Seattle Culture

Trailblazing Women: Brenda Leaks

Head of school, Seattle Girls' School

By Brenda Leaks June 24, 2024

A smiling woman with short curly hair standing in front of a lush green ivy-covered wall. she is wearing a beige sweater and a necklace.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

We think of persistent people as heroic individuals achieving great things in the face of adversity. But the untold story is: People don’t persist alone. They have families, friends, and whole communities fueling their determination.

I’ve been persisting — with the help of others — since childhood. I was born into a large family in Philadelphia. My dad realized I needed a different environment to thrive, so he unselfishly sent 10-year-old me to live with my aunt and uncle in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. My aunt was a housekeeper but was determined to do more with her intellect and empathy. Though I was first in my family to graduate from college, she modeled persistence by graduating from college at age 53 to become a family therapist.

I excelled at school but life was challenging. Navigating the two worlds I lived in — Black city life with my family in Philadelphia and the almost entirely white world of the Poconos — required code switching to the point of exhaustion. I was also 6 feet tall, so I stuck out even more. I was tempted to draw inward but my drama teacher urged me: “Brenda, take up all of your space!”

My support structures grew through college, a career in teaching, and graduate school. But even as an accomplished educator, I needed community to persist. When I learned about the opportunity to lead Seattle Girls’ School, my excitement was eclipsed by self-doubt. Thankfully, I was mentored by the only Black, female head of school in Seattle at the time. She encouraged me to pursue my dream job.

Persistence is difficult and leadership can be isolating. In Seattle, finding a community of other Black female leaders has not been easy. This led me to proactively seek out and build my own network to fuel my leadership. In my efforts to find “my people,” I discovered that Seattleites are collaborative and welcoming of new people and ideas even if they need a little encouragement to say “hello” to a stranger.

At Seattle Girls’ School, we’ve created a community that nurtures persistence. It’s thrilling to see young people discovering their strengths and exploring different ways to lead. When I think about how Seattleites could better nurture persistence, I reflect on two important lessons we teach. First, practice radical acceptance of yourself and others. Teaching middle schoolers to accept themselves during adolescence sets the groundwork for acceptance at all stages of life — of ourselves and others. This radical acceptance is critical for women as our roles, lives, and bodies change as we age. Go ahead, take up your space! Second, borrow confidence from your community when you don’t have enough of your own. Watching kids vulnerably and courageously support each other in times of struggle and doubt can inspire all of us to do the same for the people in our lives. I believe persistence and progress are possible for anyone surrounded by a strong community. And if you can’t find the community you need, create it. Seattle is certainly a place where you can do just that.

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