Interview with Cheyenne Batista, Ed.D. from Firefly Worldwide, Inc. on Completing her Ed.D. Dissertation from American University
About Cheyenne Batista, Ed.D.: Cheyenne E. Batista is Founder and CEO of the international education consulting practice Firefly Worldwide, Inc., through which she has worked with numerous education and social impact leaders to develop transformational change strategies, design and improve schools and programs, and support efforts pertinent to antiracism and equity in diverse organizational settings. In addition to her work through Firefly Worldwide Inc., Dr. Batista is an Adjunct Professorial Lecturer at American University’s School of Education.
Prior to starting her own company, Dr. Batista played an instrumental role as the Founding Superintendent and Managing Director for a network of schools in New York City. She earned her Doctor of Education in Education Policy and Leadership from American University where her dissertation won the honor of CPED’s Dissertation of the Year Award in 2022 as well as the 2023 Outstanding Dissertation Award from the American Education Research Association (AERA) Division A. Additionally, Dr. Batista holds an Ed.M. in Education Policy and Management from Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] May we have an overview of your academic background and how it prepared you for your current work as CEO of Firefly Worldwide, Inc.? What, in your opinion and in your experience, is the important connection between communication studies and education policy, management, and leadership?
[Dr. Cheyenne Batista] I received a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a focus on interpersonal and organizational communications. As the first in my family to attend college and while still orienting myself to making important career choices, I wasn’t quite sure yet about what I wanted to pursue professionally. What led me into my major was recognizing that there was a world of opportunities available to me at that time in my budding professional career, and I knew that at the heart of whatever I wanted to do was leadership of some sort.
Also, as a lifelong educator, I had always been passionate about issues in education. While I wasn’t sure about what I would do specifically, I had a strong instinct that developing effective communication skills and understanding how communication works within organizations and between people would be of critical importance to anything I’d take on. Those realizations led me to choosing that major.
From there, I worked as a classroom teacher and later served in program management roles in non-profit and corporate settings. After a period of time working abroad as a teacher in Brazil, my perspectives broadened beyond what I had been learning and experiencing in my prior roles, and I decided to enroll in the Master of Education program from Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I focused on Education Policy and Management.
I went there at the time seeking to broaden and deepen my perspectives further. I wanted to more clearly understand the policies and practices that had such heavy impact on my experiences as a student growing up in the K–12 New York City public school system, and as a classroom teacher and education leader having been exposed to various education inequities at different junctures in my own life and in the lives of people that I care about so much. I knew that I eventually wanted to be a school leader, and to do so I would ideally need to develop a richer understanding of the policies and practices, and even mindsets, that govern the very system in which I wanted to generate change.
So, that degree program gave me an opportunity to understand education systems from a macro level to a micro level. We examined policy, organizational behavior, and a multitude of case studies of leaders in education who made some of the best and some of the most challenging choices in education-related settings. I also met some of the most incredible educators, leaders, and researchers. I was able to build upon all of these learning experiences to more deeply understand my own values and to inform my decision-making as a leader going forward.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] May we have an overview of your role and responsibilities as Founder and CEO of Firefly Worldwide, Inc.? How do you help global education and social change leaders to develop programs and enact strategic change within their organizations?
[Dr. Cheyenne Batista] After I stepped down from my role as superintendent of a network of schools in NYC, I realized I’d had a wide range of experiences, from some of the best in my career to some of the most challenging. I felt really inspired and compelled to carry what I learned from those experiences into supporting the work of other education and social impact leaders.
So I launched Firefly Worldwide Inc., a professional development community and education consultant practice based in NYC and Philadelphia that supports education and social impact leaders from emerging to executive levels. We provide customized adult learning experiences, which includes a host of professional development opportunities focused on leadership, management, organizational and team culture, antiracism, and disrupting inequities.
Additionally, we provide strategy consulting, services geared towards school and program design and improvement, and public speaking offerings, be they keynoting or panel experiences and so forth. In that work, I get insight into leadership at all levels at a variety of organizations literally around the globe. Our team has supported thousands of educators with our core services.
On a given day, you might find me supporting, for example, a group of health equity professionals to refine the mission and vision for their institute or coaching a school superintendent through a really challenging staffing issue. I might be delivering a district-wide session focused on interpersonal conflict within diverse teams, or supporting a faith-based nonprofit to generate a strategic plan to close the gap between what they originally envisioned for themselves and how they’re actually performing.
I love the variety of my days and the diversity of our clients. From organizations in rural, predominately white communities contending with questions like “How do we center equity and antiracism meaningfully in our work when there’s such political diversity within our community?” to a reputable leadership fellowship engaging its alumni in frank conversations about how to improve, I enjoy rolling up my sleeves and cultivating collaborative spaces for change.
