The Self I Bring: Leading for Racial Equity is Personal

My work in school leadership is personal. When I moved to the U.S. from Ghana at age 10, I came with messaging from my family and community that nothing was impossible for me. The adults in my life -- my village -- believed in me, had high expectations for me.

As I transitioned to America, however, I quickly realized that I had no such village outside of my home. In this new culture, I was highlighted in a way that showed difference and felt “othered.” It did not match what I had been told and what I had experienced of who I am.

It started in elementary school. As I worked hard to learn English, my classmates teased me about the color of my skin as well as my accent. So I stayed quiet in class. But my teachers never stopped to ask me why I wasn’t participating. They never tried to deepen their understanding of me or my intellectual abilities. They never bothered to look beyond the little black African girl. Without doing that, how would they know why I was so quiet or how they could make learning come to life for me?

As I got into high school, I did have some teachers who saw my potential and did not let go. My physics teacher made me fall in love with science. He expected me to work hard and so I had no choice but to do that. But as quickly as this teacher ignited my dreams of becoming a chemical engineer, another teacher extinguished them.  My second semester in college, I enrolled in an advanced science class. I was one of only a few students of color. As the course got underway, I enthusiastically took advantage of the support sessions and asked a lot of questions. The teacher, after listening to my questions one day, paused and said in front of the class, “Maybe chemistry is not for everybody.” That moment was defining for me. I packed up my books and never touched a science book again. Not until I became an adult did I realize the impact that teacher had had on my life.

I found a new passion and purpose in teaching.  As a teacher of leaders, I have chosen to fight for children in a way that is unyielding. For many students, especially those from historically underserved communities, experiences like mine are far too common. The disparities in student learning along race and class lines beg a bold, courageous approach to school leadership. Every child deserves equity-oriented principals who partner with families, staff and colleagues to elevate teaching practices and the achievement of students across classrooms and schools. It can be daunting, yes, and it is the work!

I have had the privilege, as the NYC Leadership Academy’s Associate Vice President of Equity and Leadership Development, to develop leaders in schools, districts and organizations who lead unapologetically as part of a movement tirelessly focused on advancing educational outcomes. This work starts with an inquiry into exploring the unique role of race. Courageously talking about race helps increase awareness of our own racial experiences and creates a path for examining deep-seated biases, fears and mental models we each bring. It allows us to take responsibility for how these are reflected in behaviors in schools, especially around policies and practices that may unconsciously disadvantage groups of students. 

I have been part of countless conversations focused on addressing students’ underperformance and the achievement gap. We’ve looked at test scores, grades and other data, disaggregating and analyzing for implications for teaching and advancing students’ learning. Implicit in these conversation are people’s biases, beliefs, values and assumptions. Our personal experiences and the way we see the world certainly influence how we show up in our expectations of students and in decisions we make around instruction. Isolating and exploring the role of race provides a window for understanding our decisions and actions in schools. Otherwise we take actions and behave in ways that perpetuate low expectations for groups of students.

Because of only a few educators who did not have those qualities, I lost sight of myself, of my value in the fabric of public education. Every child deserves transformative learning experiences. Giving this to each child requires effective, culturally competent educators who have the capacity to create brave spaces for dismantling systems and structures that perpetuate inequitable outcomes for students. 

Presently, our children are being exposed to a country riddled with racial tensions. There is urgent need for courageous leaders who are able to confront and address these inequities. The racial equity work at NYCLA is a clear illustration of the necessary bold steps required to ensure that our leaders, our schools, and our children are equipped to engage in ways that reflect all of our better selves. 

The work that I do helps set conditions and support leaders in developing the will, skill, and knowledge needed to understand issues inherent in racial disparities. These leaders are then able to think and talk about why the achievement gap exists, what perpetuates it so that they are better able to act on disrupting and eradicating it. Confronting racial inequities is uncomfortable but an area that I intentionally commit to lean into every single day. It’s my pulse check that I’m alive personally, professionally, and living up to my greater purpose in serving others, primarily those most underrepresented and underserved. To know that I am a part of something so worthy fuels me!

About the Author — Ruby Fernandez

Ruby Fernandez is a lifelong educator with nearly 20 years of experience both working in the public school system and with nonprofit organizations committed to improving public education. Until recently the Associate Vice President of Equity and Leadership Development at NYCLA, Ruby is now a Deputy Superintendent / Principal Leadership Facilitator for the NYC Department of Education.

I was quiet in class, but my teachers never asked me why I wasn’t participating. They never bothered to look beyond the little black African girl, so how would they know how to make learning come to life for me?

Ruby Fernandez