The 2020–21 school year was grueling in a variety of ways. During a time of pandemic and social-political upheaval, schools felt the impact on their social-emotional landscape. Upon their fall 2020 return to campus from COVID-19 closure, educators and school leaders began to suspect that great work needed to be done.

Northwest High School’s Story

In Justin, TX, Northwest High School’s Diversity and Equity Committee went to work quickly upon our return to campus. We started with a handful of staff members with a common interest in developing a campus climate where every student could feel safe, welcome, and loved. Our campus mission, revised in summer 2019, states that our school “… unites a diverse community to learn, serve, and lead.” With just over 2,000 students, our campus serves students with widely varied resources and home environments. More than 25 home languages are spoken, and students are geographically spread out over just under 100 square miles and six municipalities.

Many of our staff members came to the committee with stories of students and even staff members themselves who felt marginalized because of their race, identity, beliefs, or values. Our students and staff had been isolated in their homes for six months due to the pandemic; upon returning to school, they were required to wear masks and socially distance themselves from one another. With all the separation, physical barriers, and constant disinfection going on in our building, unity and belonging seemed next to impossible to achieve. After only a few meetings of the committee, it quickly became evident that our team wanted to find a way to amplify student voice to increase feelings of safety and belonging.

Our committee began to convene focus groups of students of various gender orientations, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds to learn more about their experiences in our school. As we talked with more students, we heard their stories. Some of those stories broke our hearts and spurred us to learn more. The focus groups met more regularly and, ultimately, we identified students we wanted to invite to participate as members of the Diversity and Equity Committee alongside staff.

Student voice about social justice continued to grow on our campus. Some of our students became increasingly vocal and faced pushback and criticism from other students and some staff members. Some of our students who had previously felt marginalized began to organize events and peaceful demonstrations to bring awareness to issues of social injustice. While many adults on our campus and from our committee supported and guided these efforts, others who were less involved viewed the events as threatening. Some of our more vocal students spoke out in accusatory tones that brought about defensive behaviors from others. Still other students used our social justice efforts to justify behaviors that were disrespectful to certain staff. These behaviors fostered some division and distrust directed toward our committee.

As the campus principal working to support the work of social justice and equity on our campus, I (Carrie) knew I needed more help and guidance from experts as I continued this journey. In March 2021, when I came across the email from NASSP advertising the series “Leading Social Justice in Your School,” I knew I wanted to get a team registered for the training. Coincidentally, during one of many Zoom meetings for high school principals in our school district, our executive director of student services mentioned the availability of grant funds to support efforts in the work of social justice. I decided then that I wanted to use the entirety of my allocation to bring a team of 26 educators from our school to learn with Omékongo Dibinga and school leaders from all over the nation.

Taking 26 members of a high school team to a training—even if it is virtual—is a considerable commitment. Our substitute teacher coordinator put in quite a bit of work to ensure our teachers’ classes were covered, as the sessions ran on five separate days over two months during the school day in the Central Time Zone. Our administrators and counselors set aside time on their calendars so that we could participate without interruption. The 26 attendees from our school included our entire administrative team, our entire counseling team, department chairs, interventionists, our librarian, and classroom teachers who had served on our Diversity and Equity Committee.

Why did we commit so much time, so much funding, so many resources, and so many people to “Leading Social Justice in Your School”? There are many reasons to go all-in for this work:

  • Every child and every staff member on our campus matters and deserves a voice. Our team needed more guidance on how best to amplify student/staff voice productively.
  • Our nation needs more people skilled in empathy and willing to engage in conversations about social justice.
  • Our staff members who support equity and diversity need to grow in skill set and confidence to promote social justice.
  • Conversations with educators at other campuses across the nation can help us gain additional ideas as we tackle continued social justice issues.

We have plenty of work left to do in the areas of equity and social justice in our school and community; however, the connections we made in the five-day workshop series “Leading Social Justice in Your School” will prove invaluable as we continue to navigate conversations and next steps. I am optimistic and excited about the work our team will continue to do in the 2021–22 school year and well into the future.

Omékongo Dibinga’s Diversity Dictionary

What is “critical race theory”? What is “anti-racism”? What about “microaggression”? “Unconscious bias”? What would be your definition of these terms? Furthermore, how would your colleagues define these and other terms? If your school has 30 faculty members and staff, chances are you will receive at least 15 different definitions for one of these words. Imagine in the military if soldiers had 15 different definitions for rules of combat. The consequences would be catastrophic. While we are not talking wars overseas, the analogy fits in the sense that there is an ideological culture war in our schools, and school leaders need to arm themselves appropriately. One of the greatest tools in this battle could be the creation of a diversity dictionary.

Across the country, a debate has ensued over critical race theory being taught in K–12 schools. As USA Today reported regarding recent school board meetings across the country:

“A meeting room was cleared in Michigan. Shouting matches broke out in Kentucky. In Virginia, sheriff’s deputies arrested and cited someone after a school board voted to end its unruly meeting. School board members in New Hampshire were compared to Nazis. A father in New York rushed to the stage to confront a board member.” 

