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Setting a New Standard, In Scholarship and Practice: The Legacy of Dr. Cheyenne Batista

The School of Education alumna’s groundbreaking dissertation of practice provides actionable solutions for disrupting misogynoir, bettering the professional lives of Black women leaders.

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Dr. Cheyenne Batista (second from right) stands with (from left) Dr. Samantha Cohen, Dr. Amaarah DeCuir, and Dean Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy.

Dr. Cheyenne Batista, SOE/EdD ’22, does not simply contribute to the communities she joins. She transforms them for the better.

Take the New York City school system, of which she is an alumna. She served as a middle-school teacher in the city, worked locally as a program director for an education nonprofit, then became the founding principal—and later founding superintendent and managing director—of a growing school network in East Harlem.

Or consider her work in Brazil, where she spent four years heading up an elementary school classroom, igniting the curiosity of fourth graders. Or her stretch helping schools and families make the most of robust academic-assessment data. Or her service as a board member of Our Voice Alliance, an organization amplifying the voices of educators of color.

All these days spent promoting educational progress sum up to more than 20 years of experience and endless accolades. Ultimately, this career path steered her toward American University, where her influence on the curricula and community has proven exemplary.

A dissertation for the ages

As Dr. Samantha Cohen, director of the School of Education’s Education Doctorate Program, puts it, “Dr. Batista’s impact is profound beyond measure.” And she has more than the personal endorsements to prove it: She holds the academic hardware, too, in the form of two extremely prestigious—yet disparate—awards in her field.

Her dissertation of practice, “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, took home both the 2022 Carnegie Project on Education Doctorate’s (CPED) Dissertation in Practice of the Year Award and the 2023 Outstanding Dissertation award by the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

If coming out on top of both the practice- and research-based pedestals of academia sounds unusual, know that it is. But no triumph is out of reach for someone as driven as Dr. Batista, who was the first in her family to secure an advanced degree. She earned her BA in communications from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before powering ahead to Harvard, where she gained an EdM in education policy and management. Finally, she enrolled at American University to pursue her doctorate. Here, she would encounter like-minded classmates and distinguished professors who would help her fuel and focus her cutting-edge dissertation work.

This research, centered around the experiences of Black women educators managing interracial teams, underscores her commitment to the health of her communities. She is driven to advance education scholarship by mining novel insights. The work she continued alongside her studies at AU—serving as the founder and CEO of Firefly Worldwide Inc., an education and nonprofit consulting practice—complemented and benefitted from the layered knowledge her dissertation produced.

The pursuit of equity guides Dr. Batista in her endeavors, both professional and academic. It is fitting, then, that her doctorate-level work would home in on the wellbeing of Black women leaders and produce practical recommendations for addressing racism and sexism in the workplace.

Before Dr. Batista selected her EdD program, she knew she wanted to take a microscope to the ways “our identities impact so much of how we lead [and] how we are received as leaders.” What better place to take on such questions than in a program prioritizing anti-racism and progress above all?

Why an AU EdD?

“There were so many aspects about American U that really fit,” says Dr. Batista.

For starters, she jumped at the chance to further her relationship with Dr. Cohen, the inaugural director of the EdD. When the news dropped that Dr. Batista’s classmate from Harvard would be the doctorate’s primary architect, her ears perked up.

AU’s EdD curriculum orbits around the premise that “education should give students hope”—even though, and especially because, the present school system may not deliver on this promise. Instead, as the program website articulates, “a new approach to education leadership and policy” must take root. At its simplest, equity should be the grounding force all aspects of schooling gravitate back toward.

Building “an education system where students see themselves, ...are loved, ...are valued, ...are healthy, ...are safe, ...[and] are able to build the future they deserve” is Dr. Cohen’s dream. And achieving this, she says, is only possible “if we have anti-racist and equitable and humanizing school spaces.”

The freshness of this approach compelled Dr. Batista. “There’s obvious risk in deciding to join anything inaugural,” she says. “But there’s also something exciting about” helping set a program’s tone.

Plus, there wasn’t a singular way the degree could be fulfilled, Dr. Batista remarks. She had the space and power to ask, “Where can we take this?” and “Where can we disrupt some of the paradigms that what we’ve been able to do in education” thus far?

The digital structure of the doctorate was an added bonus. Students with responsibilities elsewhere could fire up Zoom to earn their terminal degrees from afar. Still, Dr. Batista “wanted to make sure that if [she] were to choose an online program that it would still feel rigorous” and replete with resources.

AU hit the mark.

Cultivating a culture of care

“The thing that will always stick out to me about AU is the level of support,” says Dr. Batista—describing the program’s aura as “meaningful [and] warm.”

Considering her work required marching fearlessly into underexplored territory, obtaining the proper academic supports to advance her dissertation proved critical.