Sometimes it’s a multi-day workshop or a comprehensive professional development series. Other times it’s a series of intensive one-on-one or small group sessions. There are often profound reflective moments, there’s laughter, there are sometimes tears, and most importantly, there are deeply honest and authentic conversations that push my clients to move forward in stronger, fruitful ways.
We offer a combination of transformative learning experiences through professional development and executive coaching, strategy consultations, and various public speaking events. Our team takes a lot of pride in delivering a variety of services that are customized to meet the needs of the clients from different sectors that come to us for support. I hope that a day comes when Firefly’s work is done. Whenever that day arrives, the world will have a host of better-equipped, equity-driven leaders who are much more adept at recognizing the need for societal change and effectively leading in conscious, disruptive, results-oriented ways that lead to the outcomes that a given moment or movement calls for.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Prior to establishing Firefly Worldwide, Inc., you were the Founding Superintendent and Managing Director for a network of schools in NYC. Could you elaborate on this role?
[Dr. Cheyenne Batista] I was originally hired as the founding principal for this network. At the time, there was a single school that an organization within the community was looking to open and they hired me as the founding principal. In that time, I got to work with a really incredible team to co-design a school, build it from the ground up, and serve as its leader.
Shortly after opening the first school, we realized that we had planted what we felt were strong roots that could meet increasing demands from our families for more seats for students. Alongside our families, we were building a unique school culture–one centered around lots of love for students accompanied by a strong focus on growth, achievement, and life readiness. So, we decided to replicate the model so as to double the number of available seats and create the most viable path for supporting our students successfully through their PreK-16 experience. And so over time, we scaled up the network.
For a key period in the growth process, I played a hybrid role of running the flagship school while growing the network into what became a combination of five schools serving grades pre-K through 12th-grade. In that time, under the leadership of the founding organization, we also built a unique $30M educational complex, which housed two of our schools.
So much of what that role entailed formed my thoughts about leadership going forward. First of all, building something from the ground up and the ability to take it from concept to full fruition, this role showed me the important ways to do so while bringing multiple voices to the decision-making table. Particularly given the context at the time, it could have been my inclination to hunker down in a room alone somewhere and emerge with demands for how the work should play out. However, it was important to me at every point in our growth process to include our team, families, and student voices into how we operated the schools.
So whether it was how we drafted the core values and guiding principles that we chose to embody, to a signature trademark called our Promise Triangle (a commitment between our team, families, and students), everything from curriculum choices to even classroom aesthetics were all very purposeful, community-driven decisions to the extent that time and circumstances allowed.
This approach taught me a lot about the importance of ensuring that a community feels like it has a voice in what’s happening around it. I think as a result of that inclusive process, we saw immense pride on the behalf of the families, the staff, and most importantly the students, where the environment took on a life of its own–beyond the bounds or even accolades of my own leadership–because folks felt so invested in what they had co-created.
Then there was the experience of coaching principals and other school leaders who were really committed to the community and working in this challenging context where we were constantly asking, “How do we get students to achieve at the highest of levels, but do so in a way that beautifully honors who they are, where they come from, and what best motivates them?” We committed to building a school environment that was really reflective of students and families, their cultures, their community, and to being as actively antiracist and as actively equity-driven as we knew how to be as a school community.
Layered into this approach was the focus on ensuring that the academic growth for our students that we were striving for was achieved. Much of what I learned throughout that process now informs my work with the leaders that I now support through Firefly Worldwide.
What I’ll also say is through that process, while I got to work with some of the most committed educators that I know, because of our passion for the work and because of the many competing demands that tend to surface when building and running schools, particularly in our context, there also were so many lessons to be learned about team dynamics, how people interact, and what motivates a group of people to achieve ambitious outcomes. I had to learn and unlearn so much along the way to ensure that, as a leader, I could adequately respond to what the moment called for.
Also, as a Black Latinx woman leader who often presented as younger than I actually was, my competence and belongingness wasn’t always the first presumption of everyone around me. I had to intentionally adopt an air of inner-confidence, no matter my circumstances. Needless to say, this was a role that kept me on my toes! I was never bored. [Laughs]
I would say, you know, in a context in which academic outcomes matter so much, as does fostering cultural responsiveness in classrooms and meeting the needs of all students and their varied learning needs, when you group those needs with passionate educators of varied backgrounds who have been encouraged by their leader to speak their piece, what will always surface are a variety of views about how to best approach the work. So, for me as a leader, it was always important to figure out how do we take the plethora of views and lead this group towards a common vision for how we were going to deliver on what we promised to students and their families–especially in the fast-paced and demanding world in which we live.
