Mary Rice-Boothe // December 5, 2016
I was presenting at a conference on NYCLA’s recent work around equity when, part way through my presentation, a woman raised her hand and said, “As a white woman, when you use the term ‘social justice,’ that gives me an out to not talk about race.”
Her comment hit me immediately. I had been talking about the need for principals to be champions of dismantling inequitable practices within their school buildings, but I had not once explicitly used the word “race.”
During my time as a principal, I similarly missed opportunities to talk about race. I came into the field of education because I struggled being the only minority in my high school and didn’t see my story in my teachers or the curriculum. I thought it important that black and brown children be able to explore and learn about themselves within the classroom walls. However, as a black female principal, I had struggled to name race with my teachers. We had discussions about our 100 percent black and brown population’s socio-economic status, history of trauma, and attendance gaps, but I never named race. I allowed all of us to hide behind the other circumstances of why our students were struggling.
Thankfully, with the support of mentorship and coaching, I have gone through a personal journey to racial consciousness. I have reflected on how race affected my school experiences from elementary school all the way to my doctorate degree studies. This self-exploration has allowed me to bring my full self into all of my interactions personally and professionally. I now can lead with this personal awareness coupled with my increased understanding of the processes and procedures within our school systems that systematically oppress students of color.
Digesting the words of the woman in my conference workshop, I was careful to talk explicitly about race for the rest of the session.
I encourage school principals to consciously lead. Here are some suggestions:
- Start with your personal story. Be explicit about how race affected your experiences growing up and how it affects your experiences today. What privileges are you afforded or denied because of your race?
- Examine your school surroundings. Have you consciously created an environment that is open and supportive of all races? What structures and systems are affecting your black and brown children’s abilities to be successful?
- Talk About It. Do you regularly have conversations with your staff about the role of race in their lives and the lives of their students? Do staff talk with each other about microaggressions and understand the impact they have on students?
- Take Action. How are you changing policies and procedures in your school building that are systematically oppressing your students of color?
These steps are heavy and take the courage to lead unapologetically, but you are not alone. I’ve benefitted from having the same mentor since my first day as a principal. He has been a true partner in this work. If you do not have a mentor, ask your friends, supervisor and colleagues for support and suggestions.
On December 8th and 9th in Washington, D.C., NYCLA, will bring together representatives from more than 20 districts from across the country to strategize on how to support their principals in leading for equity. District leaders will hear from experts in the field as well as learn about NYCLA’s support to engage in this work, including coaching and an Equity Diagnostic that begins with a self-assessment and ends with action planning. Tackling issues of racial inequity is not new so do not feel like you have to reinvent the wheel.
No matter where you are in your journey to racial consciousness, I encourage you to begin or continue the work. No more missed opportunities.
Having reflected on how race affected my school experiences, I can lead with that personal awareness and an understanding of the procedures within our school systems that systematically oppress students of color.