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The Eternal Optimist Angela Menendez, New Dean of Faculty

by Luis Ruuska, Communications and Marketing Manager

This July, Angela Menendez joined The White Mountain School as the new dean of faculty. Among other things, this includes continuing her work in faculty recruiting, hiring, retention, and development—all facilitated with the principles of equity, justice, and belonging (EJB) at the forefront—which she has been working on with the School since summer 2020 as an independent consultant.

The more one learns about Angela and her story, the more difficult it becomes to do justice to her with any single title. However, ones like “corporate powerhouse,” “compassionate community builder,” or her self-described title of “the eternal optimist” all come to mind. This Afro-Latina glass ceiling breaker has long worked in the corporate world to build success and opportunities for herself and others on the margins, even among systems of oppression within white male dominant spaces. Today, she’s shifted her focus to White Mountain so that the next generation of changemakers in education that work here, whether for a year or a decade, can fly higher and further—and with fewer obstacles in their way—than those who came before.

This story is adapted from one originally published in the 2020-2021 issue of Echoes, the alumnae/i magazine of The White Mountain School.

The Spark

Angela was born in the Dominican Republic but moved to southern Maine at an early age. It was here that she first encountered racism, in both big and little ways, in a community where she was one of the only multiracial children at a time when school integration was just beginning.

Above: Angela, age 5, with her brother and friend, Birch Island, Maine. Left: Angela on her second birthday with her mother, Ana Maria, and father, Maximo Lopez Molina, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

“There was a lot of impostor syndrome growing up, during a time when I was taught that assimilation was the key to success. So I learned to speak English without a Spanish accent so much that I forgot my Spanish. I took French and Latin instead. I wanted to disappear into whiteness as much as I could. Well, guess what? Because of my skin and hair, I never could,” Angela says. “But what I thought were ‘deficits’ when I was younger, I realized, as I grew up, were actually assets. My ancestry and heritage is a great sense of pride, resilience, and wisdom. These things helped me learn to be observant, be resilient, and be self-sufficient in many ways. I took those feelings of ‘otherness’ as a personal challenge to craft the fullest life that I wanted. I wanted a life of creativity and to experience the world to its fullest. And so I did.”

After graduating from the University of Maine with a degree in international and global studies, Angela began a jet-setting career at familiar, multi-billion dollar corporations like L.L. Bean; 1-800-Flowers.com, Inc.; and Garnet Hill/HSNi. “I did what I wanted to do while building a life for my family. I’ve been to 27 different countries. I’ve held executive positions in some wonderful companies with relationships all over the world. And I did all that against a lot of odds,” she says.

Angela also had two children of her own. “I wanted to be the parent who fulfilled the promise and gave their kids the opportunities that maybe I had to fight for that weren’t quite as accessible to me. And also, for both my kids, who are also multiracial, to instill a strong sense of self and opportunity, no matter what,” she explains. “I sent my son to NYU so that he could reach his dream of being an actor. And he is a thriving actor now, which is really gratifying for me because I feel like, in some way, he kind of broke the family karma. My daughter is thriving and building a family in the Netherlands, adding even more dimension to our global family.”

Right: Angela and her daughter, Maria, in Santurce, Puerto Rico, early 90s.

I’m the eternal optimist, committed to growth. At this point in my career, I would like to help remove some of the barriers and obstacles that I had to fight against for this coming generation, to inspire, elevate, and lift people up to achieve their full potential at the School.

In hindsight, Angela now realizes that she did break the glass ceiling at many of the corporations and executive networks she worked in throughout the ’90s and aughts in the first decades of her career. After all, the Center for Employment Equity at the University of Massachusetts Amherst estimated that even in 2019, white men still made up 85 percent of the executives at large and mid-sized companies. And yet, the more things changed for Angela in her career, the more they stayed the same, and the sense of “otherness” from childhood persisted.

“One of the last companies I worked at before going into consulting was a white, patriarchal company, and it was some of the most difficult work that I’ve done. I think it was in that cauldron that I was most inspired to go into equity, justice, and belonging work because bias was so institutionalized that I found myself in disbelief. This is still happening? I still have to fight to have a voice? I still have an idea that’s not adopted until the white man next to me says the same thing I just said? It happened over and over and over again. So when I started to become aware of that, I thought, ‘this can’t keep going on, I need to actively work to change this,’” recalls Angela.

“You would think at some point that I could say, ‘okay, I’ve arrived.’ There's never been that feeling of arrival for me. Instead, I’ve continuously felt ‘I’ve got to keep proving myself. I’ve got to keep making sure that I’m heard and have a voice.’ So after many years of staying small—intentionally keeping small and making everyone else comfortable—I realized, oh, wait a minute, I can make a difference here. I can ‘shake up the tree’ because it needs to be shaken up,” says Angela. “Sometimes I wonder, ‘who could I have become without all those obstacles?’ That's one question. Another is, ‘am I who I am because of all those obstacles?’ I’m somebody who is rooted in gratitude, and I think we are who we are because of our suffering, because of our trials, because of our challenges. I’m the eternal optimist, committed to growth. At this point in my career, I would like to help remove some of the barriers and obstacles that I had to fight against for this coming generation, to inspire, elevate, and lift people up to achieve their full potential at the School.”