Critical race theory has been associated with Marxism, socialism, communism, and other noncapitalist-​oriented theories and policies. States across the country are moving to ban critical race theory from being taught in school. Fox News host Tucker Carlson called for police state-style education, where teachers wear body cameras to ensure that they’re not teaching the “civilization-ending poison” called critical race theory, along with civilian review boards. The challenge with all of this is that most people attacking critical race theory have no idea what it is or where it came from, yet they act as if they do. Those who do know what critical race theory is know that it is not part of the curriculum in K–12 public schools across the country.

One critical race theory protester stated that the theory teaches that white people are inherently evil and white children in schools should feel guilty for being white. Contrast that with the actual goal of critical race theory, which is, according to the American Bar Association, to critique “how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers.” Furthermore, critical race theory “recognizes that race intersects with other identities, including sexuality, gender identity, and others,” and it “recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past. Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation.”

In short, American schools have become a battleground over a term that most people cannot accurately define. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that the two most dangerous things on the planet are sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. There are some things we just do not know. That is sincere ignorance. Then there are people who know the truth but choose to ignore it—that is conscientious stupidity. The danger is that both types of people act on their ignorance and stupidity, and here we are. As school leaders, you must be active in challenging this on both fronts. If you believe that this argument is flawed, I (Omékongo) invite you to survey your faculty and staff today and ask them to each submit their definition of critical race theory—without going to the internet for assistance—and share the answers anonymously with your faculty and staff. You may, or may not, be surprised by what you see. Therefore, it is high time for schools to have a diversity dictionary.

So, what does a diversity dictionary look like? This is the beauty and the challenge of it—it is up to you! What I am not going to do here is tell you the definition of all the words you choose to use in the diversity dictionary. In too many talks and trainings across the country, I encounter people who want to be told what to say in order to check off a box. This is more involved work to which everyone must commit. New hires should be required to read and sign that they agree to the terms in the dictionary. Parents and students should all receive the dictionary so there is no confusion. If parents choose not to send their children to your schools, that is their choice. If some staff and faculty choose to leave, that is their choice. Too many schools have been caught off guard because they had no working definition of terms like critical race theory, and now it is time to draw a line in the sand. So, now let us discuss how to do it.

The first step is to acknowledge that this dictionary will be a living document and new words will be added as time goes on and possibly be altered as new information becomes available. For example, years ago, we primarily used the term “LGBT.” Today we use “LGBTQ+,” “LGBTQIA,” “LGBTQIA+,” and other terms. Updates need to be incorporated as needed.

The second step is to write down all the terms that your school uses that relate to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Do not just pick terms that you like. For example, I despise the term “BIPOC,” and I have written on why I think it should be eliminated from the English language, but I would include it in a dictionary if I was creating one because it has become part of the language of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The deeper discussion is why you choose to use one word versus another to define select groups, which is a conversation for another day.

The last step is to decide where you are going to get your definitions for the diversity dictionary. I strongly suggest that you do not create your own definitions. In addition to actual dictionary definitions, which may be the most neutral way to go, I would also suggest that you read scholars in the field from today and years past and use their working definitions.

Why is this important? It is important because you run schools. You run institutions where facts matter. You run institutions where you value academic integrity. There is no better place to incorporate the work and ideas of actual scholars. From Gloria Ladson-Billings, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, and Kimberle Crenshaw to Ibram Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, and Heather McGhee, there are real scholars who have been doing real work to aid us in our work on diversity, equity, and inclusion. There are powerful organizations such as Learning for Justice as well that actively do this work. You should lean on their expertise.

At the end of the day, as school leaders, you cannot shy away from this challenge. You cannot be afraid to rock the boat, because right now, the boat is already being rocked, and some of your kids are falling off. We owe it to them to be clear in what our objectives are. Inaction is an action, and deciding not to decide is a decision. The more silent you are, the more the ignorant and intolerant win. We cannot leave this work up to happenstance. Many school leaders have been caught off guard by the activism now being overtly directed at them. Maybe this includes you. A diversity dictionary can be a great tool to have in your arsenal as you fight for truth to prevail in your school. I know you are built for this fight. Now is your time to fight back!

Carrie Jackson is the principal of Northwest High School in Justin, TX. Omékongo Dibinga, PhD, is the director of UPstander, a professor of cross-cultural studies at American University, and a national motivational speaker and diversity educator.

Sidebar: Building RanksTM Connections

Dimension: Equity

Strategy 4: Leading members of your learning community in identifying and implementing strategies that promote equity, including culturally responsive teaching and learning. By focusing on equity across your school, you proactively will create an environment that has high expectations for all students and staff members. You can provide professional learning opportunities for staff members to learn a specific pedagogy for reaching a variety of students. You should also ensure that your school community breeds acceptance and actively celebrates the rich diversity in your school, local community, and broader society.

Equity is part of the Building Culture domain of Building Ranks.