Advancing equity & racial justice across a school district using a systems approach

RE-Center Race & Equity in Education Executive Director, Natalie McCabe Zwerger sat down with long-time educator, Keturah Proctor to discuss how to use a systems approach to advance equity & racial justice in schools.

RE-Center: Keturah, tell us a little bit about your work.

Keturah Proctor: I am the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as well as District Curriculum Coordinator in the Elmsford Union Free School District. My responsibilities are making sure that there's curriculum alignment, and that various buildings within the district have some formalized approaches for curriculum work. I'm also responsible for ensuring that all of the District Equity Team recommendations are being incorporated into our systems and structures. I ensure that our professional learning is focused on growing capacity and understanding in the area of equity and racial justice. There is Student Equity leader work happening which I am very excited about because young people are the heart of this work. We are taking a look at how we are embracing new staff as they come in so that we can provide an environment where they can be successful, but also to ensure that their experiences are affirming and welcoming. We also want to, to honor their strengths to be part of the change we are working towards. Overall, I am really ensuring that we're being accountable and transparent to our community. Above all, that is most important to me. We need to be clear about who we are and what we believe. Harm has happened here, and now it is time for healing as well as real change to those systems and structures. 

RE-Center: I can hear echoes of how your approach to this work is systemic and I wonder if you could speak a little bit about that?

Keturah Proctor: So, I initially never saw the work as systems work. I saw it as hard work, and quickly became frustrated wondering why everyone doesn't see it and feel it the way that I do. And then after going through some work with you and NYU Metro Center, I began to see that if you want transformational change, then you must change the actual system. The frustrating part is that it doesn't happen immediately, and I still struggle with that. You have to be honest about the capacity of the system. How ready is the system for change? How much change are the leaders ready for? How much change is needed to ensure that students have fulfilling experiences? Foundational work, especially for leadership, is necessary to approach it at a systems level. Maybe people instantly jump to adding a few books about Black and Brown people to their curriculum and believe they have “done the work”, but have never examined their policies, their processes, their communication, etc. They have never taken a critical look at the actual oppressive structures that are K-12 public education. They never realize that the systems and structures they uphold daily are not at all inclusive. If we're not looking at the structural things, then we could be the nicest people in the world, and kids could absolutely love school and real harm could still be happening at the same time. Without focusing on systems change, you can do all of the equity work and simultaneously cause harm. This is the work that is hard because it’s public. It means getting the community on board. It means having to be outward and open about the commitment to the work. It means standing on our why and affirming that in every aspect of the school community including hiring and retention, fiscal planning and resource allocation, facilities, staffing, community partnerships, etc. It is more than just curriculum changes. 

RE-Center: Can you describe for us what advancing equity and racial justice means to you?

Keturah Proctor: This means transformational change for me. It means actually dismantling systems that are oppressive and marginalizing. It means creating what is yet to be. It means an outward rejection of the status quo and focusing on creating something new, because what is existing does not serve all students. Advancing equity and racial justice means centering Black student excellence in schools and not being scared to proclaim that openly. It means elevating the voices of students to co-construct the learning experiences. It means understanding the historical impact of the role of Indigeneous folx and Black folx in shaping every aspect of this country. It also means being very clear about rejecting white supremacy culture and openly saying we are done diminishing our humanity in order to fit the mold of what is ‘proper’ or ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’. We are done shedding pieces of our humanity. We are full and complete first and advancing equity means seeing the whole person, the whole human first. See me. See our students. See their families as full and complete first. 

RE-Center: What are some of the ways this work looks across the school district as a system?

Keturah Proctor: The work is evidenced by the creation and adoption of our district equity policy, the recruitment and retention of BIPOC staff, monthly professional learning workshops that solely focus equity and racial justice, data collection and analysis of the climate of our district, and curriculum audits and revision to ensure that our instruction isn’t oppressive or marginalizing. I think that sometimes we get stuck at a level where we are afraid to even attack the systems work, because we feel like it's too enormous and too big, and that those structures have already been in place for so long. If you want sustainable change that is transformational, then a total overhaul of the system is necessary. 