It was period in my life that I would describe as electric! It also came with a host of personally detrimental challenges that now motivate me to support other leaders like me¬–particularly those of us bearing multiple marginalized identities– to figure out how to make it all more antiracist, equitable, and sustainable. Because we’re needed and we matter.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Why did you decide to pursue an Ed.D. in Education Policy & Leadership at American University? What were your career goals upon enrolling, and how did you see the Ed.D. at American University as helping you to achieve these goals?
[Dr. Cheyenne Batista] My role as a founding superintendent doubly, even triply convinced me of the importance of building infrastructures to adequately support leaders, education leaders in particular, and especially those of us bearing multiple marginalized identities who are often working in challenging contexts with extremely tall orders for the outcomes that we are asked to produce. These types of leaders need support, be it through adequate ongoing professional development and training, or thoughtful and robust coaching opportunities.
Furthermore, particularly given my own identity as a Black Latinx woman leader, I am extremely invested in supporting those of us who aren’t as prominently represented in the field to navigate all of the challenges related to the role itself, with an understanding of how our identities overlay these experiences to present us with not only some of the greatest opportunities, but also some of the richest, at times grueling, challenges.
Fully convinced as I was that leaders like me are both needed in our field and need a unique set of supports, I went into the Ed.D. program at American University wanting to develop even deeper expertise, fine-tune my skills and gain a better understanding of what the best leadership supports can look like and why. I wanted to know what great leadership development looks like in education and education-adjacent spaces. I also wanted to focus not just on leadership, but also on effective management strategies, because while the two are importantly not synonymous, they go hand-in-hand when running great organizations.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Your dissertation is entitled “I am not scary. I am strong. There’s a difference.” Disrupting misogynoir and transforming interpersonal conflict for Black women education leaders: A multiple case study, and it won the prestigious 2022 CPED Dissertation of the Year Award as well as the 2023 Outstanding Dissertation Award from the American Education Research Association (AERA) Division A. Could you elaborate on what inspired your choice of dissertation topic, the definition and effects of misogynoir in education contexts, and the impact you wanted to make through your research?
[Dr. Cheyenne Batista] Everything about the experiences I’m describing here informed my choice about the problem of practice that I chose to explore. As I progressed through my doctoral program, and with the incredible support of the faculty and my eventual dissertation chair, it became clear that I was motivated to examine the ways that interpersonal conflict surfaces within interracial teams, with a particular spotlight on the experiences of senior-level Black women education leaders. The challenges I faced in my various leadership experiences left me wondering about the extent to which aspects of my identity had influence on the experiences I found myself encountering. None of the prominent literature was diving deeply into these considerations.
In many of our day-to-day interactions, it can sometimes be difficult to put our finger on or “prove” whether a given injustice is directly attributed to someone’s identity. Yet for so many of us, these moments big and small leave us heading back home at night haunted with the sense that a given experience might likely have gone differently were we of a different racial, gender, or other background.
These reflections led to my intrigue about the problem of practice. As I went into the process of my knowledge review and saw the race neutrality of the resources, the literature, the experts who would address the complex nature of interpersonal conflicts, it just made me wonder where there’s an opportunity to consider where our racial and gender identities play a significant role in how interpersonal conflict plays out just in general. But in particular for the research, how it plays out in organizational spaces, in the professional workplace, and namely in the field of education.
Namely, I sought to further recognize and understand the presence of misogynoir in education spaces, in particular, its impact on Black women leaders. Misogynoir is a term that comes from Dr. Moya Bailey–a singular, powerful word that captures the distinct marginalization that specifically Black women face as a result of their intersecting race and gender identities.
I, also in part, wanted to explore my problem of practice because this world in which we live has become so politically divisive, especially as of late, and there are passionate, disparate perspectives about how to best approach leadership in our education system going forward. It felt like a deeply important time to consider what happens in moments of conflict and how can an understanding of identity help us better navigate those moments? And in particular, where are the historically marginalized leaders and where do they fall in this conversation? From those questions, the opportunity to look at the experience of Black women leaders in education felt like an excellent and intriguing one.
The study was a multiple case study. I worked with five anonymous, previously unacquainted senior-level Black women leaders in the K-12 space. They had served in different roles, be it in school-based roles or within other education-related organizations. For my intervention, I designed an intensive 10.5-hour three-part online professional development series in which each woman participated. They worked in affinity-based settings, or what is often referred to in the literature as “sister circles.” I wanted to create a group of solely Black women to give participants a community of safety and healing, one where they could let their shoulders down a little bit and share more about their experiences so that we could have really candid conversations as they navigated and dissected their experiences with interpersonal conflict within the interracial teams that they lead.
