It has been more than a year since Black Lives Matter demonstrations swept the nation in response to the unlawful killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and far too many others. Discussions around anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion (ADE&I) continue to evolve. In schools, many are looking to incorporate elements of critical race theory as a practice.
But as students return to schools, ADE&I initiatives are at a pivotal juncture. Twenty-one states have introduced bills that aim to limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, and a quarter have already signed them into law.
While 59% of K-12 educators in America believe that systemic racism exists, the process by which ADE&I initiatives become school policy will determine their success. Our work has shown that it’s vital to engage the community—staff, students, and parents—to help them understand why policies are being adopted and involve them in the drafting process.
The viewpoints on ADE&I shared during our Education Leadership Summit showed a broad consensus for not returning to the status quo. Participants highlighted the need to build a more inclusive future where we hear from a wider variety of voices:
“How do we center the narratives of voices that have historically been erased? We don’t want to go back to ‘normal’ where under-represented voices were erased.”
“How can I support my community of students who may be experiencing heightened anxiety, self-esteem, poor self-confidence in the face of racism?”
“My district needs to hear that we can’t return to business as normal even though there are people longing for that normalcy that we knew pre-pandemic. Our under-represented students need to be centered and need to be cultivated.”
Three ways to successfully improve ADE&I in your school district
We based our recommendations in this area on what we have heard from education leaders, with an emphasis on using the ThoughtExchange platform to facilitate the discussions that many agree are critical to reaching consensus in this important area.
Create spaces for students to share emotions, experiences, and trust
Student voices can be easily lost when it comes to creating and implementing strategic plans. Still, in this area specifically, it is important to consider the lived experiences of the young people you teach. Tyrone C. Howard, a Professor of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and the Director of the university’s Black Male Institute, described how education leaders could do this:
“You must let students talk about what they feel, encourage them to write about their emotions, and create space for students to emote—even as all of that will have to be done virtually. This is an emotionally fragile time for many Black students and other students of color. For many students, the fear is real, their anger is palpable, anxiety is high, and sadness is running deep. Do not expect that you will have all the answers. Just listen to and affirm your students.”
It can be hard to provide these safe spaces, especially online. ThoughtExchange offers a way to bridge the gaps by promoting inclusion with an anti-bias patented platform. The technology is designed based on deep research and knowledge of the types of environments, systems, structures, and dynamics that can make people feel reluctant to speak up.
Use Exchanges to open up discussions on how students are feeling. This knowledge can identify areas of opportunity to promote inclusivity and belonging and enable staff to rebuild the networks of trust that a period of social unrest has damaged.
Use data-driven insights as leverage to shape and implement policies
Writing in Education Week, Bettina L. Love, a professor at the University of Georgia and the Co-Founder of the Abolitionist Teaching Network, declared a clear call-to-action on meeting the reality of inequity. She said, “For equity work to work, it must be handed to the community. We have to actually trust the people we say we want to empower to make structural changes, not just tinker at the edges of injustice.”
For school districts to reach this goal, they need a way to highlight and amplify those voices and work with them to action the changes they want to see. Camas School District’s leadership has found ThoughtExchange invaluable to broaden the reach of its regular community Town Halls, allowing a wider range of voices to be heard, which they can use to build policies that match the community’s needs and expectations.
Superintendent Dr. Jeff Snell highlighted this value during our Education Leadership Summit. He said, “It’s often not a shock when comments come out of ThoughtExchange. We know a lot of what people are thinking, but it certainly gives us some leverage to amplify some voices that may be a little quieter or may not feel like they have the opportunity to engage at the same level.”
Prepare for pushback and get comfortable with being uncomfortable
The renewed emphasis on ADE&I comes at a time of polarized opinions in many areas of public life. Often, the debate is divorced from the reality of teachers trying to do their best by students in a classroom, as highlighted by Anton Schulzki, a high school Social Studies teacher and the President-Elect of the National Council for Social Studies. He said, “So much of what we do has become part of the political football that’s tossed back and forth. Everything’s become hyper-politicized…People are talking past each other.”
By taking the time to engage with your community in transparent, open-ended discussions on these important but fractious topics, you will have a greater chance of implementing policies that have wide support. In addition, we offer additional guidance in areas like staying ahead of ADE&I conversations in the community, incorporating student voices, and speaking to your board as part of our Equity in Education event series.