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No matter where you stand on the equity debate in schools, one thing is clear: The events of the last year and change have forced communities to engage in often uncomfortable, but necessary conversations about race.

Whether we’re talking about the long-term effects of a global pandemic on learning gaps or accelerated learning for our neediest students, or engaging debate around social justice, the words diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, are making regular appearances in our lives and on meeting agendas — and for good reason.

 But talking about DEI in schools and actually doing something about it are hardly the same thing. Action requires school leaders and their teams to get on the same page and work within their communities to make change. It sounds good written out, but it’s easier said than done, especially when not everyone sees the problem through the same lens, either because of politics or lived experience, or for other reasons.

Before you can put DEI to work in your schools, it’s important to understand the reasons it doesn’t work today — and make some meaningful changes. Only then can you have a better conversation. 

Jorge Valenzuela, an education coach and adjunct professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia, described the challenge of DEI as it exists inside our schools, and in teacher lounges and meeting rooms, in Edutopia.

Here’s what he said:

“I have personally witnessed faculty meetings erupting in anger around race and privilege when conversations weren’t framed respectfully and agreements were not made beforehand by each of the participants. Although it’s normal for difficult conversations to create tension and discomfort, I don’t believe there’s ever a place for us to break collegiality by harming others with our words. It doesn’t create healing or get us closer to the purpose of DEI.”

For his part, Valenzuela didn’t leave it there. Rather he offered up some suggestions for how staff can work together to have productive DEI conversations and start to do the work, without all the political baggage and angst.

We summarize his points below.

  1. Get everyone involved. Too often, conversations about equity are dominated by the vocal few. It’s important that “everyone participates.” That doesn’t mean that every person needs to or wants to speak on the topic. But getting people involved, and giving respect on the floor to whoever is speaking is a critical first step.
  2. Don’t require people of color on staff to lead the work. Often, when conversations turn to race, the natural inclination is to look to someone of color to lead that conversation by sharing a story about their lived experience. But forcing someone to share their story isn’t the same thing as creating an environment where they feel comfortable doing so, on their terms. Schools should consider bringing in experts with specific DEI expertise, “regarding research, methodology, and facilitation” to lead sensitive conversations, establish comfort levels and encourage participation.
  3. Be honest and open and ask for feedback. Conversations about race aren’t easy. Everyone has different perspectives and lived experiences from which they tend to draw their own conclusions. This impacts how people engage with each other and with students on the subject. Schools should encourage staff to “speak from the heart, and be open to feedback.” While staff members should be encouraged “to speak their truth,” they should also be prepared to receive notes and consider changing their perspectives based on what they learn.
  4. Listen without bias. This is the ideal, obviously. But it isn’t easy. At a certain point, everyone has implicit bias. Teachers and staff should “listen to their colleagues without allowing their personal views to write them off completely.” Over time, and through constructive feedback, those “limiting beliefs” will start to fade and your students will be the beneficiaries of that change.
  5. Keep it in confidence. “What is shared in the circle stays in the circle.” To create space for staff to share, requires first earning their trust. That means establishing an environment where people can speak freely without fear or recrimination or judgement. Everyone needs to be respectful of one another. But nonone should be fearful to share what they’re feeling.

Interested in creating a safe space for your teachers and staff to have DEI conversations? Want a framework on which to build DEI into your school culture? 

Dr. Luvelle Brown is one of the nation’s leading voices on DEI and culturally-responsive practices in schools. Check out his Mission Equity & Excellence professional learning program on RocketPD, and sign up for a 30-minute conversation to learn more about the work.

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