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May 1, 2023
Vol. 80
No. 8

Moving from Equity Awareness to Action

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For school leaders, there comes a point where building equity and justice awareness without taking action is a kind of entitlement.

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"You say you're committed to addressing racism, but it feels like you're gaslighting us."
Daron was the lead organizer of Black@Bluerose, a Facebook group where hundreds of current and former students discussed racism they endured at Bluerose High School. The group had requested a forum where they could share their concerns with school and district leaders. We were among a handful of equity advocates from the local community invited to participate in the forum.
"Show us evidence," Daron insisted. "What are you doing to stop racism?"
"We're improving our awareness and examining our biases," Justine, Bluerose's principal, answered. "For example, several of us are in a book group."
"We're telling you what's happening to us," Daron responded. "How many books do you need to read before you do something?"
There comes a time when social justice awareness in the absence of justice-oriented action looks like plain old complicity. At the end of the day, if equity and justice are real goals, the key questions for school leaders are not, How many racial justice books have we read? or How proficiently can we name our biases? but rather, Do we recognize how injustice operates around us? and What are we doing to eliminate it? Yes, book clubs and reflection on biases help prepare us to do these things. However, as Daron told us after the forum, preparing to do is not doing.
Of course, educators should strengthen their awareness of xenophobia, sexism, sizeism, and other forms of oppression. That is lifelong work. But we mustn't mistake that for the work required to remove ableism from school policy or to eliminate racism in discipline practices. Awareness does not magically translate into action.
It's an expression of entitlement for those of us who are white or who have other privileged identities to embrace the personal growth of awareness without upending the conditions we're trying to understand better. It's an even bigger expression of entitlement when we keep circling back to awareness-building as a tactic to avoid deeper equity and justice work. Unfortunately, in our experience, this is where many schools are stuck.
Principal Justine confided in us a couple days after the forum. "The saying goes, When you know better you do better. Well, we've worked at knowing better. But apparently we haven't done better. Where do we start?"

Five Equity Abilities

What is your strongest ability when it comes to leading for justice?
When we pose this question to education leaders, the most common responses refer to soft equity skills: I'm a good listener. I'm great at building relationships. I'm eager to learn about diversity. These are important competencies. But they're primarily interpersonal or internal. By themselves, they pose no real threat to cisgenderism, Islamophobia, or other forms of injustice because they can exist alongside institutional inaction, as they did at Bluerose. Even being aware of our own biases does not by itself prepare us to recognize subtle ways oppression operates in our buildings, transform unjust policies, root out institutional conditions that produce disparities, and navigate obstacles to make these changes sustainable.
Justine and her colleagues needed more than awareness to meaningfully address racism at Bluerose. They needed what we call transformative equity and justice skills: the abilities required to put awareness into action. In our work with education leaders, we focus on cultivating five of these skills: (1) recognizing inequity, (2) responding to inequity, (3) redressing inequity, (4) actively cultivating equity, and (5) sustaining equity (Gorski & Swalwell, 2023).

Recognizing Inequity

Most of us are fairly adept at recognizing the kinds of injustice we experience. But we may struggle to recognize injustice from which our identities shield us, especially when it operates via what might be presumed—through a privileged perspective—to be routine or "best" practices. It can be especially challenging when the injustice is an omission, like the invisibility of Indigenous people in the curriculum or the failure to provide translated materials for families who primarily speak languages other than English.
If we hope to create just schools, we can start by learning how to recognize all the ways inequity operates. How is racism operating here right now? How is ableism operating? Cisgenderism? Note that the question is not whether they exist. Injustice is always operating; it's embedded in policies, unexamined practices, traditions. Practice recognizing it until doing so becomes second nature.

Leaders must normalize naming inequity. Be transparent, take responsibility, and model for staff how to do this without being defensive.