RE-Center: What advice you have for educators, rolling into this school year, and I'm thinking both about folks who have been really trying to apply a racial equity lens in their space, with or without the support of their administrators, and folks that are like at the beginning of their journey, trying to find their way in. 

Keturah Proctor:  Someone once asked me why does this work matter to me, and I paused and thought: How could it not matter? Knowing your ‘why’ and really understanding the purpose of your work is essential. It is solidifying in your heart the fuel that gets you going every single day. Know in your heart, “this is why I'm doing this.” 

I also think that folks have to be in connection with other people so you have to find a network. You have to find people who believe what you believe, who understand what you're going through. And that's not easy to do, but I think nowadays, because we have a new virtual form of connection that wasn't as readily available before, those instances and those connection points are happening a little bit more. I think folx can use social media as one tool to move back into your purpose, but also to put you into connection with folks who are also navigating the same things. 

And then you definitely have to use the power of the relationships that you have with folks in your learning community- students, fellow staff members, parents and community members. I think people really have to look outside of their classroom spaces and go into the actual community, and find actual people that you can connect with, and that can help to give you some insulation in terms of doing this work moving forward. I have an excellent community that has openly said, we stand around you. They are in front of me, on the side of me, and behind me. They're everywhere. The elders in my community have already experienced acts of oppression and discrimination, and they have a different lens as to how to navigate that. I saw how they use the power of the collective to come together. So, folx involved in this work must understand the power of the collective and get in connection with others to harness that power. And I would also say that you definitely have to find a way that you're taking care of yourself. This work is really intense, and you can have really bad days and it can feel really really lonely. I think that you have to find how to preserve your wellness. Be clear about how you show yourself that you love yourself. You have to find a way to ensure that there's still joy that lives in your life. And then lastly, just stay connected with kids, you gotta stay rooted with young people all the time. And if your work is taking you farther and farther away from that, then you're not doing the work. Young people are LIFE. They are EVERYTHING. You have to stay connected to young folx and let them lead. Step away from power and control and just let them be. Their brilliance and excellence is already there. 

RE-Center: Recently, some significant pushback has surfaced in Elmsford UFSD and there have been public displays of racist comments being hurled at community members speaking at Board of Education meetings. What is the way forward?

Keturah Proctor: The way forward is being honest, transparent and open about who we are as a district.  The way forward means starting with healing and repair to the community because harm was committed. It means being clear about our Equity Policy and the District Equity Team Recommendations and the outward commitments we made to our community in those documents. At the Rally for Justice in June 2020, promises were made to center and protect Black students. In April 2021, an equity policy and recommendations were put before our board of education and were voted on and approved. We collectively agreed this is who we are as a district. Nothing has changed. None of that is negotiable. So, intense healing, learning and unlearning MUST happen continuously because we cannot operate with one set of principles on paper but another set in practice. That only breeds toxicity and harm. The way forward is through continuing to uphold our commitment openly  and outwardly confronting anyone that seeks to operate outside of what was collectively agreed upon. 

RE-Center: Any final offerings for folx who are thinking about Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Practices in action and systems change work like what you have offered?

Keturah Proctor: In closing, I really want others to understand that this work is ongoing, continuous and messy. You have to be willing to learn while being actively engaged in the work. You have to commit to admitting your shortcomings and being honest about your power and privilege. This is personal work. This is heart work. This is not just what you do in your classroom, it is how you live your life. People will be able to know your outward commitment to equity and racial justice based on your actions, not just your words. You have to be steadfast in your commitment and be rooted in your ‘why’. Be bold, be courageous and reject this antiquated, racist, oppressive system. Create what is yet to be!!!! 

Keturah is a Racial Justice Strategist & Coach Consultant with RE-Center Race & Equity in Education. Hear more from Keturah here:

Strategies for Embracing Anti-Racist Work in Our Classrooms

You made it. Barely, but you made it | Keturah Proctor

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