CharterFolk Contributor Laura McGowan-Robinson–Racial Diversity Work Starts with You

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today I am excited to share with you a Contributor Column from Laura McGowan-Robinson, CEO of the Diversity in Leadership Institute.

I provide brief background about Laura below.

Dr. Laura McGowan-Robinson is the Founder and CEO of Diversity in Leadership Institute in California. DLI identifies, develops, and supports racially diverse public school leaders to serve as change agents to close the opportunity gap, through movement building, growing talent pipelines for excellence in school leadership and advocacy.

I had the privilege of working with Laura for many years and learned a great deal from her about the need to increase our commitment to diversity in leadership in order to allow the charter school movement to achieve its full potential. I extend to Laura deep thanks for having penned such a thoughtful piece.


Racial Diversity Work Starts with You

My current work as CEO at the Diversity in Leadership Institute …

…was inspired by my experiences as a Black student, teacher and an evolving leader. I reflect on the early experiences that shaped my beliefs about what I could become and Black educators played a critical role.  As a kid, my bubble was school, my huge extended family, the friends on my block and church.

School was my favorite part of the bubble. I remember feeling happy at school and having teachers who saw me as one of their kids. My blackness was something that was embraced and affirmed by my teachers and my family.  I remember the genuine connection my teachers had with my family. I remember my mother’s fierce engagement, which was at times unrelenting. I saw my potential by seeing Black educators and leaders in action. There was never a moment where I didn’t picture myself serving in the role of any of the Black educators before me.

Unfortunately, my experience will not be the experience for 78,000 Black students in California without a Black educator.

Sadly, California is not alone.

In this time of racial reckoning, organizations across the globe are engaged in reflection and conversations about how they might be more diverse, equitable and inclusive (DEI). Leaders are being confronted with their own biases and complicity in systemic oppression.

Increased racial diversity across public education, traditional district or charter, begins with equity-centered, transformational leadership. This includes an explicit focus on racial equity.

For DEI to take root in an organization, the work must start with a leader who is self-aware. The work of self-reflection can be the most challenging. This is the part that challenges what we think we know or believe about ourselves. It often does not line up with intentions, but is laid bare in the inequitable outcomes we see every day. The work starts with the questions:

What is my position in relation to privilege and/or oppression across each area of my identity (race, sexual orientation, class, language or gender)?

In what ways am I contributing to or perpetuating inequity?

Or, what do I need to change within myself?

As a leader, when it comes to your sphere of influence, what are you doing that is directly contributing to, or disrupting inequitable outcomes in your organization?

This is not about getting tied up in white guilt, or fear, but acknowledging it and moving toward actions to address it. This is about doing your own research, introspection and self-interrogation. These questions should be revisited often, as systemic oppression is so interwoven into our ways of being and doing that it can often be missed. As leaders, we must take a systemic approach in order to disrupt it. Tinkering around the edges of an inequitable system won’t lead to the change we want to see. It will likely only morph into other inequities.

This awareness should come with a recognition of where power lies and who holds it. Are you holding the power? It requires leaders to be willing to interrupt dominant culture power dynamics and shift from power over, to power with and power within.

Now that you are aware, you must educate yourself on what has historically contributed to inequity across differences (i.e. racial/ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, etc).  A leader must understand the types of oppression and how they show up in our daily lives and across different “-isms”.

Being an equity-centered leader comes with a commitment to being culturally responsive. Cultural responsiveness can and should extend beyond the classroom. It should begin with leadership.

Muhammand Khalifa’s work on culturally responsive school leadership (CRSL) can extend to educational leadership more broadly.

CRSL centers historically marginalized students and provides a framework for school leaders on how they might best engage the school and broader community by valuing the rich culture and indigenous ancestry in school contexts that impact educational outcomes. This awareness should extend to how we engage and include our staff in our organizations.

How are you creating learning environments that honor and value difference? How are educators of color seeing themselves reflected in the school leadership? Are they typecast into certain roles (i.e. discipline or non-instructional roles)? How have you engaged educators of color in the equity work? Are they carrying the burden of doing the equity work alone? Or are they carrying the work of fighting to equitably meet the needs of students who look like them alone?

Stop dropping into communities and telling them what they need. Charter schools have the  ability to design with community; the ability to design a school that the community sees as its own. In keeping with the recognition of dominant power dynamics and how to disrupt them, leaders should immerse themselves in the communities they serve and build with community, not for, or on behalf of. A deficit mentality that focuses on what the community lacks, instead of what the community has and what the next generation can build, assumes that there is nothing of value there.

Recognize the brilliance, beauty, gifts and talents and diversity that educators and staff of color offer the school and bring them into the decision making processes, the planning and the execution. When a design team fails to be broad in the engagement of the community, it sends a strong message.  It says, “I know what you need. You don’t have a voice. I don’t value what you have to say.”

Make an ongoing organizational commitment to go beyond DEI workshops and move toward eliminating practices and policies that lead to inequitable outcomes. When I received my first high school teaching assignment in south Los Angeles, I remember wondering why there were so few Black students in my classes. While I saw Black students on campus, I taught very few in my English courses. Then one day I was asked to cover a Special Education class. By the time all of the students arrived nearly all were Black and most were boys. The more I engaged with the students, the clearer it became that most of the students would have been successful in my classroom and should not have been in a Special Education classroom. What they needed was someone who saw them, didn’t fear them, met their needs and recognized their brilliance. This is a systemic issue.

Achieving racial equity is not a one and done professional development session. It requires a sustained effort and an actual budget. It requires trust building and imagination–seeing beyond what is now and what can be. It is a consistent interrogation, a willingness to take risks. It is a commitment to disrupting power structures that have locked out people of color in charter school leadership, board positions or funding. A commitment to this unrelenting push is what allows us to see more racial diversity, equity and inclusion in charter school leadership.

This is complex work. Typical strategic planning processes that are tied to dominant culture norms won’t get you the transformative outcomes you seek. Equity work is just as much about the process as it is about the product.

Be intentional about how you create opportunities for growth. So you want to create a more diverse organization?  People often jump to diversity first because it’s less complex than inclusion and equity, but if you have not begun the work above when the racially diverse staff you hired arrives, the same inequitable systems will chew them up and spit them out. Research has shown …

…that educators of color are hired at higher rates than their white counterparts, but leave at disproportionately higher rates. This is a systemic issue.

No, I am not saying that you cannot hire a diverse team until you have solved for equity. I am saying that you must be self-aware, committed and engaged in the collaborative and messy work of creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive organization to retain and grow a diverse team.

This requires looking at opportunities for more equitable outcomes. What current leadership pathways do you have? What are the onramps? Are there paths that are all/mostly white? Are there paths that are all/mostly of color? Who determines who will advance? What are the impacts on students and families? And most importantly, what is the root of the inequitable outcome?

Did I mention that you will likely mess up or say the wrong thing at some point? That is part of the process. The sooner you realize that there will be missteps, the better. Yes, you will trip up. Don’t let the fear of failure paralyze you. When transforming anything there will be errors. It is learning from those errors, being open to being called out and course correcting that lead us to the change we want to see. Remember, the process of getting to equity is just as important as the product. This is where learning occurs.