students to cultivate a joy for learning and a broad sense of possibility.

Perhaps most importantly, Kaya’s passion for excellence compelled her to accept the position of DCPS chancellor: a role she did not originally consider as part of her personal or professional plan.

Understanding the necessity of consistent leadership to the continued improvement and overall well being of the District’s public school system and its students, she has risen to this essential challenge. She has made it her priority to strengthen and advance the life chances of children across the city, and to provide a model of public education that cities throughout the world will wish to adopt.

This sense of humility, of perseverance, and of doing what’s right to ensure excellence is one of the very finest examples of public service and leadership in our nation today.

IV. Connecting on a Human Level
And yet, as her colleagues, friends, and even she will tell you, Kaya finds herself “just regular,” never too busy or too proud to connect with others on the deepest, human level.

Despite her numerous successes, and all that she continues to do for education in America, Kaya will be the first to lighten a difficult or late night meeting with humor; to listen in a way that not only acknowledges the words, but the emotions; and to go above and beyond what seems possible, and to celebrate the successes of others.

She is a leader who believes that sharing one’s story can change the world, no matter whose story it is, and no matter what life that person has lived. The quality of compassion and empathy adds yet another dimension to Kaya’s capacity to pursue and promote true and enduring change.

By focusing on purpose, passion, empowerment, excellence – and most importantly – the success of the young people she serves, Kaya rises above contention and controversy to promote one, fundamental idea: that nothing but the very best will do.

This guiding principle and bold standard inspires those around her, and ensures that Kaya always will do her very best work. It makes her the leader she is, a leader we are proud to hold as a member of our Georgetown family, and the leader we are honored to celebrate today.

So Kaya, for all you have contributed to our community, to the District of Columbia, and to the education of young people here in our city, and across the country, and around the globe, we all here today, we wish to express our deep gratitude.

Ladies and gentlemen, with great pride, I now present our newest Doctor of Humane Letters, Kaya Henderson….