Dr. Sonja B. Santelises: A role model for young women everywhere

Profiles in Baltimore: Women's History Month
Posted at 8:56 PM, Mar 07, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-07 20:56:39-05

She's a mother, a sister and a strong leader. She's spoken in front of thousands of students, pitched ideas in the board room and shared her agenda with countless members of the media. But her first leadership role was something very different.

"My father will probably tell you that my first leadership position was being a big sister," said Dr. Sonja B. Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. "The joke in our house was that my father said that I was bossy, even though other people would call it leadership skills."

Soon those skills turned into something more than just a trait. It became Dr. Santelises's career -- and she learned how to be a competent leader, not just someone who manages people.

"Just standing up and declaring something doesn't make you a leader. That's number one; you've got to have a compelling vision. Two, leading for me has always been somehow connected to a team. If you're walking ahead and no one's with you, then you're not leading."

But there's more to it, she said. You've got to walk your talk, and prove that there are actions behind the words you're promising.

Sometimes leading as a woman can be a difficult, especially if people don't want to take orders from a female. Regardless of what others may think of her, Dr. Santelises says she makes sure she always treats people with respect.

"If you don't want to deal with the hard stuff, then you probably aren't going to make it as part of this team," she said. "My thing is, am I treating people respectfully as human beings, even if I have to give them bad news, even if I have to hold them accountable, even if I have to release somebody? The question I always ask somebody is, am I representing my deeper moral code in the way that I do it rather than changing what I know needs to be done?"

Dr. Santelises knows she's the role model for not only her own children, but thousands of students in her schools as well, and she finds that rewarding. She's a successful working mother and an inspiration to young businesswomen who hope to be in her position someday. Her message to those women who are raising children and working at the same time is simple: you can do it.

"Who you marry, who your life partner is as a woman and a working woman has a whole lot to do with how successful you are. I think the myth in American nostalgia is that somehow the only people who have to work on work/life/family balance are working women. I think there's this really sick myth that people have to give up their relationships, work 24/7, work their health into the ground, destroy all their personal relationships in order to be successful in these kinds of positions, and I just don't believe that's true."

Now, Dr. Santelises has a goal to bring work/life/family balance to all of her team members. She knows the challenges of being a working family woman, and she knows how to juggle all her responsibilities to be successful. She wants to make sure her team has enough time off so that their lives aren't consumed by their professional duties.

Dr. Santelises started her career in education in New York and later moved on to Boston. She moved to Baltimore after that and spent time bouncing between city schools and The Education Trust in D.C. before becoming the CEO of BCPS. So we wanted to know. What made her come to Baltimore in the first place?

"The young people of Baltimore did. The fact that they're some of the most insightful and gifted young people that I have talked to. And when I talk to young people in Baltimore City, they can cut to the chase, they see the essence of an issue, they make connections that are just absolutely amazing, and I am in this role in Baltimore really for them," Dr. Santelises said. "I just think there is so much potential to turn around so much of our city in what is inside of them. And that for me is a bigger high than anything else I could be doing right now."

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