In his 1963 speech titled “A Talk to Teachers,” James Baldwin said, “To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible—and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people—you must be prepared to go for broke.”
Baldwin borrowed the phrase “go for broke” from a historical group of soldiers. The Japanese American soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team volunteered to fight in World War II, despite the fact that their fellow Japanese Americans were being held against their will in internment camps, and despite the fact that racist policies required these brave soldiers to serve in a segregated unit. They decided to forge ahead with their North Star in mind, knowing that their decisions and actions would benefit the collective. With the unit motto “Go for Broke,” they became one of the largest, longest-serving, and most decorated units in the history of the U.S. military.
Baldwin’s use of these soldiers’ motto as a call to action for educators was right on target 60 years ago and is still appropriate today. Here are some ways that school leaders can answer that call.
Move Forward by Modeling Culturally Responsive Behavior
Educators are facing a revolutionary moment—classrooms have become battlegrounds over what young people should or should not be taught. Meanwhile, the pandemic shined a light on the disparities that pervade our school systems, highlighting where minoritized students have less access to the best teachers and to the most challenging and engaging learning experiences.
I think that in order for us to move forward, we need to be all-in. We need to go for broke.
Education leaders play a critical role in this. It’s important for us to model what we’re asking teachers to do. The Leadership Academy defines a culturally responsive leader as one who recognizes the impact of institutionalized racism on their own lives and the lives of the students and families they work with and who embraces their role in mitigating, disrupting, and dismantling systemic oppression. To embody this definition means to work personally, interpersonally, and institutionally.
Think About Your Personal Approach
How will you regularly assess yourself to ensure that you are walking in the definition of culturally responsive leadership while also ensuring that you are not causing harm to the students you are supporting?
When working with a group of teacher leaders in Minnesota, I used an identity marker exercise similar to one from Elena Aguilar to unpack their upbringing and crafted their own story to share with their colleagues. The exercise helped leaders think about all intersecting identities and how they impact their experiences, culture, and approach to leadership.
Speak up in the spaces you occupy—not just where it’s comfortable or expected. As a leader, you most likely attend a variety of meetings throughout the day—some are within your school building and others are outside of your building. The topics and purposes of these meetings may not center on equity, but in conversations about students you may hear phrases such as “These kids can’t...” or “There’s nothing more we can do...” or “These families won’t…”—phrases that signal low expectations and low belief in students’ ability to be successful. You can speak out in ways that clearly signify your belief in and support of students’ abilities.
Think About Your Interpersonal Approach
What interactions will you have with other adults to support an equitable school system for all students?
While working with a superintendent and their leadership team in Texas, I had them do a team temperature check. No matter the level of leadership you hold, you are making decisions on behalf of students all the time. Rethink your decision-making process. Ensure that all stakeholders (particularly students and families) have a seat at the table and their viewpoints are heard, elevated, and considered at all times.
Create opportunities for others to lead hard conversations and receive critical feedback from peers. Collectively develop a list of questions to be used in every meeting to ensure that equity is infused in every conversation.
Think About Your Institutional Practices
What are the policies, practices, and structures that are systematically getting in the way of students’ success, and how can you create new ones that center the voices and experiences of the historically minoritized?
As previously mentioned, Elena Aguilar has developed a variety of equity coaching tools that can help prepare you for conversations with teachers who may present themselves as defensive or combative. In working with principals in Wisconsin, these sentence stems gave structure when developing and practicing conversations with staff—particularly when conversations were across difference.
The Liberatory Design process, developed by the National Equity Project and the d.school at Stanford University, provides a human-centered approach to this work and creates the opportunity to try things out. When working with a district in Iowa, I asked them to develop a series of “safe-to-fail” experiments—small-step activities that could be measured while not negatively impacting (i.e., harming) the people they were trying to support. Their experiments focused on diversifying their leadership, including revising their job descriptions, adding students and other staff to the hiring committee, and building a mentorship program for new hires.
It may be overwhelming to think about the intensity of what this work entails, but it’s important to remember this isn’t something to do alone. None of these actions can take place without collective action and care for one another. First, it’s important to make individual decisions about what going for broke looks like within our context, and it may change by the day, month, or year. However, going all-in for our students and families is necessary.