Twice recently I’ve been asked to reflect on “my why.” The first time, at a student-led professional development on unconscious bias from Diversity Talks and the second, at a meet-up of EduLeaders of Color RI. I am grateful for these two gatherings because I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself to find words to describe my investment in equity and justice in education (and broadly). Additionally, I’ve been trying to think of ways to bring others on that journey — both friends and opponents.
In short, I’ve been searching for a point of view to ground me and provide direction as I imagine the future of education. As the conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) picks up steam, I have felt even more pressure. It is one thing to talk about these topics with folks that “get it”, are increasing their consciousness, and are actively building equity into their practice. It is another to be in conversations and settings where equity is just a casual topic or bolt-on.
My why: I am angry that students and educators (especially those who are Black and brown, LGBTQ, lower-income, English language learners etc.) are flattened by a system that doesn’t allow them to be their full selves. I love my communities and want to be in the business of co-designing and building an education system where they can thrive—one where equity is at the core.
Most of the conversations and actions in the education sector are not structured with the same ‘why’ in mind. Equity is often a bolt-on added to existing conversations, practices, or programs. This has produced inconsistent, narrow-focused point solutions or top-down mandates across schools, organizations, and policy.
These efforts do not:
- Combat the root causes of inequity and oppression that are stitched into the fabric of the education system (and our society)
- Raise the achievement of all students, while narrowing the gaps between the highest and lowest performing students or eliminate the racial predictability and disproportionality of which student groups occupy the highest and lowest achievement categories [Glenn Singleton, 2015]
- Transform experiences for students, educators, and families
To do that, we need something more. We all need personal and institutional ‘whys’ around equity. And our why has to be stronger than our why not.
Luckily over the past year, the Student Experience Lab has had a project that has helped me imagine what an education system with equity at the core might look like. Throughout the Teachers For Equity project, we developed and tested a model that used a system-focused, teacher-driven approach to advancing racial equity. I have previously written about the conditions that make this model powerful: educators were close to their communities, focused on equity, and were designing with NOT for other educators and students.
Our prototype’s why: We want to transform the values, norms, and practice of the classroom and activate teachers to change not only what is taught, but how it is taught, how teachers and students engage, and how school communities learn and grow together.
Transforming values, norms, and practices that are rooted in systemic racism is not work that happens easily. It is work that put equity at the core and required every educator to have a strong personal ‘why’. They needed something that rooted them in the work when facing pushback from colleagues or when they did not immediately see results in student achievement.
As they uncovered, explored, and modified their whys we were able to move from a lens where equity was merely a bolt-on. We were then able to surface other key conditions of an equity-centered education system:
A commitment to building racial consciousness. There is no such thing as achieving complete cultural competence, this work requires being actively adaptive and responsive. In Teachers For Equity that required two things: content and reflection. The content was the “easy” part. There are plentiful resources to get educated on racial dynamics and histories—what’s harder to uncover is what is stopping us from engaging with these histories or conversations about race. Deep reflection on our own racial identity and experience is essential for understanding structures and mental models that perpetuate racial disparities. By creating opportunities for courageous conversations, our racial consciousness grew from a deeply personal place—and I believe our lives and work will be impacted forever because of it.
A transformational point of view. Transformation often feels intimidating. When we are challenged, it is more natural to go to what is comfortable, technical, or measurable. However, just like getting to the core of our personal racial narratives changes the work, so does getting to the core of the system. Combining a strong ‘why’ with a systems focused lens made educators more confident providing leadership to address root issues of educational equity.
An acceptance of losing competence. All of us like to be (or to be seen as) smart, capable, and competent. Throughout this process we had to work through losing competence— discovering all that we didn’t know about race, having vulnerable conversations, and redesigning a system founded on oppression. When facing uncertainty, we had to avoid disengaging or pivoting the work so that we can speak and act with more authority. Spoiler alert: we were not always successful.
A human-centered culture. Teachers are the closest to students and their needs, yet they are often the last to be considered when designing new, equity-centered models. The goal to advance equity must be supported at every level, but most importantly, teachers must be supported in building equitable practices in order for significant impact to take place. This requires institutions to build in time, space, and a culture of design that allows teachers to create and reflect on equitable values, norms, curriculums, and practice. It can also be aided by intentionally pushing the boundaries of professional-personal divides that hinder vulnerable, courageous conversations. Vulnerable sharing doesn’t mean sharing every detail of your life, but wanting and giving permission to bring in your authentic personal experiences to the table as we work to solve some of the toughest issues facing classrooms and education.
Throughout this project, we saw powerful glimpses of these conditions in action. They enabled us to go beyond surface level solutions to think more holistically about how school and communities could better learn and grow together.
Transformation is comprised of actions taken to change the core of how things are done. The conditions above may seem small/intuitive, but because they target the core of the challenges we face around racial equity (mindsets, feelings, and actions), we saw them enable powerful actions. On a large scale, actions like these can make significant changes in student outcomes. They can help us fulfill our “why” and transform how we deliver more value. For me that looks like using these conditions to create more opportunities for students, educators and leaders to be their authentic selves. It is a commitment to have an explicit focus on equity in my work in education.
At BIF, this experience provides guidance as we continue to design with equity at the core. This prototype imagines the future of education. One that is more equitable. One that our students and educators deserve. One that we hope to collectively work towards.
Tell us your equity why! How does it impact how you create and deliver value? And if you don’t have one, how are you going to find it?