Soledad Alfaro is the Chief of Staff for the Mastery Charter Schools Network, a non-profit network of 22 schools in Philadelphia, PA and Camden, NJ. Twelve Mastery schools are turnarounds of formerly low-performing district schools or conversions of struggling charter schools. Soledad lives and works in Philadelphia, where she quietly, consistently, and fiercely fights for educational equity. When she is not assiduously reading her way through a towering stack of books, you can find her volunteering for the Muslim Wellness Foundation
and the Fellowship
, hanging out with her family, watching NL baseball, and actively waiting patiently.
1) When did you start wearing hijab? Tell us a little about your journey, how you came to wear it, what factors were involved, etc.
I returned to Islam in college, but didn't start wearing hijab right away. I was raised a Catholic and had a hard time finding a community - the road was a little bumpy at first. I felt very awkward and unsure of myself. One day I met a sister who was visiting from Toledo, Ohio, of all places, who I was able to connect to. She was so beautiful, confident and smart, I wanted to emulate her. Soon I met other Muslims who took the time to teach and mentor me along my journey. Over time, as I grew in my understanding of Islam, I identified as a Muslim and wanted to be known and respected as a Muslim, so twenty years ago, I started wearing hijab, and now can't imagine not wearing it.2) You are the Chief of Staff at the largest Charter School in the nation and a mother! Tell us more about what you do, your motivations and what you hope to accomplish.
The stark inequity in education in America motivates me to work hard every day. The fact that a child's future is so dependent on factors completely outside his or her control - where s/he is born or lives, race and/or ethnicity, if s/he lives in poverty, is incredibly unjust. So, in my role, I focus on increasing access to great education for children who live in marginalized communities, empowering their families, and ensuring great options for young people once they graduate from high school. It is important to me that I work for a Charter Turnaround Network - because, unlike "traditional" charter schools, turnaround schools are designed to partner with schools that have not successfully served children and families. There are no lotteries, no special admission requirements - every child who lives in the community is welcome. At their best, turnaround schools are neighborhood schools, and become the hub and heart of a community.
Education is an increasingly charged and political environment, and sadly, I am often faced with difficult and complicated situations. There is so much division and disagreement about the solution, the adults often forget about serving the children. In those heated and frustrating moments, I hold close to me the words of the Prophet (saws), "Strive always to excel in virtue and truth," to keep me focused on the best outcome for the children. The ultimate goal is for every child to have the opportunity to live their best life, regardless of where they were born or what they look like.
Being a mother is the greatest, most difficult and most rewarding role I have. My children are everything - they are all so amazing, each in their own singular way. I am so blessed and grateful to be entrusted with them. As they transition through their life stages from babies to adults, I rejoice in their discovery of the unique gifts Allah has blessed each of them with. Now that I have adult children, teenagers and a young child, I am thoroughly enjoying knowing them in new and different ways.
3) Your daughter looks up to you and admires your work ethic and faith. You have clearly have a positive impact on her, as well as all the other young women you are around all day! What is some advice that you would give to your daughters and other young women as well?I am an introvert, and when I was younger, I rarely voiced my concerns or spoke up for myself. The advice a friend gave me many years ago is advice I continue to draw on today and share with young women in my life - "speak your truth, even if your voice shakes." That sentiment means so much more than speaking up - although it does mean that - it also means to be true to yourself, even when you are nervous or afraid. Inshallah I carry myself in such a way that encourages young women around me to be unapologetically themselves. I pray that they recognize that they are not defined or limited by dominant cultural norms. It is possible to carry yourself with grace and humility, act with kindness and dignity, and still be powerful and successful. 4) What is your favorite hadith of the Prophet (S) and why?
If I have to choose one favorite, it would be "Allah is merciful to those who show mercy to others." To show mercy means to show compassion and forgiveness when it is in your power not to - and that can be very difficult to do, especially when someone has hurt you. We all make mistakes and hurt ourselves and others - it is an excellent reminder to me when I am in need of mercy and when I should be merciful.5) If you could tell your 18 year old self one thing, what would it be?
Peace. Be still. Be present - live each moment, it will be the joy and peace in the every day moments, that, along with your faith, will be shelter in the storms that will come. 6) If you could give one piece of advice to someone struggling with hijab, what would it be?
Be patient with yourself. What we choose to wear is tied to our identity and how we present ourselves to the world. Identity is very complex. It is easy (while true) to say, we should dress for Allah not the world, but it can be difficult to do. Human beings often have a disconnect between what we know and how we behave. Gain your own understanding and relationship with Allah, be firm in your faith, and your comfort with wearing hijab will increase. Do you have someone you'd like to nominate for HOTM? E-mail us at email@example.com!