The study she developed focused in on five Black women leaders who had never met and analyzed their professional experiences. From there, she led a 10-and-a-half-hour professional development series as her practical intervention, equipping these educators “with strategies and tools to disrupt misogynoir...[and] transform interpersonal conflict into productive outcomes.”

One aspect of AU that aided Dr. Batista in this enormous undertaking was the EdD coursework itself. She labels certain classroom experiences as “life changing”—noting, “they helped me [reconfigure] how I think about my [own] leadership.”

The collaborative nature of the EdD was also a boon. “Other programs certainly have their merits, but it’s rare that they lead with feeling like a part of a community...[on] so many levels,” she says. She can’t recall an instance in which one of her requests for assistance was ever turned down at AU.

“There are people who are eager and ready to support,” Dr. Batista says—people like Dr. Amarah DeCuir, her dissertation chair.

The two first connected when Dr. Batista enrolled in one of Dr. DeCuir’s courses. A teacher herself, Dr. Batista felt magnetized by “the thoughtful architecture of [Dr. DeCuir’s] class” and her deep knowledge of Black feminist thought. Their relationship morphed from a student-teacher connection to one of co-discovery.

“What makes my work with Dr. Batista unique from her peers is that she began her relationship with establishing a clear bar of excellence that she wanted to achieve,” says Dr. DeCuir. “She directly asked me to challenge her,” thus “set[ting] the tone for the rest of our work together.”

At the time, Dr. Batista was spinning many different plates at once: running a small business full time, balancing part-time gigs, and more. Dr. DeCuir helped her churn out high-level work while also acknowledging school was not her entire focus. She kept Dr. Batista abreast of award opportunities, too.

“Though [awards] had been on my radar, as a busy person, I just kept saying, ‘Okay, I’ll give it a shot one day,’” says Dr. Batista, but she never managed to follow up. But her mentor didn’t let these opportunities flutter by. Dr. DeCuir’s “encouraging nudge [on] both occasions” led to Dr. Batista earning two massive accolades.

Key findings and resources offered

When equipping her subjects with tools to combat misogynoir, Dr. Batista first looked to leverage the strength of affinity-based space. This meant ensuring participants “got to work in [tandem] with other...women of any ethnicity [who] identify as Black or African American.” From there, she devised an intervention to help these senior leaders “contend with some of the issues...that aren’t always verbalized because...mainstream society is not trained to recognize the dynamics of misogynoir.”

On the heels of this professional development, Dr. Batista recorded “self-reported positive impacts on [the women’s] leadership.” The educators adapted their leadership styles, now knowing how to communicate and administer self-care more intentionally.

A year after, Dr. Batista reconnected with one of the women from her study. This participant expressed the extent of her transformation, sharing, “I’m worlds away from where I was as a leader.” Before meeting Dr. Batista, she had considered leaving her job. Today, she remains in her same leadership position—and her professional life gleams with newfound promise.

Embracing a new educational ethos

The future of education—as well as American University’s SOE—is ripe with opportunity. First, Dr. Batista broadened the scope of what many had believed possible to achieve over the course of an eight-semester doctoral program.

For Dr. Batista “to be a member of our first cohort of EdD students and earn two prestigious dissertation awards has been remarkable for the program,” says Dr. DeCuir. “Students...ask me how they can produce an excellent dissertation that will receive similar honors.”

As a pioneering figure, Dr. Batista also helped solidify the equity-based foundation of the program. By “leading through [the program’s] messy beginning” and beyond, she has left a significant imprint on the university, says Dr. Cohen. 

Dr. Batista’s influence continues to soar as she now serves as an adjunct professional lecturer in the program. If she has achieved all this after four years alone, Dr. Cohen remarks, “imagine where we’ll be in a decade in terms of the impact that Cheyenne [has had].”

Anti-racism is a subject gaining significant traction in education research, Dr. DeCuir says, and AU is one of the universities leading the charge by advancing scholarship in this lane.

As Dr. Cohen sees it, promoting positive change may look like scrapping our present definition of “school” and rewriting it. The word should do more than conjure up images of kids rooted at desks, bending to adults’ orders, she says; it should signal “a humanizing space that is deeply about wellness and love and learning and growth.”

And as Dr. Batista’s dissertation is concerned, this improved definition must elevate Black women educators—demonstrating appreciation for their expertise and leadership.


Dr. Batista’s impact indeed spans miles, stretching from DC to NYC, and even across the US through her consulting practice. But her name also holds global weight—an aspect of her influence she hopes to continue expanding. It is not a coincidence that traveling is one of her favorite activities; she embraces international cultures as a trilingual student of life, proficient in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Although Philadelphia and New York serve as her home bases, her heart feels tugged to serve cities and nations beyond her own, as well.

“Carry[ing] this work very much a part of the vision,” Dr. Batista says. Abroad, “the issues are certainly...parallel.” Although she considers her experience in this realm “cursory,” it is clear she has the brilliance and drive to continue furthering causes that count: chief among them, equitable education.