3 reminders for equity-focused leaders

I started my teaching career in New Orleans, just as most schools were reopening after Hurricane Katrina. Students from far-flung neighborhoods were suddenly thrown together as families did their best to help them get back to the classroom – any classroom that could safely open. And in that intense moment of upheaval, students were challenged to forge new connections with one another and with our staff. In that context, the inequities in our divided school system were suddenly in full focus as my school community worked to find our footing. I had to lean heavily on deep listening with students, families and my colleagues in order to meet the challenges we faced together.

In 2014, as an assistant principal, I joined a high school community in a predominantly Black, St. Louis County, Missouri district that had lost accreditation due to poor performance. Our graduating class that summer included senior Michael Brown; in August, he was shot and killed by a police officer in nearby Ferguson. The resulting protests drew national attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. As my fellow administrators and our team worked to effect a school turnaround that would begin to truly empower student growth and love for learning, we were also working to support our students, their families and one another through deep community trauma. I found myself putting into play everything I had learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina about centering relationships in equity work.

These experiences were brought into sharp focus again during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. I had just started as a principal in a different school, with a community I was still getting to know, at the beginning of a world-shaking event. Again, I had to call on deep listening and empathy to provide a safe space so our team could uncover, understand and act in service of the needs of our school community. During our weekly leader huddles, our conversations would consistently boil down to access, and the assumptions we held about the levels of access, in our community. Every week we were shedding those assumptions, reworking our plans and striving to meet students, families and colleagues where we all really were. 

These experiences have truly cemented for me how crucial it is to bring deep listening and relationship-building into our most challenging moments, our ambitious plans and the ways we strive to close the opportunity gap little by little each day. They make it possible for overlooked needs (and our best solutions) to come to light. 

Here are 3 reminders that I’ve found especially meaningful in this work:

1. Invite authenticity

Authenticity is key to navigating challenges together. Because when we can show up as our authentic selves, we’re giving one another the gift of clarity – and bringing visibility to our values, needs and insights along the way. If you create the conditions for students, teachers and members of your school community to bring in more of their authentic selves, that provides crucial information for how you can mutually guide one another through challenges and toward your goals.

2. Become a safe space

To access that authenticity, we need to build a sense of safety. Moreover, we need to get on the same page about what we really mean when we say to our school communities, “This is a safe space.” For me, creating a safe space means ensuring that everyone present is able to share what they’re actually thinking and feeling. That might not happen overnight! But no matter what, it is 100% in your power to become a safe space for students, families and your teams by putting in the work.

3. Remember community 

When we’re focused on the opportunity gap, we can fall into a trap of thinking that equity is only about students of color. But it’s important to remember that every student benefits from this work. So as you create and pursue your equity goals, make sure those shared benefits and overall community outcomes have a place in your conversation.

By keeping in close touch with these 3 principles, I’ve been able to grow, center and celebrate my understanding of students, staff and families in all the plans I’ve led. They’re such simple reminders, but they can give us leaders a way to keep surfacing overlooked needs, supporting collaborative solutions and meeting the members of our school communities right where they are. The more I’ve modeled these principles in meetings with my team and promoted them in conversations with my students and their families, the more I’ve succeeded in creating a school culture that truly centers the experience of everyone I have served.