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When Justine asked where she should start transitioning from awareness to action, we encouraged her to examine everything: curricula, policies, traditions, hiring practices. We told her to list every manifestation of racism she found. We urged her to listen to and believe students, families, and staff of color about what they're experiencing. Leaders must normalize naming inequity. Be transparent, take responsibility, and model for staff how to do this without being defensive.
One way to start recognizing inequity is by listening for troubling ideologies in interactions with colleagues. Would you recognize dangerous deficit ideologies or savior mentalities in everyday banter? When we challenged Justine to listen for these oppressive views, she was surprised how common they were at Bluerose and distraught that she'd never noticed them. She was learning to recognize how the ideological underpinnings of injustice existed right under her nose.
Another way we can practice recognizing inequity is to analyze policy. Go line by line. Identify policies that are plainly unjust, like dress code rules that target particular identity groups. Then look for rules that likely are applied inequitably. For example, consider discipline policies that preassign punishments to subjectively defined behaviors like "insubordination" or "disrespect"—behaviors that educators often interpret differently depending on the racial identities of students involved (Chin et al., 2020). Examine implicit school culture. How do policies normalize, for example, cisgenderism, heterosexuality, or Christianity? Whose bodies are shamed? If we refuse to learn how to answer these sorts of questions and don't cultivate in staff the ability to answer them, then we're enabling the persistence of injustice. That's not an awareness problem. It's a complicity problem.

Responding to Inequity

A student tells a racist joke; a member of your leadership team defends a practice that exacerbates economic inequality among students; a teacher refuses to use a student's correct pronouns. First, do you recognize the inequity in these scenarios? Then, do you have the skills and the will to address that inequity meaningfully?
When we identify a bias or inequity, failing to respond is not an option. We don't have to pound people into submission with the anti-oppression sledgehammer, but we do need strategies to name harmful conditions—and then to make them just.
Let's practice. Imagine you're in a staff meeting sharing data showing that students enrolled in the free lunch program are less likely than their wealthier peers to participate in the many academic clubs offered at your school. You ask, "How can we address this disparity?"
One of your colleagues declares, "The deeper question is, 'How do we disrupt these kids' mentality that learning doesn't matter?'"
How do you respond?
One way might be to offer a different window through which colleagues can interpret what they're observing. You might start with a question: "Is there any way to interpret the disparity that doesn't assign blame to students, that doesn't presume they don't care about learning?" When we ask this sort of question in a public space like a faculty meeting, we are responding to an individual who made a troubling remark while also offering everybody else who is present an opportunity to reflect. We're responding by reframing the conversation, replacing a deficit lens with a sort of equity curiosity.
Fight the temptation to respond simply with more awareness, as when schools react to racist incidents by scheduling community dialogues but declining to do anything institutionally substantive. Embrace any opportunity, whether at faculty meetings, in personal interactions, or any other time a bias or inequity becomes apparent, to practice explaining as clearly as possible how particular ideologies, practices, or policies do harm.
Responding to inequity also means eliminating troubling policies or practices or changing them to be more just. Consider the inequitable policies you identified earlier when we practiced recognizing inequity. How would you reshape them to be equitable?
We also can ask people who have been harmed by inequitable policies or unjust aspects of institutional culture what a just resolution for them would be. We should avoid shoving somebody into, say, a restorative practice simply because we've predetermined it to be a useful resolution. But if we're going to ask, we must commit to acting on the feedback with all that it entails for meaningful change. A "listening" session, like the one Justine helped organize with Black@Bluerose, does not constitute an equity action. If it is solely an awareness exercise, or if we choose to apply only the most cosmetic suggestions, then in essence we are doubling down on the injustice. The responding is in the enacting, not just the listening or learning.

Redressing Inequity

Although it's critical that we respond by challenging a sexist ideology or transforming a racist policy, we also must be tenacious about tearing injustice out by its roots. When we truly redress inequity, we transform not only individual policies or practices but also the deeper institutional conditions that allowed injustice to exist in the first place.
One of Black@Bluerose's concerns was the flimsiness of Black representation in the history curriculum and the apparent lack of racial equity curriculum training for staff. "We're included," Stacy, a current Bluerose student, explained during the forum, "but we're not embedded."
Justine thanked Stacy for her feedback and committed to doing better. She wasn't defensive. "I'll pull together a team to assess the history curriculum and make it more inclusive," she said. "We've considered doing that for years. It's time we dug in."
It was important that Justine acknowledged this equity breakdown. Her honesty was a good start to a potentially meaningful response, assuming she followed through. But redressing this injustice would require heavier lifting. Making part of a curriculum more inclusive wasn't going to be sufficient. The only sufficient response to racism is antiracism, in this case meaning an antiracist curriculum.

