Education Equity

Creating a Schoolwide Racial and Social Justice Initiative

A step-by-step process for developing a program for the entire school community.

April 14, 2020 Updated August 14, 2020
Bob Daemmrich / Alamy Stock Photo

Black students face disproportionate outcomes in education, health, and policing. Schools can play an important role in addressing these challenges. Racial and social justice-focused lessons in individual classes are useful, but a schoolwide initiative can be a longer-term, problem-solving mechanism to inspire action.

Develop a schoolwide initiative for racial and social justice by setting the focus, practicing self-assessment, identifying challenges, and creating meaningful outreach.

Set the Focus

Before embarking on a schoolwide initiative, ask participants, “What does ‘help’ mean for you?” Students and families can weigh in on specific challenges they would like to address. A sentence stem such as “My desire is to address the concern with _____” can be a useful prompt for gathering information.

In outlining the initial objectives, encourage goals that align with the school’s mission statement. For example, my school mission statement highlighted community, inclusivity, and diversity, so my initiative, the George Floyd Scholarship, reflected these features. The scholarship required an essay on social and racial biases, reflecting the goals of inclusivity and diversity.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. For some challenges, bolstering existing initiatives may be more effective than creating new ones. Take time to explore existing school initiatives to develop understanding of where needs are being met and where specific challenges still exist. My school had ongoing support for students’ professional needs, such as career-exploration workshops and survival needs such as a food insecurity campaign. There was a need to address social and racial inequities.

Narrow the focus. Use specific, measurable goals to increase the likelihood of success. For example, the scholarship project goals included contacting at least two local organizations weekly and providing supporters with project updates every few weeks.

Identify key stakeholders needed for the project’s success. Ask who the initiative would impact, who may help with decision-making, or who may assist with implementation. Stakeholders may include students, families, alumni, and community members.

Practice Self-Assessment

Establish your “why.” Take time to define the reasons an initiative is valuable to you as an individual. For me, developing the scholarship provided a constructive way to channel my concerns about racial bias as my sons mature into Black men. Clearly defining the “why” is useful later in the process when establishing a rationale for others to join.

After defining the reasons why an initiative is personally important, consider which personal skills and experiences would contribute to the success of the initiative. For example, I have experience with grant-writing, assisting students with scholarship applications, and organizing educational activities so that parts of the scholarship project were a natural fit.

Identify Challenges at the Outset

While focusing on positive outcomes is important, don’t forget to assess any issues that may negatively influence the initiative development. Understand that pushback is natural, and plan ahead for possible resistance. The key is to identify indicators of resistance such as lack of response to outreach or the inability to commit to specific tasks. Then determine the source of the hesitancy.

Thinking in advance about responses to resistance can help you formulate approaches. Determine whether the resistance is temporary and what changes to make in the plans, based on the feedback received. If there are institutional challenges to establishing a schoolwide initiative, consider how individual issues may influence the initiative. For example, if schoolwide connection is a challenge because of COVID-19, an organizer should consider specific social distancing needs. Provide for the varying comfort levels of participants with different tasks that may not require in-person contact, such as finding supporters or requesting donations.

Make Outreach Meaningful

Be intentional in assigning responsibilities. For leadership roles, consider who would expertly advise, offer useful feedback, or provide needed encouragement. For communication tasks, consider those already doing the work, such as local podcast hosts with a civil rights focus. For awareness tasks, look for participants who already share information on social media, such as local minority advocacy organizations like the African American Chambers of Commerce. Remember to include organizations that may donate services to help build the supporter base.

Be thoughtful in word choice, and personalize contacts. During conversations, I would describe my rationale for reaching out, whether it was that they had participated in advocacy work in the past, they were referred by a common acquaintance, or they had received a scholarship before. Remember to tailor communications to specific audiences. In my communication with educators regarding the scholarship, I would say, “Let’s build academic opportunities for our students.” Or when speaking with parents, I would say, “Let’s use the initiative to honor any family that has lost a loved one due to senseless violence.”

Consider using social media efforts to build project awareness. Tag supporters on Twitter to announce brief progress updates.

Transparency can be a powerful motivator. Share your own motivation, and reveal areas within the initiative that may require adjustments. Maintain a pressure-less culture that discourages shaming individuals who express a lack of interest. Stay connected by sharing progress updates with individuals who are not yet participating. Offer new options to join the initiative through ongoing calls to action, and remind possible participants that they can join at any time.

Respond to supporter feedback. For example, when one financial supporter asked about nonfinancial support, I did not yet have a plan. I thanked him for his patience as I developed a list of ways to participate. Reframe frustrations as opportunities for initiative improvement. For example, after supporters were uncertain of how to make in-kind donations, I worked to identify a process to facilitate this request.

Developing an initiative is a process that requires ongoing evaluation. Take note of successes, but also examine the ways you successfully managed to overcome unexpected obstacles along the way. 

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