Many understand the importance of training our faculty and staff in equity (fairness and justice for all people) and inclusion (providing equal access to opportunity). But should we teach our students about these core values in school as well? If so, how? To find out, we contacted Omékongo Dibinga, the founding director of UPstander International and a professor of cross-cultural communication at American University in Washington, D.C.; Cheryl Watson-Harris, the superintendent of DeKalb County School District in DeKalb County, GA; and Richard Gordon IV, principal of Paul Robeson High School in Philadelphia, PA, and NASSP’s 2021 National Principal of the Year. Principal Leadership’s senior editor Christine Savicky moderated the discussion.
Why is it important to teach equity to students?
Dibinga: We have a public school system that was created centuries ago for rich white boys, but right now our system includes everybody across the entire spectrum as it relates to gender, class, race, and religion. Students have different needs when they come into the classroom, and in order to better understand them, we have to have a mindset that’s based in equity, which is why it’s so important to teach equity. We have to understand the difference between “equity” and “equality.” That’s where a lot of people get stumped. They think that equity just means equality—everybody having the same thing. It’s not. But when we talk about equity, it’s important to reach students where they are in their understanding of the term.
Gordon: Before we can model equity for our students, adults must understand what equity is. The whole point of equity is to allow students the opportunity to reflect on their own needs so that they can better understand their own life’s direction. Many times, our students are not able to define what equity is for themselves or even understand why and how it affects their lives because they don’t have access to all of the information and experiences that many other communities have access to.
When it comes to job options, when I ask a student—and I’m from an urban environment—“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I hear standard answers: firefighter, policeman, teacher. But my students don’t have the requisite background or experiences to know that there are multiple opportunities in the sciences, for example, for many ethnic backgrounds, all over the country. They don’t know that there are opportunities in tech positions. Equity for our students is helping them understand the multitude of options that can come their way. Once they understand that, it’s important that their educational experiences are tailored to their needs and that they have the requisite experiences so they can make really individualized decisions for themselves in terms of the direction of their lives.
Watson-Harris: I would like to add in the importance of students having self-efficacy and advocacy, and that when they recognize all that they deserve—and that they are the owner of their own narrative—they can understand where they are in terms of achieving their goals. We can say everyone’s dreams are going to come true and everyone will be successful, but we know that some students may have additional barriers to their success. We have to be honest with children about where they are. In our school district, we have what we call our vision for the DeKalb County graduate. And that’s that every student will have empowering opportunities as well as an intentionality around removing the barriers that hinder their success. At the end of the day, we expect that everyone will graduate high school ready to not only attend but excel and graduate from college, or to not just enter a profession but build a family-sustaining career, or to embark on a life of service in the military, or to leave school with everything they need to become an entrepreneur. But we recognize that the journey to that vision will be different for every child.
How do you create an inclusive school environment?
Watson-Harris: We must make sure that everyone feels that they are a part of the school environment. In DeKalb, GA, we have one of the largest refugee populations, and we make sure that when our families come to the schools, we’re prepared to receive them in their home language, that we’re prepared to understand their culture, and that it doesn’t feel like us trying to fit them into our culture. Instead, we’re expanding our culture with all of the authentic things that we do to make them feel a part of it.
Dibinga: When it comes down to it, we have to put ourselves in situations where we ask, “What is it that every student needs?” When I was a K–12 teacher, many teachers were reading a book called The Skillful Teacher: The Comprehensive Resource to Improving Teaching and Learning by Jon Saphier, Mary Ann Haley-Speca, and Robert Gower. One of the topics in the book was “secret classrooms;” classrooms where not everyone knows the rules, not everyone understands what game is being played, where they are supposed to be when the bell rings, or seating assignments. If you don’t set clear expectations in the beginning, then the students are on their own. The only way the students get brought back into the fold is when they have to deal with consequences when they don’t follow the rules that they didn’t know about to begin with. It’s important that, from the beginning, you’re doing the work needed to get on the same page. If not, then marginalized students will continue to be marginalized through discipline, suspensions, and expulsions. Our children will rise to the standards that we set for them.
