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November 8, 2021

DEI in Action: Moving From Hope to Change

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School Culture
DEI in Action: Moving From Hope to Change (thumbnail)
Credit: Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
In response to the murder of George Floyd last year, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s Board published a resolution endorsing the district’s aim to develop an antiracist school system. Inside, I seethed. It was not the sentiment that made me angry, but the undeniable fact that under the current system, we profoundly lacked the ability to achieve this elusive, antiracist goal. Cultivating an antiracist school would require staff training on bias, evaluation of inequitable systems, and the capacity to engage in an honest dialogue on race. We were not there.
As a white elementary and middle school principal, I have led equity-focused initiatives many times. It’s the work I value most. But often, such isolated efforts to address systemic racism focus on racist actions, not the underlying issue: In many of its accepted practices and structures, our educational system hurts our kids of color. I, along with my colleagues, decided we would no longer be complicit in such a system. But we needed help.
My wife (a fellow principal) and I reached out to two respected colleagues and consultants, Reena Doyle and Gail Watts. We then gathered a group of middle school leaders in our district who we knew would be courageous enough to challenge, dismantle, and reimagine our inherently racist system.
We—the newly named DEI Change Group*—spent the next year meeting twice a month to design and implement a plan to educate our community on diversity, equity, and inclusion. We presented it to the board last spring and, after a good reception, were charged with continuing our work and presenting it to the board again for the adoption of our plan's DEI definitions, litmus test, and education campaign.  Rather than looking for a silver bullet, we sought to adopt a DEI lens through which we could evaluate our system—whether looking at curriculum, parent involvement, discipline, grading, or a myriad of other school functions.
This shift from the adoption of short-term practices and programs in reaction to racist actions toward a vigilant journey that considers diversity, equity, and inclusion in everything we do wasn’t easy. Here are some of the things we did and lessons we learned.

Know your why and share it. 

Knowing your why as an educator of diverse students is essential. As a principal, my why reveals my core values and sheds light upon how and why I make the decisions I do. Whys change over time. My most recent iteration of my why is this:  
I have a background in elementary school and have witnessed firsthand how students can take a turn for the worse over time. I know that our system is culpable for snatching the smiles from BIPOC (black, Indigenous, and people of color) faces. It hurts my heart and motivates me to take a disruptive stance as a school leader. 
As a group, we came up with a common why:  
Our system, by design, hurts BIPOC students. We will no longer be complicit.  
Know your why and develop an organizational or collective why. This effort becomes not another thing to check off a list, but the lens through which you see and operate. 

Develop DEI definitions. 

It is so important to come to an agreement on DEI definitions and define a common language. Without understanding the subtle differences in terms, people will coopt the language to meet their individual needs. For example, many folks confuse the term equality with equity. They might assume everyone faces the same challenges to learning and call for every student to be given the same resources and attention. That’s equality.
This is our DEI Change Group’s definition of equity:  
Equity exists when there is an equal opportunity for success by removing real or perceived barriers. Resources, opportunities, and supports are leveraged to address the gaps that are a result of systemic inequalities. 
Our district’s definition goes beyond the commonly seen image of kids standing on different sized boxes to see over a fence (see below). This image of equity shows each child getting what they need.
Source: Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire. 
We, the DEI Change Group, are making a call to tear the fence (barrier/obstacle) down altogether. Our definition above not only calls for meeting individual needs, but also for acknowledging and addressing the harm caused by our inherently unjust system. 

Use a DEI litmus test to ensure equity and consistency in decision making and policy. 

This is a tangible and powerful process for evaluating and disrupting school systems. Here are the questions our DEI Group developed to evaluate current programs or potential initiatives through a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • Is it good for kids?
  • Does it benefit some kids at the expense of BIPOC students?
  • Is it sustainable?
My school’s staff used this litmus test, for example, to evaluate an accelerated English class offered in 8th grade. We initially designed the course to prepare students for high school honors English. However, our assessment data revealed that the tracking negatively and disproportionately impacted our BIPOC middle school students. So, we stopped offering the class. And at the same time, we focused on filling gaps in our system that addressed the issue of kids not being prepared for honors English. We implemented an independent reading workshop for all students to strengthen reading comprehension and nurture a love for reading. Now we better support all kids, whether or not they choose to go down the honors English path.   
My middle school staff uses this three-question litmus test regularly: From looking at school trips to scheduling parent events to curriculum design to the master schedule to extracurricular activities and more. As principals, we have given our school staff permission to pump the brakes and apply the DEI litmus test to anything and everything they do. 

Disrupt and Reimagine

This, of course, is not an exhaustive list of what can or should be done to create and foster an antiracist system. But these three strategies have yielded immediate results (for example, in the form of a revamped honor society), for my school at least in terms of a shift in culture.
Our educational system is perfectly designed to get the results we get. And those results often work for our white students at the expense of our BIPOC students and families. To change these results, we must disrupt and reimagine the system. Taking disruptive actions through a DEI lens can help us shift from hope to change. 
*DEI Group Members: Melisa Andino, Vy Andrew, Martha Chacon, Florence Culpepper, Joseph Eure, Darci Keleher, & Patrick Miller.

Steven Richardson has been working in Title I schools in Southern California for nearly 25 years. He has spent most of his career as an elementary and secondary principal. His social justice journey was sparked by equity-minded parents and nurtured by UCLA, talented colleagues, and of course his thousands of students over the years. 

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