The intervention took place over the course of three weeks. During the professional development series, the women were asked to take what they learned and co-create with one another their own customized approach towards responding to interpersonal conflict. They each created their own framework and then they were given a span of eight weeks to apply their new strategies in their leadership contexts. In the follow-up interview with each participant, I asked them to share their experiences with me, and to discuss the extent to which they were seeing impact from having participated in the intervention.
For me, considering my positionality was incredibly essential to this process. As a Black woman, one with my own host of challenging experiences, I wanted to make sure I was doing everything I could to mitigate bias that I might be bringing into the study. For that reason, I was purposeful about using a multifaceted data collection approach. I wanted to see multiple expressions of what the women shared across various data points.
To do so, I implemented five tools for data collection. The first was a research-generated survey conducted pre- and post-intervention. The second was semi-structured interviews that were conducted prior to, during, and after the intervention. The third was participant observations. As I was facilitating the workshops, I used transcripts and my observations during the execution of the intervention to further corroborate findings across the different points of data.
The fourth data collection method used was interactive reflection journals. Throughout the multiple weeks of the study, the women had their own private online journal where they were encouraged to produce three “required” entries and they could submit as many additional optional entries as they wanted. Through those reflective entries, we actively interacted to help them process what they were learning, to process some of the grief and trauma that was coming up for them, and to make sense of this really complex interweaving of the understandings of the anatomy of a conflict with their perceptions about how identity-based oppression can surface in organizations.
Finally, each participant produced their customized conflict transformation approach, which was submitted as an electronic document. They worked together in the workshop to support each other to create them, but they each ultimately created their own for application to their specific real-world context. In the workshop, they collaborated with one another, creating a unique learning space in which they actively supported and encouraged one another.
As part of my research design, I collected a host of pre- and post-intervention data to explore the extent to which my research question and problem of practice resonated with the women leaders. The data showed that the topic of my research was very much resonant to the participants as well as to the multitude of other women who wished to participate in the study but could not.
In my dissertation, I outlined four key findings. My first finding was that my intervention helped the women leaders to progress through a process of disrupting misogynoir. Second was that the sister circles, or affinity-based learning spaces, were really critical and impactful to the women. The third finding was that these five previously unacquainted women from all around the country articulated a host of shared experiences pertinent to both interpersonal conflict and misogynoir. Finally, the fourth finding was that the intervention led to improved leadership actions as self-reported by the participants.
In my conclusion, I make strong recommendations that the study be replicated and expanded and that organizations invest in this type of professional development importantly for Black women leaders and those of other historically marginalized identities, but also for all staff within their organizations.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] What challenges did you encounter during your dissertation?
[Dr. Cheyenne Batista] I can name a few! First of all, the study as I mentioned was multifaceted and a lot of data was collected. So I constantly asked and continue to ask myself, “Did I do too much in my approach?” I collected a lot of data, so as a student, it left me pulling many late nights to get the dissertation done. It was a qualitative study with a robust set of data and I wanted to do it as responsibly and with as much integrity as possible, which left me crosschecking at every opportunity. So it’s a study that just took an incredible amount of time.
Yet, while there were moments when I questioned whether or not I did too much, I can’t imagine any particular element that I would remove. So I think that will be just a lifelong question for me of, “Is there a way to replicate this study as meaningfully, while streamlining some of the process?” So that’s one.
The second major challenge was that, because the participants were busy leaders and they were leading through the height of what has been this ongoing pandemic, their schedules were understandably demanding and challenging to navigate at times. To ask for 10.5 hours of time just to attend the workshops, but also to send them home with a lot of homework per se, was a big demand on their time. I was floored and honestly emotionally moved that every single woman attended every single hour of training and submitted all the required pieces. I think their commitment speaks a lot to the demand and the value of this work.
What I will say is that because they were busy, I unfortunately could not get all of the participants to log into the sessions at the same time. Four of the women participated in what became the sister circles and it left me to have to then replicate the entire series for a singular participant who wound up participating with me one-on-one. While it was very dismaying at first, it actually turned into a huge opportunity, because what it provided was a lab of sorts for me to examine the differences of the impact on the women in the sister circles versus the woman who participated alone. The findings in my report go into a lot of detail about some of the very palpable implications there.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] How have you applied the insights from your dissertation research to your work at Firefly Worldwide, Inc. and as an Adjunct Professorial Lecturer at American University? How has your research positively influenced other education leaders in understanding interpersonal dynamics and politics within interracial teams?