Gordon: One thing that I tell my teachers is, “I can teach you how to teach. I can’t teach you how to get along with children.” To expand on Omékongo’s last point, staffing is a huge focus. You have to make sure that you really have not only the right people in place, but also that those people believe in the idea of children succeeding, and that all children are a part of that conversation. At the same time, we have to make sure that we are lending voice to everyone. I tell my teachers all the time: A student is allowed the opportunity to be able to speak with you. We have to make sure that we are attentive to children, we listen to them, and we give them every opportunity to be able to speak up and have input on what goes on around school, whether it has to do with their grades or things that happen in the building that they feel are not necessarily as fair or as equitable or as inclusive as we might think.
The last thing I try to remember is that the school’s programming is not set every single year. Programming is tailored around the interests of the students, and the students change each year. Not only do the students change from year to year, but the whole culture of the school also shifts when the seniors graduate and the new freshmen enter. We have to make sure that we’re always pivoting in a way where we’re including programming that includes the interests of all current students, families, and the overall school community.
How do you create anti-racist policies and practices in schools?
Dibinga: Before we even get to the conversation about creating anti-racist policies, we have to spend time talking about what racism is. If you have 50 staff members in your school, and you ask each of them what racism is, you’re going to get at least 30 different definitions. One of the challenges we have in our schools is understanding that if I’m talking about individual racism, and you’re talking about systemic racism, we are going to have two completely different conversations. In order to create anti-racist policies, you have to understand what the definition of racism is, what the definition of systemic racism is, how it has existed in your school or in your district—which is why I call for schools and districts to have a diversity dictionary, so educators and staff can be on the same page on what words actually mean.
Saying, “I’m not racist,” isn’t enough anymore. You have to be against it; you have to actively fight it. If you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem, and as I like to say, deciding not to decide is a decision. So first, define racism and systemic racism; come to consensus on that. Then you define anti-racism. When you do it that way, you don’t single anyone out. I don’t believe any school can ever say, “We’re an anti-racist place.” Anti-racism is not a destination; it’s a journey.
Gordon: Another conversation that I often have with my staff is looking at the idea that there is racism, then there is systemic racism, and we have to understand that you can be a minority perpetuating a systemically racist system. For example, Philadelphia is the highest-poverty big city in America. Our poverty rate is around 26%, and it’s projected over the next four to five years to go past 30%, which is astounding. I look at it from a high school perspective. We have a high school selection process that’s basically a caste system. It’s Darwinian; it’s the survival of the fittest. If I’m a student in one of the schools that’s in the high-poverty zip code, the likelihood of having a proficient STEM teacher is slim, which can be the difference between getting into a local school versus the magnet school. Students are denied not based on ability, but based on access and opportunity.
Watson-Harris: I would like to just focus on the practices part because I agree with my colleagues about the work that you need to do before the creation of any policy, but to note that that’s not the end game. Just having a policy on paper doesn’t mean that it’s going to change beliefs, practices, and behaviors. When principals or superintendents begin to enter this work, they must acknowledge that it’s for the long haul. It shows up in everything that we do. You can’t have anti-racist policies without really looking at your daily practices, your curriculum, your attendance policies, your behavior policies, and your code of conduct. We must be cognizant of this being the long-haul work, and not just about getting a policy or words on a page.
What is one of the best ways to engage students in learning about equity and social justice?
Gordon: The best way is to be honest with our students about what’s happening in the world and having very open and honest conversations. The most interesting thing that happened with me through the pandemic over the last two years—here in Philadelphia we’re going through the pandemic of gun violence, we’re going through the pandemic of COVID-19, and, of course, a pandemic of social injustice—is that people kept asking me, “Shouldn’t we be having town hall meetings like they are in other schools?” I said no, because I have these conversations with my students and my staff almost every day. I’m open with where I am, what I believe, and what I’ve experienced personally. One thing I often remind everyone, including my students, is that I grew up the same way they did. I understand. I have that empathy for their experiences. As long as we continue to have authentic and honest dialogue with our families, students, and staff members, we will get students more involved. Students have to understand that we’re having these conversations not because I want them to be angry or hateful; I want them to be aware.
