4 Tips for School Leaders Starting DEI Work
School leaders should take an active role and set attainable goals to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are successful.
It’s no secret that 2020 was a landmark year that brought about a rise in schools and organizations trying hard to do work focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. For many, this is a season that has highlighted gaps that need to be filled and demanded that people stretch themselves and press into discomfort. One of the main frustrations we’ve been hearing from teachers—both from our work with them and through social media—is that their school leaders don’t seem to be prioritizing this work, if exploring it at all.
So, while there are articles out there on what books to read and what organizations to turn to, we wanted to write directly to school leaders and invite you to consider some preliminary steps that you can take to launch sustainable and authentic work for celebrating diversity, moving toward equity, and practicing inclusion.
1. Do Your Own Work
You can’t lead a school through equity and justice work if you haven’t done the work yourself. It’s important to model some of the ideas yourselves. The best way to get buy-in from your community is to own the work and live it out. Teachers often feel that school leaders are doing performative work because they use “equity” as a tagline and a one-off event or professional development session. What counts most is how you do things, not necessarily what you’re doing.
A common barrier to getting started is facing the reality of having several priorities and so much to tackle at your school. That’s real. However, this important work would definitely become a top priority the minute your school ended up on social media or in the news because one of your teachers or another staff member did something racist and discriminatory. You can be proactive and make this one of your top priorities now. Move it up on the list.
2. Identify Other School Leaders Who Have Done This Work
You’re not alone, especially in 2022. There are other school leaders around the country in all types of school settings moving equity work forward in ways that suit their context. Try seeing their work as a model that you can borrow from. Around this issue, networking is a critical part of your approach. Join organizations and social media groups such as Multicultural Classroom (our organization), Bright Morning, Embracing Equity, and more so that you can meet other school leaders for brainstorming sessions.
Not knowing where to start or where to find active people is a common obstacle. We get it. Where are you supposed to find other school leaders dedicated to this work? Supposedly, no one is doing this, right? Wrong. Others are doing it, and as we said, it’s about building a network. Consider starting on social media. Look up groups, pages, hashtags, and organizations that promote this work, and you’ll certainly find school leaders there.
3. Identify Your School-Based Partners in This Work
You can be sure that there are already others at your school wanting to do, if not already doing, equity- and justice-focused work. Tap their shoulder and build community with them. Check in on what they’ve accomplished, and share your desires and intentions with them. While bringing teachers in is crucial, don’t stop there.
Consider reaching out to parents, students, alumni, staff, and other stakeholders. You can connect with parents through meet-and-greets on campus, relationship building at extracurricular events, and other moments when they may be physically present. Sometimes, Roberto would intentionally attend basketball and other sporting games to make sure to connect with specific parents for conversations in these friendly contexts.
Other stakeholders include community members, board members, local leaders, and others connected to the school, such as business owners. While seemingly disconnected, they play an important role in the community, and their support at school could yield impactful change. They may also be able to offer resources in support of your vision.
When reaching out to your school community, you might fear being seen as lacking knowledge, or the opposite—taking too strong of a stance. What’s the alternative? Silence on the issue? If you’re truly committed to the work, it’s important to strive toward your goal. Boldness and courage are traits that we want our students to display, and we can model them ourselves. Start small and take the leap.
4. Take Tangible Steps That Will Move You Forward
Too often, this work in schools becomes about a committee that comes together to talk. After months of only that, people lose morale and energy. Make sure to set goals and work toward achieving them. Set attainable goals and don’t worry about hitting a home run. Advancement is the goal.
At one school facing some major challenges, Roberto identified a critical issue furthering inequities. These were his initial goals:
- Decrease the student suspension rate by finding alternatives for student support.
- Partner with a district-based thought leader to create alternatives.
In a different context, Lorena was trying to help her school launch their anti-bias work. Her goals were the following:
- Identify two to three staff members who would engage in the work.
- Establish a committee to share the labor and design next steps for impact.
Starting these committees and communities within a school is no easy task, but it can surely be done well. You’re likely to feel overwhelmed and unsure of where to start. This is understandable and a real concern, but there are things you can keep in mind in order to make the process more manageable.
First, remember to start small and focus on one task at a time. Second, don’t work alone. Use the school community network that you’ve built. Depend on them to help you move the work forward. Third, turn to external experts when necessary. Is there a local organization that can support your school’s work?
When Roberto was working to decrease student suspensions, he recruited a local grassroots artistic organization, Elevated Thought, that used art therapy for healing and identity building. It was the first partnership and program of its kind at that school. Students and even their parents became engaged! Are there experts that can come and assist your team to move the work forward? Reach out and welcome them in.
In the end, taking initiative is the first step. It communicates to your team that you are leaning in to this and these issues matter to you, both personally and professionally. Demonstrate that embracing diversity, motivating others to think about and practice equity, and intentionally including marginalized people is a priority for you and that you’re willing to take risks for it.
All of this change requires community, and nurturing of that community can't happen with you alone. This important work, while it depends on you to succeed, isn't about you. That’s the good news: All of the work is about the school community.