I have the good fortune of working with talented educators around the country who are committed to centering diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in their work. In my roles as a former founding school leader and as I now train, coach and support education and nonprofit leaders near and far, I get to see entire organizations come to life when they meaningfully commit to infusing DEI effectively into their day-to-day practices.
On the flip side, I witness so many missed opportunities when leaders and educators treat DEI needs as a side item on a menu – an extra thing to take on, or worse yet, a dreaded or low-priority undertaking. And too often I perceive an almost sadder middle ground at play. Schools and organizations with the best of intentions often miss the mark and cause inadvertent harm to students, families and staff through their policies and practices (often in the ways I describe in my #ISTE19 talk earlier this year). Want to proactively avoid perpetuating inequities in your own work? Here are three best practices that you and others in your organization should keep in mind:
1) Align your talk to productive, ongoing action
The efforts that I describe truly require multi-faceted, richly infused, candid, informed, ongoing work that touches on every level of a school or organization. (Yes, every!) Doing so means that every team member – from the principal to the school safety team, instructional coaches, custodial staff and families – understands their* role in improving the learning outcomes for students through this work.
Educators often say they want to do better for students, but for many reasons, their actions do not align to their words. In the face of many competing commitments, sometimes leaders share a vision or strategic plan, but fail to follow up effectively — or at all.
Or they treat DEI work like a to-do item to check off of a list, perhaps offering a training session or two, bringing in a motivational speaker or completing a siloed initiative with no follow-up. Instead, leaders should co-create a clear, meaningful shared vision with all stakeholders, followed by a multi-faceted plan, then align resources and time commitments to these intentions to ensure that they happen.
Actions should touch upon multiple facets of the school or organization – from recruiting to hiring, school culture and beyond. Teachers and other educators can align their own talk to action by actively pursuing learning opportunities (e.g., reading, attending events, seeking professional development) and mindfully building relationships with diverse colleagues who have varied perspectives to share.
Teaching Tolerance provides many great free resources including these helpful webinars, and stay tuned for the January release of Schooling For Critical Consciousness by Daren Graves and his colleague Scott Seider.
2) Be willing to do the real work
When conversations about DEI are happening authentically, they are often perplexing, harrowing, deeply personal and consequential in all the best of ways.
So, they require a great deal of personal commitment and reflection that makes most people hesitant and often unwilling to dive in. Each stakeholder must do important personal work to examine the impact of their identities on students before attempting to work collectively with others to move the needle on DEI issues.
Many cringe and clam up when the heat turns up just as meaningful conversations about implicit bias and anti-racism are getting started, but therein lies the truework and major opportunities for all involved. We should all recognize when these moments surface, candidly name for ourselves what is making us uncomfortable, then dig deeper to truly understand the topic at hand before choosing to run away or reject it.
Getting everyone on board with these efforts can be a challenging feat. Often times, while some colleagues begin taking important steps forward, others on the team remain convinced that these conversations are irrelevant to them and their roles, or that these issues are not germane to students and the future.
Change starts from the top. Some of my most meaningful work has been with courageous leaders who seek effective training so that they can facilitate these conversations and model what it looks like to be a public learner – especially when doing so feels messy and imperfect. They often do not bear expertise in the topics that we cover, but they recognize the importance of embracing the discomfort and leading this work for their communities to co-create new possibilities for students. Each of us could be doing more of the same. If you have not done so already, check out two of my recent favorites: How to Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. Perhaps grab a beverage and discuss both with a colleague or friend who is of a different background than you!
3) Keep the fire going
If this work sounds challenging, it simply is. Educators tend to have an already-impossible list of “to dos” on any given day, so while some may be inspired to be better for their students, often times, these important efforts slow to a halt and the inequities wind up living on.
Training sessions or special events in isolation will not meet the need. With over 23 years of DEI training experience, I still make mistakes that I wish I could take back – these stumbles are simply an important part of the work, and I must enroll in my own ongoing learning process in order to do better.
Since this work starts by first looking inward, educators should find ways to prioritize doing the same over time. Schools and organizations can keep their conversations going by having a standing agenda item at staff meetings or holding an occasional half- or full-day team retreat. Well-timed whole-community step-backs provide the platform for candid conversations to take place as stakeholders at all levels develop critical fluency around these important topics.
It is important that meeting takeaways include straightforward action items with assigned owners and clear deadlines. Owners of these action items should hold the community accountable, but with the collective understanding that they are part of everyone’s work so as not to expect set individuals to serve as the “diversity police,” which rarely ever goes well. These steps can support all educators to provide students with the thoughtful learning environments that they deserve.
What wakes me up each morning is knowing that we still have important work to do. Students count on us (and, in the future, we them) to dismantle the inequities that hold each of us back from realizing the best possible version of ourselves. It cannot happen until all educators and students are fully equipped to be critically conscious and ultimately change a status quo that has perpetually served to benefit some groups over others. Words cannot describe the possibilities that we open up when we choose to dismantle the structures and behaviors that keep inequity alive. Let us all do our part.
* Non-binary pronouns are small, important adjustments we can all embrace to ensure that our language choices are more inclusive.
To learn more about equity in education, watch Cheyenne's ISTE19 talk "What Lessons From My Father Taught Me about Inequity in Schools" below.
Cheyenne E. Batista (she/her/hers), founder and CEO of Firefly Worldwide Inc. and Ed.D. student at American University, is a former founding superintendent of a network of schools in NYC and currently runs a global education and nonprofit consulting practice from anywhere that a plane will land her. Follow her on Twitter @cheysays and @letsfirefly, Instagram and Facebook.