Watson-Harris: We need to give students the opportunity to be the leaders in their community. A student said to me once that student empowerment is not being told that you have a seat at the table, but actually being given one. I found that when we create spaces for students to talk about equity or social justice, to talk about the issues that are important, they already have a lot of answers. Sometimes adults just have to get out of the way and create those spaces and nurture their ideas. They have so much to say, and I’m not sure that we always, in our current educational system, value student voice and student leadership as much as we should.
Dibinga: It’s important that students are able to talk about social justice issues that directly affect them. There are so many issues going on in this country: racism, gender and identity issues—especially in bathrooms and sports. But many schools, both public and private, can graduate students who are comfortable talking about climate change and the environment, but can’t talk about Black Lives Matter. As Richard said, there are certain things that affect kids in their daily lives like interactions with the police on the way to school. Students want to address these issues, but the teachers say, “Well, we’re not talking about that today,” or “We’ll get to that a little bit later.” Some teachers do that because they don’t care or they don’t have time. Some avoid the conversation because they don’t have the cultural competency needed to be able to have the discussion, which usually happens with teachers who don’t live in the same communities where they teach. We have to make sure that the social justice issues that matter to kids right now—that they’re dealing with 24/7—are part of the conversation.
In many of our inner-city schools, we know that our students should be concerned about climate change, but one kid is like, “Yo, I’m trying to get home alive tonight. Can we talk about gun violence as a social justice issue?” We have to make sure that we expand that definition of social justice and make sure that the issues of social justice are pertinent to the kids. Once they know that their issues are important, they will start to expand and learn more about other issues of social justice. We can’t talk about conflict diamonds in the Congo when they’re worried about trying to get home alive, or worried about having to work or drop out of school because their family needs money and they might have to sell drugs—which is a reality for some of our students. If we make social justice appealing to their real lives, then they’ll be more interested in learning about other social justice causes.
Should principals separate the teaching of equity in race and teaching of equity in academics within the school?
Watson-Harris: We cannot separate the two if we’re going to have an authentic conversation. We see the controversy that’s happening across the country with critical race theory. There are principals and superintendents who’ve had to have protective details outside their homes just for entering into that conversation. We also see districts where there’s a separate equity officer and an equity plan. My position is that we all need to be the equity officers; we all have to be the equity teachers. If we have a genuine commitment to equity, then the topic should appear in every lesson. It should appear in all of our decisions and all of our improvement plans. It shouldn’t be a separate lesson, or a separate improvement plan, or a separate allocation of funds. If that is our true commitment, it should appear in everything that we do as a community.
Dibinga: It has to be authentic. I spoke in Rochester, NY, to the Gates Chili School District. During the all-day event, they not only brought in the principals, the superintendents, and teachers, but they also brought in the bus drivers, the cafeteria workers, the security team, and parents to understand that these conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion have to involve everyone. It has to be holistic. When schools don’t do that, you get people just checking off a box. They went to the session, check. They learned a new phrase (“Oh, we learned ‘anti-racism’ today”), check. We have to be anti-racist, check. When it’s not authentic, it’s just a flavor of the month.
When it’s authentic, it’s everywhere and everybody’s on board. You don’t have to send your Black, struggling eighth grader to go talk to the Black security guard because that’s the only Black male in the school because now a white female teacher can also be proficient in being able to have this conversation. Unfortunately, too many schools are not willing to do that work because the staff take it personally: “Why do I have to do this? I didn’t own any slaves. Why do I have to have this conversation? I’m not sexist. I’m not homophobic.” It’s about the kids. We want to create environments where kids can feel celebrated, not tolerated, and in order to do that, this conversation and work around equity has to be in every aspect of the school system.
