On June 20, I had the honor of being a keynote speaker at the Hillsborough County Public Schools’ Leadership Learning Tour. I spoke to a room full of principals and district leaders about four questions critical to educational leadership:
- Why me?
- What are the conditions needed to be a leader for equity?
- What are the dispositions needed to be a leader for equity?
- What’s next?
The following is an excerpt from my speech:
I’m the youngest of four children. With high school educations, my parents migrated from Arkansas to Wisconsin in 1963 looking for work right before my oldest brother was born. My father had been told that if he wanted his children to have any kind of future, he had to move away from the poor schools, violence, and racism in Milwaukee. In the 1980s, my family moved to and “integrated” a small town between Milwaukee and Madison.
Although this move gave me access to an academically rigorous curriculum and helped get me into a good college, there are three things I remember most about my middle and high school experiences, where I was the only student of color:
- I never had a teacher who looked like me (lack of teacher diversity)
- I never learned anything about my history as an African-American beyond slavery and MLK’s dream (which Wisconsin didn’t celebrate as an official holiday), nor did I read a book written by someone who looked like me until my 11th grade history teacher Ms. McCreath introduced me to Zora Neale Hurston (lack of culturally relevant curriculum)
- McCreath was the only one of my teachers who had high expectations for me academically. My high school math teacher told my parents that since I was a black woman, they shouldn’t expect me to be good at math, and my guidance counselor asked me what my back-up school was when I gave him my list of colleges I was applying to (lack of high expectations)
With this experience, I left Wisconsin as soon as I got my diploma and went to New York City to become a teacher.
However, the storyline didn’t change when I had to decide where to send my daughter, Zora, to school (you all know why she got her name, right?). When it was time for her to start kindergarten, we lived in a district in Harlem that for decades was considered the worst in the city. I used my privilege as an educator with a good job to send my daughter to a private school that prioritized ethnic and socioeconomic diversity through its admissions process and incorporated social justice into its curriculum.
My family’s story spans more than 50 years, during which time the school experiences for so many black and brown children have not changed nearly enough. Just listen to the stories of black and brown students from one high school in Cambridge, MA.
This is why I am here today. Parents should not need to live in a particular zip code or have the privilege of being an educator to ensure their children get an excellent education
The poet June Jordan said, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
I believe that collectively in this room we can alter the course for students having experiences in school like I did, like those students in Cambridge have. So leaders of Hillsborough County, let’s lead.
What are the conditions needed to be a leader for equity?
I’m going to give you an imperfect roadmap of what it takes to be an equitable school leader. Imperfect because that’s what this work is and it’s going to look different in every school, as it should.
This roadmap is grounded in three beliefs:
- The public-school system in the United States was not designed for the black, brown, immigrant students that it is currently serving. The approach to learning, curriculum, structures were all designed for wealthy white males with privilege and power and with similar beliefs and values. They may have believed that slavery was bad, but they did not believe black people were equal to them. The structures, systems and policies that will enable black, brown, and immigrant students to thrive without having to assimilate into white culture is missing from the public-school system in the United States
- Diversity, equity and inclusion is not a goal, it is a daily practice. In our age of accountability and SMART goals, I know we want to say that in 3 to 5 years we will have arrived, but this is about daily work. Our school communities are changing, expectations are changing, we will always need to be practicing diversity, equity and inclusion. There is no going home and switching this off. This is daily practice.
- There is no such thing as being a strong instructional school when you have racial achievement gaps. Instruction and equity are like two wheels on a bicycle. If you have students falling behind, you have NOT arrived. Saying you’ve got instruction down but need to work on equity is not a thing. It’s not possible to have instruction down WITHOUT working on equity. You will forever have a bike that you cannot ride.
What are the dispositions needed to be a leader for equity?
Now that we have laid the conditions, let’s talk action. The NYC Leadership Academy has developed five equity leadership dispositions to give school leaders a path to creating an equitable school system from whatever leadership seat you are in. The dispositions increase in difficulty and risk. They are:
- Reflect on personal assumptions, beliefs and behaviors
- Publicly model a personal belief system that is student centered and grounded in equity
- Act with cultural competence and responsiveness in interactions, decision-making and practice
- Confront and alter institutional biases of student marginalization, deficit-based school, and low expectations associated with race
- Create systems and structures to promote equity with a focus on race
Know the history of race in education in the U.S., particularly in your community. History repeats itself. We see that today as immigrant children are being taken from their parents, just as happened during slavery, and when Native American children were taken from reservations and sent to orphanages, and during the time of Japanese internment camps. As educators we must see how the repetition is showing up. Two excellent books to consider: Stamped from the Beginning and Harvest of Empire.
Know your vocabulary and how it manifests itself, so you can name it and confront it. Shared language is crucial to this work. You can’t go around calling someone a racist. If your goal is to help the individual move from being racist to antiracist, there’s better language. Use your low-inference skills to name how their actions are aligned to a particular term. For example, if a teacher tells me that she treats all of her students the same, I might say that while I understand where she is coming from, not seeing a student’s race and ethnicity may mean missing a big part of who they are. They call this colorblindness. Finally, if you can talk about white privilege, white fragility and whiteness as discrete terms that come into play every day, you will have a better conversation. You are still going to get pushback, but the goal is to get someone to go home, be mad, but come back the next day and continue the conversation with you.
Know your students’ history, experiences and perspectives. Author Zaretta Hammond uses the term “cultural archetypes.” If you’re teaching the same lesson today that you taught a decade ago, or even last year, you are not using your relationships with students to impact your classroom practice
Know access vs. equity. One of my favorite blogs is titled, “Fakequity” and in a post a few months back, the writers gave concrete examples of the difference between access and equity. Some examples: Asking parents to come to a school leadership team meeting at 10 a.m. on a Saturday is great, but that’s access. Holding the meeting within the community with childcare while creating and co-facilitating the agenda is equity.
So what are you going to do tomorrow?
Chief Access & Equity Officer
Mary Rice-Boothe joined the NYC Leadership Academy in 2015 and currently serves as Chief Access & Equity Officer. In this role, she oversees the Leadership Academy’s internal and external equity strategy, design and collaboration, and ensures expanded access to our work through different learning systems. At the Leadership Academy, she has had the opportunity to partner with school systems in Des Moines, IA; Hillsborough County, FL; and the state of Wisconsin to support them in implementing their equity policies. Mary has also supported the development of equity-focused resources for district-level leaders looking to name and dismantle the inequitable practices they are seeing at the school and district level.
Mary came to the Leadership Academy with more than 20 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, mentor, and coach. Before joining NYCLA, she worked at New Leaders, a national non-profit organization, as Executive Director of Content and Assessment, leading the team that designed, developed, and delivered content and assessments for the organization. She began her career in education as an NYC Teaching Fellow in East Harlem and is also a member of NYCLA’s APP Cohort 3. Mary is a certified Courageous Conversations about Race Affiliate and a certified Facilitative Leadership Trainer.
Mary holds a BA in Metropolitan Studies from New York University and an MA in English and English Education from the City College of New York. She is currently pursuing her Doctorate Degree in Leadership and Organizational Change at the University of Southern California. Mary lives in Austin, Texas, with her mom, husband, daughter and son.