The time for equity is now
August 22, 2022
This article was written by Rosa Guerra, Ed.D., director of MTSS and Intervention. She is also director of the Social Justice Leadership Mentoring program with the Center for Leadership, Equity and Research (CLEAR).
As school principals and districts continue to work on equity action plans, refine their diversity, equity, inclusion, fairness and social justice statements, and revise their Mission and Vision statements, we need to return to the difficult and sometimes uncomfortable discussion of identifying the persisting inequities within our school sites, within our programs, within our policies and within our districts. While admittedly, there is foundational work that must be done to build a common language around equity, as well as cultivating an equity mindset in order to engage in the work, this is just the first step on the journey. We must also intentionally nurture advocates within our staff and organizations to bring about change.
Equity is a verb
“The Educator has the duty of not being neutral.” — Paulo Freire
Education is a civil right and providing access is not enough. We need to seek out and create opportunities to specifically address students and subgroups that have not been well-served by our schools. Equity cannot be just a noun, an abstract concept, or an idea, rather, it must be a verb. Equity requires action.
The challenge is where to begin with capacity-building so that equity-driven leaders and staff are actively working to identify and dismantle systemic inequities within our organizations. There is a “how-to” or knowing/doing equity knowledge/skill gap, so there is a tendency to avoid these conversations with staff and others within the organization to the detriment of our students and to making progress in moving the equity needle forward within our organizations. Educators feel ill-equipped to address equity issues and want professional development that supports them in leading equity work. School leaders say they are not comfortable or equipped to address or speak about the topic of equity, according to AASA, The School Superintendents Association’s 2020 Decennial Study. This is understandable within the current strongly polarized political context and the fragmentation and erosion of basic civil discourse. The strong views expressed by extremists in the current political context serve to discourage our focus, lest we make anyone uncomfortable or worse, angry.
While quality, long-term, districtwide professional development is recommended and would be a much more effective and cohesive approach, some districts may not be able to devote the time and resources necessary to start or continue to deepen understanding around equity. However, the urgent need remains, and it has now become a moral imperative. It is incumbent upon the school or department administrator to engage in this work because it is part and parcel to “the work” of education, whether it be subgroup test scores, discipline referrals, or special education referrals and disproportionality. Equity, or inequity, is embedded within the work.
Starting the conversation
“Travelers, there is no path, paths are made by walking.” — Antonio Machado
The good news is you are free to create a meaningful experience for your staff, based on your site needs. As in anything, information gathering, processing and planning is key. The California Professional Standards for Education Leaders provide specific expectations relative to desirable and effective leadership actions. Within those expectations, there is an expectation that the education leader not only ensures equity within their site, but leads with an equity focus. In other words, it goes beyond the mere written words of a Mission and Vision statement, rather it requires the leader to act on behalf of equity and against inequities.
Beginning with the end in mind, backwards mapping our plan for professional development opportunities can help. The CPSELs could be a starting point to begin a discussion or plan professional development around a standard and the related elements, as well as identifying steps that are needed to be taken within the school in order to align with the descriptions of practice. Creating norms together with staff around the subject of seeking to develop as an equity-focused learning community can foster conditions necessary within our sites that will help to create a space where we are encouraged to be vulnerable and open to learning about our equity blind spots. A staff discussion around our understanding of, and our own experience with, terms such as implicit bias and microaggressions, can lead to a deep conversation about beliefs and their impact on student outcomes.
The use of short, but impactful video clips, such as “Facundo the Great,” or watching and actually engaging in your own “Privilege Exercise,” for example, can bring forth a discussion and reflection around how school systems and our own practices may contribute to system inequities and how lack of access and opportunity within our own communities inherently undermine equity. Engaging staff in reading articles and books can bring about a reframing of the topic, deepen understanding, and help contribute to paradigm shifts and cultivate equity-focused mindsets.