Gordon: You cannot separate it. In Philadelphia, we have over 200,000 students that are part of the School District of Philadelphia. Fourteen percent of those students are Caucasian. The Pew [Research Center] report [from] a few years ago indicated that 50% of all Caucasian students are in five of the top schools in the city of Philadelphia. The problem is that we’re just now talking about it. Consider the generations of families and students that have been impacted by us ignoring these issues over the course of the last 50 years. If we don’t start acknowledging not just what’s going on today, but also the history and what we must do to balance things out in order to make sure that our communities are more inclusive, then this inequity will continue to be an issue for future generations.
We can’t separate it, but what we can do is really have honest dialogue around what’s going on and how our communities and our society have been built on these grandfathered policies that have not only been separating the haves and the have-nots, but also have not been equitable to include all demographics throughout history. When we start looking and expanding the outlay to the labor market, housing, and pay distribution or including other underrepresented demographics like females and the LGTBQ community, we realize that a lot of things have been accepted and ignored for years, and we cannot separate them anymore. It’s going to be uncomfortable not just for today, not just for tomorrow, but for decades. But it has to happen, and we have to stop shying away from these uncomfortable conversations.
What is one piece of advice that you would give a principal before they embark on an equity and social justice journey in their school?
Dibinga: Before they start with the schools, principals must start with themselves. They have to do the work to look at their own history and biases. We’re all products of our environment. When I travel and I’m talking to students, I tell them to start with their own culture and their own history. It’s the same advice for school leaders. It is more important for school leaders because, if you have a belief that students who speak Spanish are naturally not as intelligent as students who speak English as their first language, then you can’t teach them well; you’re going to look at them differently. You have to do the work. What biases do you have as it relates to particular groups? What have you been taught by your parents, maybe in school, or in your community?
Set up an accountability team; some trusted people that you can sit down and talk with and say, “Am I right in thinking XYZ about these Muslim students who are here as refugees coming in from Afghanistan?” If you don’t start to check yourself first, then you automatically assume that something’s wrong with the students, something’s wrong with those parents. You see yourself as the norm, and everybody else has to blend into that. You have to do a deep dive into who you are first before you go on this journey, because if you don’t do it early, you’ll be exposed.
You also have to be vulnerable when doing this work. Let your staff, parents, and students know that you have fallen victim to believing in stereotypes, that you have grown and you’re still learning. When you demonstrate your vulnerability publicly, others will be vulnerable, too. Everybody is afraid to be the first. Everybody’s scared to admit, “Yeah, I do think I might have some racist ideas,” because they don’t want to be a social media hashtag. Leaders have to facilitate that conversation by checking themselves first and demonstrating that vulnerability. You’ll be amazed how far you can take this process.
Gordon: I recently just had an experience when trying to get into this DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] work. My conversation was really focused around race, particularly Black and Brown students and poverty. During the course of the conversation with a friend of mine who’s a DEI expert, he showed me my own blind spots in regard to taking a more expansive look at the other underrepresented demographics that DEI conversations include. I brought to the table my own personal experiences, from growing up to now my career, and did not realize that a lot of that has to also start to include that more expansive conversation. I want to share my own personal revelations in getting involved in this work so that others can follow suit. In order for you to be better and be supportive of this movement, this transformation, you do have to do a lot of self-reflection and recognize your own shortcomings in this process.
Watson-Harris: As a principal—I was previously a principal for 15 years—I would say that you have to stop and not just assess yourself as an individual, but also the things in your school community currently that need to change. My advice to principals is that you don’t have to go it alone. As my colleagues have shared, it takes a certain amount of courage and conviction to be able to say, “I’m going to do something that’s right, even if it isn’t popular.” But there are tons of researchers and consultants to turn to; I know. I had the privilege of bringing in Dr. Dibinga to several of my leadership stints in different places. You can bring in an ally, a colleague, someone else who can help your team build the schema, build the professional language, with protocols and frameworks, so that people are able to begin to build the muscle to have difficult conversations, to push back on the way they’ve done things traditionally, but still make it a safe enough space so that people can do the hard work that’s needed.