Erin Jones’ work involves equity training and coaching for groups in and outside the K–12 space.

In my equity work, I bring many stories and perspectives. I had a unique upbringing, which gives me the ability to build bridges with people in ways that others might not be able to do. I am a biracial woman who was adopted as a baby by white parents from Northern Minnesota. My father took a teaching job at The American School of the Hague in the Netherlands, which I attended for most of my K–12 experience. I speak four languages (English, Dutch, French, and Spanish), and I attempt to leverage every part of my story to be as effective as possible with different groups of people.

Another essential part of my identity is that of educator. While my current work involves doing equity training and coaching for groups in and outside the K–12 arena, the majority of my work continues to be in spaces that touch schools in some way. I have been working in and around schools for 31 years. I still teach online two nights a week at the Equity Institute in Olympia, WA—one night is devoted to working toward equity in education and the other night is a multigenerational class where we talk about all things “identity.”

Although I am no longer in a classroom or school district, I have spent years working directly in education. I have been a teacher’s assistant in Philadelphia; a private school teacher in Indiana; an ELL teacher in Columbus, OH; a language arts, history, and French immersion teacher in Tacoma, WA; an AVID teacher and instructional coach in Spokane, WA; an assistant state superintendent; and then a school district administrator for two large districts in Washington state.

As someone who continues to work with educators at every level, it is a personal philosophy to keep my hands in education on a regular basis. I can’t talk to people who are in classrooms now if I am not able to talk about what is actually happening in classrooms. When I talk with educators, I want to be able to talk from a place of knowledge and understanding, not from experiences I had 10 or 20 years ago.

Equity Work Is Hard

Doing equity work is hard, especially in our current climate, but I tell people all the time that having been a middle school teacher for 15 years prepared me well. At the middle school level, you have to juggle lots of balls and deal with challenging attitudes. I have been well equipped to handle the difficult conversations that often come with talking about race and equity.

Despite my unique background, gender and race often inform how I show up in the work, as they do for other women and other people of color. The gender piece for me is a little easier to deal with. I grew up playing sports, often with boys and men. Many times, I was the only woman on the court or the field. I figured out how to navigate on soccer fields and basketball courts as a kid, which has made it a bit easier to navigate in board rooms and executive teams, including those in school districts.

What has had greater impact on my work is my identity as a Black woman. Part of that is because I live in the state of Washington, where there are so few of us. I am almost always the only Black woman in the room. That means there has often been pressure on me to represent every person who looks like me or to silence that part of me, because people don’t want to talk about race. On occasion, people will say, “Uh oh, Erin is here, so we have to talk about race now.”

Although I do care passionately about racial equity, I have skills and interests in a variety of areas. There are times when I have felt pigeon-holed. I didn’t win awards as a world language or AVID teacher because I was Black. I won awards because of my skill as a teacher and my ability to connect with students. As an administrator, I have skills in strategic planning and clear communication. I am good at facilitating hard conversations about a variety of topics.

I see all of this as opportunity. As an athlete, I learned early to push into a challenge. I relish the chance to disrupt narratives people have about women or people of color. I love to get people talking about things that might be uncomfortable.

The Need to Be Vulnerable

Like many women, I was raised at a time when being a female leader meant you should never show your emotions. Showing emotion was equated with weakness. As I get older, I have pushed back against the notion that all women should lead in a certain way. I think every person has a combination of masculine and feminine traits; there are not some more worthy of leadership than others. At a certain point, we all must be authentic and vulnerable. I believe, as a nation, we are becoming more open to that idea.

I also think that aspiring leaders, particularly women and people of color, need to figure out who they are and what their work is going to look like for them. Too often, people try to be exactly like a principal or superintendent or another person they have seen and admired, but you are never going to be someone else. You need to figure out what leadership looks like for you and what talents and experiences and skills you have that you can bring to the table to be the best version of you. Be true to yourself and do a lot of self-reflection. Take time to pause, to journal, and to get feedback from other leaders around you. I don’t think we are encouraged to employ these practices enough as leaders.

How White Men Can Support Women of Color

We need diversity in every space, whether that is diversity in race, culture, or gender, to help us collectively make better decisions. One way to make that happen faster is for white men to be more supportive of women of color in leadership positions. I hear a lot of lip service paid to the need for leaders who are women of color, but I do not see many examples of men living this out in their daily practices. I often tell white men that sometimes the best way to advocate for women of color is by staying quiet and listening to them when they are in the room with you. You can say, “I don’t know everything about that; maybe she does.” Sometimes, for men this means giving up power in some way and linking arms instead of needing to be the one in front.

I hear many people say we need more diversity, but they don’t create spaces that are safe. We do need more diversity but not if new leaders are expected to assimilate and be just like you. Part of the reason we need more diversity is that we need different perspectives. If every Black woman shows up and tries to be just like a white man, you have lost the power and impact of diversity.

If you are a leader who is white and you are asking a woman of color to join your team, you need to think about why it is you want her. You should want her not for her skin color but for the perspective and experience she brings. To that end, you need to do whatever is necessary to make sure she is seen and her voice is heard.

For so long, the spotlight in leadership has been on white men. I am not asking to take the light away; I am asking that we pull the light further away to allow the rays to illuminate more voices. I am NOT advocating for white male leaders’ voices to be eliminated from the conversation. Instead of typically being “the lead,” I am asking that we move away from “lead” and “background singers” to full choral, multipart harmony.

As the daughter of a trained band instructor and a former “band geek,” I know that creating a beautiful symphony is hard, but when the work is done well, and we each are able (and encouraged/empowered) to play our parts well, the full, harmonious sound is a gift to both players and listeners. Every child and every educator deserves this gift.

Let’s do the work together.

Erin Jones is head of Erin Jones LLC, which provides training and coaching in culturally responsive practices for churches, schools, colleges, nonprofits, and government agencies. A motivational speaker, she is the author of Bridges to Heal US: Stories and Strategies for Racial Healing.