Redressing inequity requires us as leaders to grapple with profound questions and embrace institution-altering solutions.

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Redressing inequity requires us as leaders to grapple with profound questions and embrace institution-altering solutions. Justine was beginning to deal with why, despite knowing the curriculum was unrepresentative and that teachers were not well-prepared to address issues of racial equity in the curriculum, she didn't act sooner to fix it. She needed to confront the underlying conditions that allowed a racially unjust curriculum to survive her leadership. That might mean intentionally prioritizing and rewarding antiracist knowledge and skills as she constructs her leadership team and hires teachers. It might mean reimagining her process for curriculum adoption and review. It definitely meant confronting why her school remained in a perpetual process of building awareness of problems it was failing to solve.
When we redress inequity, we change the racist dress code policy. And then we confront the conditions that led us to adopt that policy in the first place. We address whatever lack of equity knowledge enabled caring adults to apply it without concern for its harmful impact and whatever aspects of institutional culture might have protected it even when students and staff pointed out its harm. This is the deeper, more transformative end of social justice leadership, abolishing inequity's root causes.

Actively Cultivating Equity

In a way, the respond and redress abilities are backward-facing. They help us eliminate existing injustice, but they don't prevent it from surfacing in the future. When we actively cultivate equity, however, we ensure that every action moving forward is informed by our equity commitment.
In our attempts to redress inequity, we might initiate ongoing professional learning to correct predictable bias in tracking practices. When we actively cultivate equity, we make the equitable decision upfront rather than waiting until damage has been done.
An important question to ask when actively cultivating equity is, How will this action impact the most marginalized people in our community? How will it move us toward justice? We recommend as a measuring stick what we call the prioritization principle of equity literacy (Gorski, 2019). As leaders, we actively cultivate equity when we prioritize in every decision and action the best interests, demands, and joys of the people whose best interests, demands, and joys have tended to be subjugated in schools.
Recently, we observed a team of administrators from a high-poverty district discuss options for helping schools communicate more effectively with families. When an assistant superintendent recommended a popular and fully online communication platform that a neighboring district used, several of her colleagues responded enthusiastically. "I've heard that platform makes everything easier," another assistant superintendent said.
But Cynthia, the superintendent, had a different perspective. "If we push our schools onto an entirely online platform, how would it impact the lowest-income families?" she asked. "Middle class families can adapt to whatever we do, but it's hard for struggling families to adapt to decisions that further curb their access. Let's find a solution that will work best for low-income families."
It was a powerful moment, because we often observe leaders adopting what's popular without thinking through its larger equity impact. Cynthia knew that if her school adopted that platform, she and her leadership team eventually would need to do a lot of responding to and redressing the inequities it would exacerbate. She was modeling the prioritization principle.
Actively cultivating equity also means that leaders do not wait until inequity flares up before addressing it. Again, injustice is always operating, so we must vigilantly, consistently assess everything we're doing to ensure equity. We recommend creating or reconstituting an equity team or committee to serve as advisors for ongoing institutional equity efforts. Fill it with the most knowledgeable, passionate equity-oriented minds in your school or district, or even the larger community. Consider compensating them for their work, the way we compensate athletic coaches and other people who take on additional labor. Make sure the team has the power to actively cultivate equity by recommending policies, practices, and shifts to institutional culture rather than planning cultural celebrations or perpetually revising diversity statements. Then act on those recommendations.

