Your equity team just might be inequitable
By: Natalie McCabe Zwerger
Your district or school-based equity team just might be inequitable. “How?,” you ask. We are convening community members! We are having courageous conversations! We are talking about things that have long been pushed under the rug!
That won’t be enough.
At a most basic level, if there are no students on your equity team, it is inequitable. If there is one tokenized student representative, it is inequitable. Your team should be flooded with youth whose brilliance will assuredly move the entire group.
If there are no family or community members on your equity team, it is inequitable. The school to home connection is at the heart of the work of this team. A team made up solely of district and school-based personnel will hold significant shadow spots on the impact of policy in practice and the reality of relationships. Your team should have elementary and secondary representation from the community and not just members of your PTA but members of parent and family advocacy groups, groups focused on uplifting the needs of BIPOC students, LGBTQIA+ students, students with disabilities, immigrant, undocumented, and unhoused students, and all students from historically excluded identities. Your team is best situated to include parents who will push the district to be more transparent, communicative, and committed to equity and racial and social justice.
Agency + power
Beyond the basics, the team must have agency + power. Without them, the team is inequitable. Asking students, families, and staff to pour themselves, their lived experiences and emotions, their brilliance into possible transformation of schools only to not take any of their “recommendations,” “advice,” or “offerings” is gaslighting. From the start, there must be a commitment from the Board of Education and district leadership to afford the team decision-making powers, to formally adopt recommendations made by the team, and to deeply engage with any and all findings from data reviews, equity audits, climate surveys, and community canvassing (formal and informal). At the heart of inclusion is a redistribution of power. You must define where and how this team will hold and live into their power. Writing and revising equity policies and all Board policies through an equity lens, crafting and reviewing strategic plans and school improvement plans are powerful influences that equity teams can have. Hosting community forums, town halls, teach-ins, talk backs, peer to peer training, and more ways to influence others can be super powerful. There is a tacit support built in when the district supports, shares space and agency, and affords all coordination and administrative support to the team in executing these types of events.
Form + sustainability
The equity team must be built into a Board policy or it is inequitable. If the team is given a shelf life or the long-term is reliant on one or a few dynamic district leaders who advocate for the work, then the viability of impact and the reality of sustainable infrastructure suffers. There should be a description of purpose, expected outcomes defined, and accountability baked into the formation. This might look like a commitment from the Superintendent and several Board members to attend each meeting, a regular calendar of engagement at public Board meetings, defined end of the year Board meeting presentation date, and markers set for discussions of disproportionalities in qualitative and quantitative data points over 3-5 years. A strategic plan for equity for 3-5 years is essential, but, in and of itself, can still be inequitable. Many districts have such a plan but only the authors know of its existence. The same goes for district policies. Often times administrators have no understanding of the accountability built into policies and plans. If administrators are unaware, we cannot assume staff are aware. What manifests is just performative paper pushing. When policies and plans are crafted, adopted, and revised, there must be public declaration of purpose, context, and implementation. How will the understanding reach all in the district who serve children? On what timeline? How will we assess for impact?
Many districts begin their work with an outside consultant (often, RE-Center!) that can be supportive to leverage research-based practices, align with state department of education and Board of Regents guidance, and push the district beyond its default comfort level. It is also a way to avoid pitfalls that have befallen other districts in this work. However, if your equity teams become too reliant on outside consultants, they are inequitable. Consultants must build internal capacity, coach up staff to lead, and support the building of sustainable ways to operate teams. This requires districts to be fully on board to compensate folx who take on additional roles like facilitating the equity team or co-facilitating with external consultants. It also requires that districts train and coach administrators to be aware of and on board with all that generates from the equity team. Communication and public transparency are essential. It is best to house equity team materials including agendas, focus areas, policies, plans, and student-led efforts on the district website. This must be updated regularly and resources should be shared with the entire district community.
The outcomes of your equity team might also be inequitable. If you only meet and build the internal capacity of members with no external-facing impact, it is inequitable.
If the team serves solely as an advisory or recommender with no deeper influence, it is inequitable.
Outcomes must include, but assuredly are not limited to:
- Centering the voices of youth by giving them space to: 1) fill the room with their brilliance, 2) guide the work of the team even if it takes us off the agenda, and 3) complement the work of youth leadership or equity squads that operate parallel to the equity team
- Drafting policy
- Creating curriculum
- Auditing curriculum
- Equity walks
- Offering professional development
- Analyzing data and setting goals that administrators are accountable to on a regular basis
- Administering and analyzing climate survey data
- Canvassing curriculum
- Speaking publicly (including writing public statements) on community issues and sociopolitical issues
- Recruiting and hiring more diverse staff to serve children and influencing the hiring process to be anti-bias, anti-racist
Most importantly, building an internal assessment mechanism will be essential such that when leadership changes of the team or district, there is an infrastructure in place from which we can measure how we are accountable.
If you ended up here a bit overwhelmed that is both understandable and required. Equity work is far too important to do performatively and without substance. The babies deserve better of us all.
Natalie is a white Puerto Rican, cis hetero non-disabled educator, advocate, non-profit leader, & mami with significant class privilege.