The answer is in the room.

Growing up in East San Jose, CA, it was rare to hear someone say those words in a classroom, parent gathering, or town meeting. Instead, consultants would cycle in and out of our “low-income,” “low-performing,” “dangerous” schools, with good intentions for improving them—without knowing much about the strengths that existed within us as a community. Outsiders hoped to make change to us, not with us. They didn’t see that the answers lay within the families, young people, and educators in the community—in the “room.”

I am proud today to become the next President & CEO of the NYC Leadership Academy, an organization that deeply believes in and has faithfully lived by that mantra. In each community we support – whether a predominately African American district in Cleveland or schools supporting primarily Native American students in Nevada – we always begin by asking local educators and communities, “What are your challenges and ideas? What are your values? What do the leaders within your context need to know and be able to do to improve learning for every single student?”

We take the time to deeply understand context.

We build authentic relationships with leaders charged with moving the work forward.

And we look for the answers in the room.

The leaders I have looked up to throughout my life, who have inspired me and others to be our better selves and do our best work, lived by this belief. My greatest teacher, my mother, would take me and my five siblings to pick up litter and scrub out graffiti in our neighborhood on Saturday mornings. It was never a question that we would be a part of creating solutions to the challenges that sat outside our front door.

When I was in 8th grade, almost every teacher requested that I not be in their class because they had heard I was a “troublemaker.” But Mr. Lovelace sought me out. He believed in me. He knew that the answers lay within me. Over that year he built me up, ignited within me the love for learning I always had but had never been encouraged to explore. He helped me find my voice, encouraging me to write my story for a state-level competition and to advocate against policies I believed were unfair to youth of color living with limited resources like myself – from school uniform policies to CA Proposition 187 which sought to restrict access for undocumented families to health care and public education.

After college, I returned to my home community to teach. On my first day, a teacher colleague expressed her surprise that I had come from the neighborhood, and curiosity at whether my classmates, friends, and family members had ended up teen mothers or in jail. Mr. Lovelace, on the other hand, sent me flowers with a note that read, simply, “Congratulations, Maestra.”

Wanting to be a part of finding the answers in the room, I followed Maria Vizcarra, the mother of one of my students, into a house meeting where parents across our community were rallying behind a new vision for our public schools. It was my honor to ultimately become the founding principal of the middle school they dreamed of in that room that evening. Indeed, the continued success of the three new small schools we launched in East San Jose was born from the fact that the answers came from within the community.

While at the Leadership Academy, we have put a stake in the ground around equity since our inception 15 years ago, part of our work moving forward must be to ensure that “equity” does not become an empty word, that it has depth and real meaning.

We know that this work cannot be done in isolation, so we are committed to developing and supporting educational leaders in ways that ensure that all students, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, or culture, have access to the learning opportunities and resources they need to become leaders themselves–to find the answers within, to hold themselves accountable to the changes they wish to see.

I have seen firsthand how the impact of one person, like Mr. Lovelace or Maria Vizcarra, can become exponential through strong leadership. What an absolute privilege it is to support leaders across the country to solve persistent problems – by tapping into the answers that lie within the room.

Dr. Nancy B. Gutiérrez is President & CEO of the NYC Leadership Academy.


Nancy B. Gutiérrez, Ed.L.D.

Lead Executive Officer & President

Dr. Nancy B. Gutiérrez is President & Lead Executive Officer (LEO) of The Leadership Academy, a nationally recognized nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting and developing culturally responsive school and school system leaders to create the conditions necessary for all students to thrive. Since 2003, The Leadership Academy has done work in more than 375 school districts, state education departments, and education organizations across the country, reaching over 12,000 educators in 39 states.

Nancy began her career as a teacher and principal in her home community of East San Jose, CA, where she was the founding principal of Renaissance Academy, the highest performing middle school in the district and a California Distinguished School. Nancy also led the successful effort to turn around the district’s lowest performing middle school. She was named the UC Davis Rising Star and Association of California School Administrators’ Region 8 Middle School Principal of the Year in 2010. In 2014, Nancy joined The Leadership Academy and served in various roles before being named President & CEO in October 2018. Prior to her tenure with the Leadership Academy, Nancy launched a program for executive leadership advancement for the New York City Department of Education that led to superintendent certification.

Nancy is a Fall 2019 Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow and was named one of the top 100 most influential leaders in education in New York in 2020. In 2023, Nancy was named San Jose State University’s Distinguished Alumna.

Nancy is a graduate of the inaugural cohort of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) program and is a graduate of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) Aspiring Superintendents Academy. She has served as an adjunct professor for NYU, Teachers College and American University as well as an expert guest at various Harvard Principals’ Center Institutes. Nancy is a frequent keynote speaker and has authored numerous pieces on education leadership for publications including Education Week, Kappan, The74, Learning Forward’s Learning Professional, District Administrator, and Hechinger Report. She is also the co-author of Stay and Prevail: Students of Color Don’t Need to Leave Their Communities to Succeed, a revolutionary guide to disrupting harmful mindsets and practices in our schools to ensure that students can thrive in their home communities.

Nancy is a member of the Board of Directors at the Hunt Institute, brightbeam, and Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC), and serves on the Latinos for Education teaching team.

Find Nancy on Twitter @nancybgutierrez or LinkedIn.