[Dr. Cheyenne Batista] In my professional world, my response is, “I apply these insights on a daily basis!” First of all, I’m so proud and honored that I was able to center the experiences of Black women in this study, and that’s a lot of what’s been highlighted about my research. I celebrate that. But I also just want to underscore that this dissertation focused on interpersonal conflict–a topic that is ubiquitous.
Everyone has points of conflict that they experience within the workplace and when they’re handled well, conflict produces all sorts of benefits for teams who are working on something really important. At the same time, if not navigated effectively, particularly by the leaders within that context, conflicts can break down the effectiveness of an entire team or organization even.
So, the topic of conflict itself is ubiquitous, and it’s just exciting to see the ways in which this research applies very much to my consulting with leaders of all backgrounds and within any context, as well as for folks who might be asking the question, “Where might my identity in any way relate to what I’m experiencing in this moment?”
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Where in an ideal world would you take your research next? Do you see yourself incorporating elements of your intervention into your work for Firefly Worldwide, Inc.?
[Dr. Cheyenne Batista] Yeah, definitely. There’s heavy interest within my client base. I’ve already been able to replicate the intervention in key settings and I’m certainly going into the new year considering how to continue to do so and expand on opportunities to do more. The study produced so much usable knowledge. I can write for the next five to ten years on what I discovered! There are just so many elements, new understandings that have come out of this process and I’m really excited about that. It’s all been really well received.
I definitely plan to write more about my research topic, and I want to write and publish both within peer reviewed spaces, as well as in popular press and through other media, because again the topic is so relevant to folks of all backgrounds. I want to make sure that the findings, the gift that the five women gave to us all through their stories, and the work done through the intervention, reaches more audiences.
The women who participated in the study really committed themselves to this process and they shared their stories so boldly and they were so innovative in how they approached their conflict transformation approaches. I just want to make sure that I’m able to publish this work in a variety of venues so as to get this knowledge into as many hands as possible, with the ultimate goal of improving education and social impact spaces. And in ways that truly honor the experiences that the five women leaders in this study shared.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] What advice do you have for current and prospective Ed.D. students who want to know how they can succeed in their dissertation, from choosing the right research topic to staying organized and on track with their research?
[Dr. Cheyenne Batista] We so often hear the advice to pick a research topic that you love and I definitely agree with that sentiment, particularly because, when it got to the most challenging points of frustration, dismay, and exhaustion, I never ever lost intrigue in my research question and I never wanted to not finish. I never found myself not wanting to finish, although I questioned at times whether I would. [Laughs]
So, I underscore that advice to pick a research topic that you love. But what I would say is that a very important part of my process in terms of identifying what I was really intrigued about is, throughout all my courses, I would pay attention to moments when my lightbulbs were going off in class discussions or while reading an article or writing papers. I would even reflect about and journal about these moments because they were giving me insight into what really intrigued me most throughout my learning process.
That way, by the time we were starting to develop and submit proposals for what we wanted to research, I had gone through a process where, per wise advice I received, I literally wrote down all of my interests and created a Venn diagram of sorts to see where those interests intersected. Doing so gave me a very focused, unique, but yet relevant problem of practice to examine. And in doing so it helped position me to pick a problem of practice in which there was literature available and I could draw upon various research traditions to guide my process, but at the same time gave me space to contribute new knowledge to the field.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] What have been some of your most rewarding experiences as an educator and education leader? What challenges and opportunities were the most formative across your career, and what advice do you have for students who wish to work in education leadership, social change leadership, academic program development and improvement, and related areas?
[Dr. Cheyenne Batista] I adore helping other people, so that’s so much of what has inspired the study and the work that I do, so I find that core aspect to be really rewarding. I also particularly love to see education leaders evolve, because when they evolve, and particularly when they align their leadership to equity-focused values, then their growth is ultimately in service to a broader community and a greater good.
In terms of challenges, I think it’s of dire importance that we as a society and certainly as education leaders and educators on the whole figure out ways to work through this continued moment of political dissent. There are so many of us coming to the table with widely varying political beliefs, but while that’s happening… the clock still ticks on what students need of us. So, I think it’s imperative that the adults in students’ lives who are involved in everything, from making policy decisions to running schools to designing the next lesson plan, figure out a way to come to the table in ways that are productive, that unapologetically interrogate oppressive systems and structures in really honest ways, and that do better for our students. And soon.
Thank you, Dr. Cheyenne Batista, for your excellent insight into the pressing needs of education leaders and students, how equity and social justice are integral to positive education outcomes, and how building communities of practice can empower Black female education leaders to combat misogynoir!