Dr. Kendra Washington-Bass ’94 has spent her career empowering others: first as a teacher, then as a principal and leadership coach training future administrators. Now, she is doing the same for Black students at Notre Dame as the board chair of the Black Alumni of Notre Dame.
But she took an indirect route back to her alma mater. After graduating with a degree in communication and film in 1994, Washington-Bass did not return to campus until 2018. Her son was looking at colleges and wanted to tour Notre Dame, so she returned for the first time in 24 years.
“[It was] every emotion, all the good, the bad, the ugly,” says Washington-Bass. “And my son was like, ‘This place is magical!’ and I said, ‘It is, but it has this other layer.’ It was smiling, crying, all of that.”
When she was a student, Washington-Bass came to Notre Dame from the South Bronx, and says the adjustment was difficult.
“One of the things I learned over time, and that I now tell people, is to find how you can plug in early. Notre Dame over the years has done a better job connecting students, especially students of color, to communities early. I struggled with finding community,” she says. “Part of it was coming from the South Bronx to South Bend. I grew up in the South Bronx in the ’80s, and my community was ravaged by the AIDS epidemic and crack. I watched people around me sick and dying, and I was feeling like it was closing in. I wanted to go away.”
But it wasn’t as simple as just getting away from home. Once she arrived on campus, Washington-Bass recalls, “I was definitely in the minority in terms of people who look like me and representation. And then [I had] experiences of microaggressions, and being put in remedial classes that did not match my transcripts.”
She had to become a strong advocate for herself, and, over time, found community in the Voices of Faith Gospel choir and working as a football manager. She also worked at South Dining Hall, The Huddle, and in the multicultural affairs office.
It was all those memories that came flooding back when Washington-Bass returned to campus in 2018, and she talked about it with Rochelle Valsaint ’95, who had been her “little sister” when they were students.
“Rochelle was the board chair of the Black Alumni of Notre Dame for 15 years, and I said, ‘Rochelle, everything came back to me,’” Washington-Bass recalls. “I had this realization that for 25 years, there were 25 cohorts of students and I did not support them. And it was an emotional a-ha moment. And Rochelle said, ‘Well, you can start now.’”
That’s how Washington-Bass first got involved as the director of student recruitment for the Black Alumni of Notre Dame. She took over as board chair in the summer of 2023 for a two-year term, which will culminate in the 40th anniversary celebration for the Black Alumni of Notre Dame in 2025.
Supporting students and helping them thrive has been a theme throughout Washington-Bass’ life and career. It’s why she went into education.
She joined Teach for America after graduating from Notre Dame, and was placed in the same South Bronx neighborhood where she grew up, teaching third and fourth grade.
“When I saw my students, I saw myself. I saw their apprehension, and I saw their incredible strength. These students were facing so many obstacles, none of them their fault,” she says. “And here they are, still fighting, still trying to make the best of the situation. I thought, the least I can do in the six hours that I have them is show them that they’re worth it and never quit on them.”
Washington-Bass later taught seventh and eighth grade, relishing in the challenge of the middle school years. From there, she went into school administration, overseeing the opening of a new middle school and working as principal of a middle school in New York City. She has a master’s degree in urban and multicultural education from the College of Mount Saint Vincent, an advanced certificate in educational leadership from the College of Saint Rose, and an educational specialist degree from Mercer University, and also earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Mercer.
After moving to Georgia, she worked in administration in the largest school district in the state, and then moved into leadership development for teachers and future administrators. In doing this work, she witnessed firsthand the lack of diversity in educational leadership.
“Principals, superintendents, district-level leaders who are women or leaders of color, the numbers are abysmal,” Washington-Bass says.
So she co-founded The Lucy Leadership Project, an organization that works to increase access and opportunity for women educators to take on leadership roles and positively impact the school systems they serve. Washington-Bass and her co-founder, Kelly Peaks Horner, wrote the book Unwrapped: The Pursuit of Justice for Women Educators.
“Lucy Leadership Project is a way for me and my co-author to move the needle in service to women educational leaders. I’m a Black woman and Kelly is a white woman, so we have that intersectionality that we work in, and we learn from each other purposefully,” Washington-Bass says. “The book tells our parallel stories and our collaborative stories. And then the project itself is a consultancy. We’re working with school districts, leaders, men, and women on how to support and improve the numbers of women in leadership and how women can thrive in these roles. Women do not have to take on the archetype of a white, dominant male ideology to do it.”
They launched Lucy Leadership project in January 2023, and Washington-Bass says the name references Lucy, the nickname for the fossil remains of one of the oldest known human ancestors in Africa. “The bravery that Lucy had to undertake as a woman, in harsh environments, is indicative of our survival and, potentially, our thriving,” she says.
Her work with the Lucy Leadership Project is in addition to her day job at The Leadership Academy, a national organization that focuses on culturally and linguistically responsive leadership development to support school districts and minority communities.
“It’s great that I’m able to see nationally how school districts in different states and different regions operate, and some of the challenges they have,” says Washington-Bass. “It’s helpful to have the lens I have to think about how universities are supporting students from very different backgrounds, not dinging them for having a different background. It helps me to have a focus for the work I’m doing with the Black Alumni.”
It's work she never imagined being a part of, but that has become a passion.
“God has a way of creating the path and the journey that you just don’t see. Here I am, with my sort of trauma story around my education experience, encouraging people to go to Notre Dame. I’m encouraging Black students and saying, you absolutely belong here and we’re going to make sure you have the support needed to thrive and persist. We’re going to advocate for you,” she says. “And we want to increase those numbers, not just of students, but faculty and alumni involvement with the Black Alumni. We want to catch the Kendras of the world, who for 25 years did not connect. I’ll use my story. I have a testimony that I can use to say, it’s never too late. That’s why I’m here.”
Originally published by weare.nd.edu on November 21, 2023.at