Data can also serve as an opportunity and an entry point into equity conversations. A review of student academic performance data by subgroups and the subsequent identification of factors that contribute to the high/low scores could bring areas of inequity into focus. Also, examining parent survey responses can bring awareness to equity needs. A discussion on possible factors that contribute to these outcomes could lead to an examination of beliefs, implicit bias, stereotypes, microaggressions, language that is not inclusive within our organization, and schoolwide structures that may impede access and opportunity. The CPSELs can serve to ground us in our pathway to build the skills, knowledge, competencies and dispositions as defined in Paul Gorski’s Equity Literacy Framework that are needed to be able to actively work against existing inequities and develop equity-driven staff within our organizations. Gorski asserts that one should not just strive for cultural proficiency or equity proficiency, rather, we should attain equity literacy.
In order to transform the status quo, we need to start somewhere, but also have a sense of what it looks like, or what we might aspire to achieve as a goal. Gorski’s Equity Literacy Framework gives us a framework to use as a point of reference as we plan our professional development. Gorski states, “At the individual level, when we embrace equity literacy we learn to become a threat to the existence of inequity and an active cultivator of equity in our spheres of influence.”
Gorski lists the following five critical abilities:
  1. Ability to recognize even the subtlest biases, inequities and oppressive ideologies;
  2. Ability to respond to biases, inequities and oppressive ideologies in the immediate term;
  3. Ability to redress biases, inequities and oppressive ideologies in the long term by addressing their root causes;
  4. Ability to actively cultivate equitable, anti-oppressive ideologies and institutional cultures; and
  5. Ability to sustain bias-free, equitable, and anti-oppressive classrooms, schools, ideologies and institutional cultures.
If we consider these abilities as the desired outcome of professional development, then our professional development could potentially be centered around fostering these critical abilities and using them to gauge our progress and inform our practice. In addition, there are numerous equity rubrics that we can use to help inform our practice as we work towards equitable outcomes for our students with our staff. These rubrics can be adjusted and revised as needed, and do not have to be perfect from the start in order to begin the work. Gorski further asserts, “By recognizing and deeply understanding these sorts of disparities, we prepare ourselves to respond effectively to inequity in the immediate term. We also strengthen our abilities to foster long-term change by redressing institutional and societal conditions that create everyday manifestations of inequity.”
Keep moving forward
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
This work is a process. It necessarily addresses beliefs, mindsets, practices, policies and systems so that we are not just talking about equity but also actively working against inequities and redressing inequities. Otherwise, we are just revising and updating the Mission and Vision with a few key words and the real work is not being done. While this is an important foundational step in describing how we envision our work and the aspirational outcomes of our work, it is not actively building shared understanding, identifying causes, needs or solutions, nor redressing inequities within our organizations or society at large. As equity-driven leaders, we will undoubtedly see an improvement in the metrics to which we are so publicly held to account, such as academic achievement for all of our subgroups, as well as in the psycho-socio/socio-emotional well-being of our students.
In short, we cannot wait until we receive the equity training from our district, or until we feel proficient enough in the topic of equity in order to lead this work with staff. We have access to the best research and information at our fingertips. Together, we can commit to looking at our practices with an equity lens and resolve that inequities will not happen on our watch. If we re-imagine the possibilities, the outcome could potentially be that we have intentionally brought about the development of equity advocates or warriors that are poised to identify, speak and act against inequities, as well as serve as advocates for equitable access and opportunity as it relates to minoritized populations within our organizations and communities.
Even if we fall short of the goal, we would have made important progress in addressing inequities as compared to not having taken action. We must draw a line in the sand and work towards common, non-negotiable goals. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “The time is always right to do what is right.” The time for action is now.
A daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, Rosa Guerra, Ed.D., was born and raised in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles and has worked in the field of education since 1994. She has taught graduate students as an adjunct professor for Point Loma of the Nazarene University. She serves as an ACSA Region 15 Member-at-Large/Membership for the 2022-23 school year.
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