“Diversity can be misleading at times. It has become synonymous with ‘without white people’ or ‘checking the box.’ That’s simply not accurate. In order to have true diversity, it doesn’t mean we’re leaving anyone behind. It means that everyone has a voice.” – Christina Maryland, Natick Public Schools
Making Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) a priority for school districts is vital, and antiracist work has been propelled to the forefront of schools across the country. But saying DEI matters needs to be followed by a careful commitment to actively dismantling racism and systems of power and privilege. DEI work must be consistent and effortful across the entire school community, with school leaders paving the way. How can schools move the needle from prioritizing DEI to reshaping their institution through an equity lens? We’ve talked to the experts and identified the three essential pillars that school leaders should follow in order to make institutional changes toward justice.
1. Emphasize the “E” in DEI
Equity is the crux of what school leaders need to do for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work, according to Christina Maryland (Research & Communications Specialist, Natick Public Schools and founder, brandAID Marketing Consultants). Continuing to emphasize diversity can be incredibly vague or misleading and can run counter to the goals of social justice. “Diversity has become synonymous with ‘without white people’ or ‘checking the box.’ That’s simply not accurate. In order to have true diversity, it doesn’t mean we’re leaving anyone behind. It means that everyone has a voice.” An equity lens, however, will provide a safe school environment where children are valued. “Equity creates the environment for all children to thrive. All children will get what they need — whether it’s physical support, translation services, or professional development for faculty on training to make sure students are not being ‘othered.’ Once you operationalize equity, it’s organic that inclusion happens.”
In order to bring equity to the forefront, school leaders must start with a definition of what equity means for their school or districts. Once they have this working definition in place, equity needs to be viewed as an action: an active vision of what equity would look like while acknowledging the roadblocks and work it will take to get there. “Essentially, school leaders need to work backwards in order to move forwards. That’s how you start to build the work,” notes Maryland.
Once equity has been defined, school leaders must continue to build a shared vocabulary and be proficient in using that terminology. A shared vocabulary allows everyone to understand the work that needs to be done and the work that is happening. According to Melissa Patrick, founder of Equity & Expectations, vocabulary that every stakeholder can use with proficiency is the first step toward dismantling racism. Once key terms have been identified and defined, schools need to write or utilize a justice-oriented mission statement that needs to be iterated constantly. All messaging — email communications, faculty meetings, faculty and student interaction — must be communicated using this shared language. “You need to constantly remind people of the school’s mission. When you have core values and operate within those core values, it always ensures safety and educational well-being,” Maryland notes. A shared language will allow individuals to express themselves while building a foundation of trust within a school. If you are struggling with ways to define and communicate key DEI terms, Mission Achieve is a great place to start.
2. Commit to a shift in culture
Hiring a DEI coordinator or administrator for your school or district is an important first step, but it’s just that: a first step. The work of untangling systemic racism cannot be undone by one person, and often, it sets up that administrator for failure. “DEI positions are very flawed if there’s not a clear plan for how the district should operate,” shares Maryland. Patrick agrees. “The entire community needs to commit to dismantling racism. When true equity is the goal, the entire power structure needs to shift. Those who hold sources of power need to be willing to share it with those who don’t have it.”
The first step to shifting culture is hosting listening circles with faculty, students, and parents of color that are also attended by white community members who simply listen. As these listening circles take place, schools need to treat their stories as “gifts for the entire community,” according to Patrick. From this experience, school leaders need to transform these conversations into intervention points, with an action plan in place and responsibility clearly communicated and divided across the community. To that end, Patrick suggests that teachers be provided protected time in the school day for self-education and reflection. In order for this time to be used effectively, school leaders need to provide consistent and effortful faculty and staff training, complete with goals and measurability. “Teachers are so busy that school leaders need to be clear in providing the time and structure for teachers to be doing DEI work on a daily basis,” says Patrick. “What it boils down to is school leaders need to understand their motivations. Ultimately, why are you committed to this work? What does a commitment to DEI mean specifically for your school? These are the questions that superintendents and principals need to be asking themselves every single day.” Maryland agrees. “You have to talk about equity daily.”
3. Hold the Entire Community Accountable
In order for a school culture to change, however, every single stakeholder needs to be held accountable for that change, starting with leadership. Superintendents need to create goals and share those goals with an accountability ‘buddy’ who can hold them to be honest and reflective. By being vulnerable and modeling when they make mistakes, school leaders take an important step to creating a more equitable school.
But accountability doesn’t stop there. “There are so many ways to create accountability in DEI work,” reflects Patrick. “It needs to be captured in annual evaluations. It must be incorporated into all professional development. It means putting resources, including time and money, into this effort. When a teacher says something in class that’s racist, there needs to be consequences for that behavior. If a student says something that’s racist to another student, there needs to be consequences. Without accountability, the cycle of marginalization and injustice simply continues.” One of Patrick’s best strategies for generating systems of accountability is the creation of a feedback loop. All stakeholders (parents, students, teachers, staff) provide feedback with how things are going to the administration, who in turn works to implement that feedback into strategy. “The goal,” Patrick iterates, “is true equity, where those with power are willing to share it. This is what our schools need to strive for.”
One way that Maryland focuses on creating accountability is through relationship building. “People need to be comfortable voicing when something is difficult or problematic. One of my most important training sessions in my district focuses on impact versus intent. A person may not intend to be inequitable, but when they are able to express their intentions clearly, they are more able to have a meaningful conversation on impact,” which establishes a foundation for accountability.
And while Patrick cautions that attaining justice and equity can be slow-moving, the best way forward is to support one another. Maryland concurs. “If staff and faculty are always on the side of equity, schools must always be behind them.”