“I think that once you reach a certain level of awareness, you can’t go back. In the past few years in this country, there has been momentum and call for justice similar to what was happening in the ’60s. Now I was too young to be involved in the Civil Rights era and remember in the ’70s thinking, ‘oh, I missed it.’ But we didn’t achieve what we wanted to achieve back then, and now we, I, have another chance, to be of service. We have another chance in our culture to create a world where we can be ourselves—where every person can come as their authentic selves,” says Angela. “And when I say I’m an eternal optimist, that doesn’t mean that I’m always happy. I just reread Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and it hit hard because it could have been written today. I often have these moments of ‘maybe this is not going to happen within my lifetime,’ and it may not. It may be my children’s lifetime or their children’s lifetime, but we have a responsibility to keep going, stay on mission and keep trying, so that’s what I’m doing.”

Creating and Finding Arrival

Angela has lived in Sugar Hill, just a short drive from White Mountain, for over 12 years. “I used to drive past the School thinking, ‘I wonder what's going on in there. I wonder if I should check that out.’ I just had kind of this gut feeling that I belonged at the School,” she recalls. In early 2020, she interviewed for the director of equity and inclusion position and got her first chance to do what she had thought about doing for so many years.

“I fell in love with the kids immediately. I had a lunchtime session where I needed to facilitate a discussion around what otherness felt like and how we dealt with it. The students were ‘woke,’ present, and really showed up for the discussion. I was impressed with the caliber of talent and intelligence and creativity of the faculty and staff, too,” she says. “The entire interview process and that conversation with the kids especially just underscored how special the School is, and I knew I wanted to be involved. Even though I had a sense that I might not be the first pick for that specific role when I first applied because I was coming from a non-traditional background, I really just wanted to start the conversation."

The vulnerability and the ways the team shows up when we meet, all of the work surrounding equity, justice, belonging, and professional development—is already several levels deep, with growing capacity and momentum. I have deep respect and gratitude for the work we’re doing now and will do together.

Angela and Head of School John Drew stayed in dialogue for half the year, even after the position was filled. In late summer, he formally brought her on as a consultant to analyze the School’s situation and practices related to hiring, onboarding, and retention. “John saw that a key problem was that we were faced with retention challenges. He wanted me to look into the School’s current morale—given the multiple crises occurring at the same time—and at how we could not only attract but retain and really welcome people of color as employees so that students were better cared for,” Angela explains.

With her corporate background in leadership training and managing diverse, multi-level teams—among many other areas—it became clear that not only could Angela analyze the root of many of these issues; she could also be a key player in addressing them, which led to the offer to join the community as dean of faculty.

  1. Improving faculty care, including improving the onboarding experience for new hires and supporting and encouraging team growth and development as they follow their passion as educators.
  2. Working with school leadership to further amplify transparency and structure as we return to campus in person with a full cohort of students.
  3. Integrating and embodying our values as an authentically inclusive school where we celebrate diversity of backgrounds and perspectives: always leading with courage and compassion.

The above are three major initiatives Angela will engage in to start throughout the 2021-2022 academic year. But at the core of her position—regardless of how the day-to-day specifics evolve—will be figuring out how to create an ecosystem of authentic and meaningful belonging for all employees—a challenge she feels she’s uniquely ready to face.

“For someone to really belong—and again, this comes from someone who has always felt I don’t really belong anywhere—you need to feel safe. You need to feel like you’re represented. You need to feel like there are policies to ensure that your rights and identity will be protected and valued. You also need to feel that you can show up as your real self. Because if you think about how much time and energy people of color especially spend filtering, literally masking ourselves, and putting on armor before going out to meet with somebody or coming to a group meeting, that’s energy that could be invested in bringing our whole selves to the work. We all long for belonging, but we very rarely feel it,” explains Angela. “I don’t think about belonging as a pipe dream here. I think that White Mountain—partly because of this point in time, partly because of John’s leadership—has a really cool opportunity to create something new, to build an even better community in a really meaningful way. If we could meet each other knowing we’re safe without that armor, we could really have an authentic connection with each other. For students, that will mean adults who are firmly grounded, centered, and clear to help them find belonging, too.”

“This kind of conversation, this interview, wouldn’t happen in a corporate environment. The walks that John and I have taken to talk about where we could be, what could happen, and the possibilities for the School demonstrate vision and commitment. The vulnerability and the ways the team shows up when we meet, all of the work surrounding equity, justice, belonging, and professional development—is already several levels deep, with growing capacity and momentum. I have deep respect and gratitude for the work we’re doing now and will do together,” continues Angela.

“I know that not everybody’s in the same place with this work at the School, and that change doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s going to get messy and sometimes uncomfortable. Transformation happens through evolution, revolution, and insight. And I do think I can help facilitate some of those moments of insight and awareness,” she says. “The most important thing is the seeds for continued growth are here at White Mountain, and I am excited and honored to be a part of it.”

Founded in 1886 and set in the beautiful White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, The White Mountain School is a gender-inclusive, college-preparatory boarding and day school for 140 students grades 9-12/PG. Our mission is to be a school of inquiry and engagement. Grounded in an Episcopal heritage, White Mountain prepares and inspires students to lead lives of curiosity, courage, and compassion.

Credits:

Luis Ruuska and Angela Menendez