Dr. Monique Darrisaw-Akil Uses Authentic Leadership to Transform Education Systems

Dr. Monique Darrisaw-Akil is the Superintendent of Schools at the Uniondale Union Free School District in Long Island, NY.

Dr. Akil was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and realized early on that she wanted to dedicate her life to fighting for equity in education. 

“My life, in some ways, was shaped by de facto segregation in the school system,” she says.

Her dad grew up in  southeast Florida and, although he also attended a segregated school system, he believed he received a great education and that the teachers cared about him and the welfare of the entire student body. 

“When he came to New York City, he never thought that he’d have to navigate a school system to try to find the best school for his children,” she shares.

The elementary school Monique attended was ranked 262 out of 265 elementary schools in New York City in terms of reading and math achievement.

“By those statistics, I really shouldn’t be here,” she explains. “The only thing that disrupted that pattern was being a part of the gifted education program.”

Dr. Akil was aware of inequities throughout her time in school and she wanted a career that would allow her to disrupt the system.

“If I get a better education because I’m in gifted classes, why shouldn’t all children have that?” she adds.

Although she initially thought about going into policy, an internship with an educational advocacy organization and the opportunity to work at a school for teenage pregnant girls changed everything.

“I decided I want to actually be a practitioner so I became a teacher in the same community that I grew up in,” she shares.

After becoming a teacher, Dr. Akil transitioned to administration and eventually became the principal of a school she helped open in Bushwick.

“It’s been the most rewarding work ever, she says. “A lot of the students were first-generation high school graduates.”

The school is still operating and continues to support students from a community that was traditionally neglected.

“We really tried to close the access gap, not the achievement gap,” she says.

Finding Motivation

In her work as a principal at the Bushwick school and in her current role as a superintendent, Dr. Akil draws on inspiration and motivation from her first principal when she was a teacher,  Mr. Frank Mickens.

“He came into a school that was almost unfit to inhabit,” she explains. “He took over that school and transformed it. I had the opportunity to work with him and it made me understand you had to be relentless in the pursuit of educational excellence.”

Mr. Mickens showed Dr. Akil the importance of leading with love, respect and kindness and these values continue to inspire her today. She also draws motivation by rooting herself in authentic leadership.

“I’m not going to be someone different at home and on the weekends than I am at work,” she says.

Dr. Akil also stays motivated by remembering that her voice matters.

“My mere presence is almost an act of defiance. Black women are less than 4% of all the superintendents across the country,” she explains. “Women need to be at the head of the table, the voices of people who are mothers, the voices of people who are sometimes underestimated or overlooked, their experiences need to be represented in decision making roles.”

Her Advice? You Don’t Have to Be Perfect

Dr. Akil constantly reminds herself and her staff that perfection isn’t the goal but we have to remain committed to the process of continuous improvement.  She’s a runner and she loves the opportunity to do something fun in her off time.

“You’re just doing it to be in the moment. You don’t have to be perfect at everything,” she says.

Dr. Akil also wants up-and-coming leaders to remember who they are.

“Don’t ever let anyone tell you, ‘you’re not good enough,’” she adds.

Throughout her career, Dr. Akil has dealt with rejection or people telling her that a superintendent position wasn’t in her future.

“If I had listened, if I had given up, I wouldn’t be here,” she says. “If you have a vision for your life, for leadership, if you have a commitment to a goal, go for it.”