Sustaining Equity

Finally, we as leaders must weather the blowback against equity efforts. We must sustain movement toward justice despite resistance. Try to interpret the blowback as evidence for why we need to fortify our commitments and double down on our actions. If we instead use it as an excuse for softening our actions, we force the most marginalized people in our communities to absorb the impact of our equivocations. That is the opposite of equity leadership.
This is no easy task, especially in the face of the organized resistance we mentioned earlier. It can be overwhelming. And, as we've written elsewhere, the question isn't whether the blowback is coming; the question is when and in what form and how ferociously (Gorski & Swalwell, 2023). So it's important to be strategic. Prepare your leadership team to be united in withstanding the inevitable equity-bashing. Work together to clarify your values and to develop language supporting your equity efforts based on those values. It can be helpful to role play a couple scenarios of parents or other community members challenging what you're doing in the name of justice.
Recently, we watched in awe as Kari, the principal of a middle school with which we had been working, shared vile messages from community members about her school's equity efforts, projecting them onto a giant auditorium screen during a schoolwide staff meeting. She told her staff, "It's easy to read these comments and despair. But I read them as evidence that people are worried by our progress."

Tell everybody how proud you are of the people in your district who are working as hard as they can to advocate for all students.

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We understand that many people are not in districts where they can assume somebody will have their back if they took the stand Kari did. And we know that educators of color and LGBTQIA+ educators are disproportionately targeted by the anti-equity crusaders, especially when they assume a decisive pro-justice stance. If you are a district leader and your principals or district staff are being targeted, especially if they are made more vulnerable because of who they are, then your first sustain move is unequivocally and publicly to have their backs. Publicly celebrate their efforts in faculty and school board meetings. Tell everybody, including complaining parents or community members, how proud you are of the people in your district who are working as hard as they can to advocate for all students. Claim them as the heart and moral compass of the school.
Kari understood her specific context and knew that some of the most active equity advocates in her school were burning out because of attacks and complaints. She found a way to support them by flipping frustration into a celebration of progress. Find something that makes sense in your context to sustain the equity momentum.

Moving Forward

We would never advocate for educators to cease their awareness journeys. After all, we need deep, transformative awareness to meaningfully enact each of the abilities we discussed. But equity and justice require intentionality and movement. So, for every bit of equity awareness, every discussion of personal bias, let's ask ourselves, "How am I translating this into real change?" And when we find ourselves struggling to wriggle out of our heads and funnel our awareness into real change, let's remember that equity and justice are not merely ideals. They are purposeful, transformative actions. And students, families, and staff who bear the brunt of injustice should not also have to bear the implications of our hesitancies to act.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Have equity efforts ever stalled at your school? Can you identify the root cause of that inaction?

➛ How can schools better listen to and respond to student concerns about equity?

➛ What steps has your school or district taken to "actively cultivate" equity in crafting new initiatives or policies?

Fix Injustice, Not Kids

Paul Gorski and Katy Swalwell share six guiding principles for meaningful leadership that disrupts inequity at its roots.

Fix Injustice, Not Kids
References

Chin, M. J., Quinn, D. M., Dhaliwal, T. K., & Lovison, V. S. (2020). Bias in the air: A nationwide exploration of teachers' implicit racial attitudes, aggregate bias, and student outcomes. Educational Researcher, 49 , 566–578.

Gorski, P. (2019). Avoiding racial equity detoursEducational Leadership, 76 (7), 56–61.

End Notes

1 The names, places, and groups mentioned in the article are pseudonyms.

Paul Gorski, PhD, is the founder of the Equity Literacy Institute and EdChange. He has 25 years of experience helping educators, nonprofit workers, and others strengthen their equity efforts. He also is the research director of the Equity Literacy Institute, conducting and collaborating on research and other scholarship related to maximizing the transformative potential of equity efforts.

Gorski has published more than 70 articles and has written, cowritten, or coedited 12 books on various aspects of educational equity, including Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap and Case Studies on Diversity and Social Justice Education (with Seema Pothini). Gorski earned a PhD in educational evaluation at the University of Virginia.


Awards

  • Fix Injustice, Not Kids received the 2023 Philip C. Chinn Award from the National Association of Multicultural Education (NAME).

 

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