We are currently enduring dual pandemics. One has snuck up on us, catching us off guard. The other has been around for more than 400 years. Early in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the world. In May 2020, a deeply ingrained and insidious social epidemic reemerged. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by the hands of members of the Minneapolis and Louisville police departments reignited historical racial trauma. These dual pandemics are changing our social fabric and the educational landscape, further challenging our equity charge for all students.

Leaders in regular times have overwhelming jobs. During these current crises, the leadership role has increased in complexity and difficulty with calls to action that warrant immediate attention. As school leaders manage faculty, staff, and students in hybrid or online learning environments, the time is ripe and necessary for conversations about equity—equity in the delivery of instruction and in demolishing systemic racism. School leaders hold positional power to lead equity-focused instructional innovations as well as drive policy changes. This challenging time has created an opportunity for school leaders to reimagine leadership with equity. 

Equitable Access and Pedagogy

While the COVID-19 news began as a slow burn, the reaction to the pandemic soon became a frenetic pace as schools across the country closed their doors and sent students home to learn. Amid the pandemonium, the chasm between the privileged and the under-resourced was striking. In the ensuing months, educators tackled multiple emerging questions:

  • How do we ensure all students have access to the online learning environment—hardware, software, and connectivity? 
  • How do teachers create engaging and equitable online teaching strategies? 
  • What role does the school have in the safety and security of students—including food insecurity?

Beginning in the spring and throughout the summer, resilient educators that we worked with created solutions by:

  • Mobilizing hot spots. School and district leaders worked with community members to grant internet access in the parking lots of local businesses and provided mobile hot spots through parked school buses in spaces without connectivity.
  • Delivering hardware to student homes. A principal in Oakland, CA, used Lyft to deliver a computer to a student’s home, and a district in Raleigh, NC, organized a caravan of central office employees to deliver computers to students.
  • Providing instructional tool development for teachers. Staff implemented policy changes and support to provide student safety in the virtual world, modeling the use of online teaching platforms, and oversaw the reallocation of funds and resources to ensure equitable access to tools. 
  • Modeling equitable and engaging online pedagogical strategies. Educators in Africa, Asia, Brazil, California, and North Carolina utilize equity protocols such as virtual circles, learning walks, and Think-Pair-Share to quickly activate voices and democratize the online setting.
  • Attending to the physical and social-emotional needs of staff and students. A principal of an early-college high school in North Carolina used a crisis opportunity protocol with her teachers to mitigate the traumas associated with returning to school. In turn, teachers planned to replicate the protocol with students. Also, multiple school districts delivered breakfasts and lunches to neighborhood hubs throughout the summer.

These specific strategies have led to more collaborative and engaging online learning experiences in these districts. School leaders are defining instructional leadership through their practice. In turn, teachers are providing the capacity to deliver more equitable learning opportunities for their students. A similar urgent call to action is required to once and for all eradicate schools of systemic racism. 

Anti-Racist Leadership Through Engagement 

Principals responded to online instruction in a ferocious manner. The pivot from in-person instruction to online instruction maintained a level of familiarity; however, the response to systemic racism is uncharted territory for many educators. In our program, when the spotlight on racism reemerged, we responded with a renewed fervor to support anti-racist leaders to dismantle systemic racist school policies and practices.

Ibram Kendi’s recent book, How to Be an Antiracist [sic], is a clear and present hail for individual actions through their places of power and spaces of policy. Kendi provides a counter-narrative to those claiming not to be racist. Rather, Kendi creates a compelling argument: “The opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist’ [sic] … One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist [sic].” Educational leaders are uniquely privileged and in powerful positions to lead anti-racism efforts in their schools. 

Anti-racist leaders provide equity in dialogue and a safe space for conversations, as well as thoughtful analysis and change of policies and practices that harm traditionally marginalized communities. Leaders question policies and practices such as: 

  • How will we dismantle racist practices and policies?
  • How will we “call out” racist actions—and then educate students about them—in our schools?
  • How will we use the gifts and assets of current students and faculty to find local, contextualized solutions?

These questions form the foundation of our framework. We recognize the increased difficulty for school leaders to actualize this work. As a result, we developed an anti-racism framework. Currently, we work with school and district leaders across the world in two programs: EdD cohorts—64 students in three cohorts—and a grant-funded, yearlong micro-credential—72 school principals. Both programs focus on issues of educational equity. As such, many of the objective and associated learning activities are centered on anti-racist leadership.

  • Explicit anti-racism instruction. We analyze educational policies and practices with texts centered on equitable leadership, including Paulo Freire, Claude Steele, Ibram Kendi, Muhammad Khalifa, Zaretta Hammond, and Charles Mills. Our EdD students have an equity focus for their Participatory Action Research dissertation.
  • Investigation of self. Each program begins with an explicit focus on self. We use personal journey lines, emulation poems, endowed objects, autobiographies, and digital stories to understand the source of equitable leadership for each student.
  • Model the work of anti-racism. Our work includes utilizing racial affinity groups to provide safe spaces to engage in both trauma and privilege (specifically white privilege). Then, cross-group engagement, facilitated with coaches, leads to restorative practices—providing specific modeling of the work of anti-racist leadership.
  • Indigenous ways of knowing and doing. Our instructional activities are anchored in ancient learning practices including land recognitions, circle protocols, dialogue, and conversations that include youth and elders, and the integration of the arts.
  • Community Learning Exchanges. We engage in formal Community Learning Exchanges (CLE) to provide learning with local school and community members. We have witnessed courageous leaders organize and facilitate CLE’s focused on instructional equity and systemic racism. As a result, these leaders create spaces for traditionally marginalized voices to be heard and to develop a critical mass of equity advocates in their schools.

Together, this work has led to new understandings and, more importantly, new leadership practices in schools. These anti-racist leaders are creating democratic, welcoming spaces for engagement. They are seeking new solutions to old problems. These solutions are found not in the neighborhood of the problem, but in new places. By engaging local community members and soliciting their gifts and assets, these principals are creating powerful, lasting solutions to systemic racism.

In the time of COVID-19, leaders responded to the call for action for new policies and instructions. Educators filled new roles and harnessed the gifts and assets of parents and the community to ensure students continued to receive a high-quality education. Similarly, the racism pandemic requires leaders to hear and respond to the call for anti-racist policies and instruction. 

Our response to the dual pandemic requires planning and rejection of the status quo. We believe a solution includes reimagining leadership by being thoughtful (listening to marginalized voices including students themselves), thought-provoking (engaging in learning activities and conversations), and righteous (taking an anti-racist stance on local educational policies). The road to instructional equity and the end of systemic racism will not be easy. The reimagined anti-racist educational leader must have the courage to leverage their privilege and position to seek the solutions our society needs and our students deserve.

Matthew Militello is the Wells Fargo Distinguished Professor in Educational Leadership at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. He is the founding director of the International EdD program and a U.S. Department of Education Supporting Effective Educator Development grant, Project I4. James Argent is an assistant professor in Educational Leadership at East Carolina University. He instructs in the Project I4 EdD program and coaches doctoral students in the International EdD program.