New Alpha Profile: Elena Silva, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Foundation

New Alpha Profile: Elena Silva, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Foundation

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“Most things, I’ve learned, aren’t fixed or helped by being fast, or first, or fiercely independent. The real test of strength is how you face life’s unexpected and unpredictable challenges, the ones that don’t make sense and will drop you to your knees and make you wonder if you can get back up.”
~Elena Silva

Elena Silva is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, where she contributes to the Foundation’s educational research projects and represents the Foundation and its work in the Washington, D.C. education policy community and nationally. Previously, she worked as a Senior Policy Analyst at Education Sector and was the Director of Research for the American Association of University Women. Elena’s research spans a wide range of issues, including public school education, higher education, teachers’ unions, and gender equity issues in science and technology and in the workplace. She also developed and directed one of the first AmeriCorps service programs in the United States for the ASPIRA Association.

Elena holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in education from the University of California, Berkeley, where she taught undergraduate courses in urban education, high school reform, and qualitative research. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She currently lives in the Washington, D.C. area with her husband with whom she has two wonderful kids, a crazy hairy dog, and a beautiful life.

For this profile, Elena talks about what it means to be strong, the importance of taking risks, and the upside of facing life’s biggest challenges.

Danielle:
What is the most important lesson that you’ve learned so far in life?
Elena:

My biggest lesson in life so far (I expect many more.) is what it means to be strong. On the surface, I’ve always been strong. As a child in the 1970s, I played soccer with the boys and found pride in racing and beating them. I learned from my father, a former athlete (who had hoped for boys), how to start a sprint with your head down, how to shift back and forth in a boxing ring, and how to set up a campsite. I watched my feminist mother become fully independent, financially and otherwise, as she rose through the ranks at her job and made sure her daughters knew that being a girl didn’t mean you were weak or second best. So I moved fast through school, skipping a grade and sprinting along an honors track through college and then through graduate school. I always envisioned that if I ever had a daughter, I would teach her lessons about how to be in charge and in control and strong.

Then my daughter was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy. Early on, before we had a diagnosis, she was labeled as physically “delayed” so I imagined that she would surely catch up. Later, once we knew her muscles were fundamentally different, I would hold her floppy body against mine and wonder if I could somehow transfer some of my strength and speed to her. As it turns out, she transferred something to me that I still find hard to understand: she taught me what it means to be strong.

Most things, I’ve learned, aren’t fixed or helped by being fast, or first, or fiercely independent. The real test of strength is how you face life’s unexpected and unpredictable challenges, the ones that don’t make sense and will drop you to your knees and make you wonder if you can get back up. My daughter falls all of the time, always announcing “I’m fine! It’s okay!” so others won’t worry, and then she gets back up, slow and determined and almost always with the help of others, and gives a big goofy grin. This is what it looks like to be strong: to find a way up when you’re down, to ask for help, and to always keep your sense of humor.

Danielle:
What do you wish you’d learned sooner in life—personally or professionally?
Elena:

Well, the above about being strong. But also that trying to live too comfortably, and too perfectly, is a mistake and a trap. It is in the pain and tumult of problems that we learn the most and forge the strongest bonds with others and in the end I think that’s what matters most. I don’t mean we should seek trouble—just that it’s better to be okay with the imperfect. I see people try to create flawless fail-proof worlds and the result never looks appealing or beautiful to me. I guess this is a prioritizing thing, since there’s only so much time in our lives. I don’t, for example, care if my kids ever make their beds. Really, what’s the point of making your bed? It doesn’t help anyone else, and it probably doesn’t bring you any joy, so why bother?

Danielle:
What do you think is the most important thing for other New Alphas to know?
Elena:

Relating to the distinction between the “New Alpha” term and the older, standard definition: tread lightly and find a balance between living boldly and being gentle enough to stop and help others. Also, recognize that taking risks is essential to growing and living but that it’s important to understand what real risk is. There’s a quote by Tom Robbins that I love: “You risked your life, but what else have you ever risked? Have you risked disapproval? Have you ever risked economic security? Have you ever risked a belief? I see nothing particularly courageous about risking one’s life. So you lose it, you go to your hero’s heaven and everything is milk and honey ’til the end of time. Right? You get your reward and suffer no earthly consequences. That’s not courage. Real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and suffer change and stretch consciousness. Real courage is risking one’s clichés.”

Danielle:
Anything else that could be helpful to this project or to fellow or aspiring New Alphas?
Elena:

Most of the above is about me, personally. But I wouldn’t be this person if I hadn’t found a partner who helped me travel this path. I think the “alpha” side of me wondered if I really needed someone else. I wish the alpha would have shut up so I wouldn’t have wasted any energy or time debating what I already knew: that building a life with someone else, while more complicated and messy, is profoundly better than going it alone. As for work, it’s a lot like marriage and motherhood–a constant challenge with joys and defeats. All three depend on compromise.

 

For more information on Elena Silva, visit: http://elenamsilva.com/bio/.

 

Fellow New Alphas: We welcome your comments, insights, questions, and feedback on the topics discussed in this article. Please leave your wisdom and ideas below!

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Danielle Harlan is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Advancing Leadership and Human Potential (www.leadershipandhumanpotential.com) and author of the leadership book, The New Alpha (amzn.to/29C0V6j). She earned her doctorate in political science and M.A. in education from Stanford University, where she was a Jacob K. Javits National Fellow and received a Centennial Teaching Award for excellence in instruction. Prior to launching the Center, she was the Chief of Operations for the Carnegie Foundation, where she worked to harness the power of networks and quality improvement strategies in order to solve important educational problems. Named one of Silicon Valley's "40 Under 40," Danielle has also been a speaker for TEDx and worked as an instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and U.C. Berkeley Extension's Corporate and Professional Development Program. In addition, she has given guest lectures at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the “d.school”) and the Career Development Center at Stanford, and has been featured in leading publications such as Fast Company, Forbes, and Women's Health. Danielle started her career as a Teach For America corps member and later served as a mentor and advisor for Global Leadership Adventures, an international leadership development and service program. In addition to teaching in the U.S., she has taught in Brazil, China, Costa Rica, and South Africa. She is a member of the International Leadership Association, the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, and the National Association for Female Executives.

  • Gay Clyburn

    Leave reply
    September 5, 2014

    What a wonderful interview.

  • September 5, 2014

    Love this interview. Very inspiring and I love the quote.

  • Constance McCoy

    Leave reply
    September 6, 2014

    You caught my attention with the header about how it’s our handling of life’s unexpected challenges that define and develop our strength. From experience, I so agree! Much of the resilience we gain is not so much from what we consciously try to cultivate but what spontaneously emerges when we are faced with adversity. I enjoyed reading the interview!

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