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January 12, 2022

Q&A: Baruti Kafele on Leading for Equity

In its most simplistic definition, equity is "meeting young people where they are, as they are."
Q&A: Baruti Kafele on Leading for Equity (thumbnail)
Credit: SMART Productions, Inc.
Baruti Kafele is the author of six ASCD bestsellers, including The Equity and Social Justice Education 50: Critical Questions for Improving Opportunities and Outcomes for Black Students (2021). Kafele will be presenting at the upcoming ASCD Virtual Leadership Summit. Plan to attend his session “True School Equity” on January 18 from 1:00-2:00 pm ET. 

1. How can leaders support students, especially students of color, in overcoming the challenges they face being back to school in-person? 

A lot has changed since the onset of Covid as it relates to young people of color. You have to think about the inherent differences in terms of the reality between children who are born into privilege and children who are not—and what many of those resulting dynamics look like at home, in the neighborhood, etc. 
So, in the case of young Black children, here they were returning to school after two years and we just go right into math and science and language arts and social studies. But emotionally, socially, and academically, a lot of young people weren’t ready to just abruptly jump into subject areas . . . there was a need to get reacclimated to school—the purpose of school, the structure within the school, all those dynamics. And in so many cases that wasn’t considered because of this perceived learning loss. And I say the word perceived here deliberately. 
Now we are seeing the outcomes of this all over the country: exhausted teachers, undesirable behaviors in children, lack of motivation, etc., because we didn’t approach their return to the building correctly. Social-emotional learning should have been a priority, in particular for the population I’m talking about, before we dove right into the academics.  

2. On equity, you’ve said, “Let’s get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” What do you say to leaders who may be hesitant to address equity, to the point that they don’t take action? 

First and foremost, it is unacceptable for the leadership to be uncomfortable with equity. When we look at the most simplistic definition of equity, as it relates to the context of school, equity is meeting young people where they are, as they are. So, if I'm a leader and I'm uncomfortable with equity in that context, then what am I doing in the capacity of leadership? I can't be uncomfortable with equity when it’s phrased that way because that's just great teaching. That's all it is. It's great teaching.  
What I would say to the leader is, as best you can, detach yourself from media-based connotations and other outside-of-media connotations of what equity is and root yourself in what it actually is: meeting young people where they are, as they are. And then begin to broach the conversation with staff, letting data be the backup. Say, “As we look at our data and disaggregate our data by race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, special needs, language, etc., what is the data screaming out to us?” The data, more than likely in a diverse school, is saying to the leadership and to the staff that we are not equitable in terms of our results, which probably speaks to our actions. Let the data speak, because the data is not going to lie.  

3. What will it take for schools to see real change in terms of equity?  

Leadership will have to take the bull by the horns and begin to galvanize the staff toward a common vision, common mission, and common goals around equity. So, it’s not just a principal or teacher thing, it’s an us thing. This is who we are. This is our collective identity: we are about bringing forth equitable policies and practices within our school.  

4. When trying to transform the climate and culture of a struggling school, what would you say is the most important task a leader can do each and every day?  

I talk to leaders on a weekly basis, sometimes daily. And the first thing I say to them when talking about a school in need of cultural transformation is that you need to operate the same way that an athletic coach would operate with a team. On game day, the coach says the final words before the team marches out onto the field, the court, the diamond, the ice. Whatever the sport, the head coach—not whomever the coach designates, but the head coach—always has the final word. So, I would look at my school and think: Every day is game day. Every day I have an opportunity to excel. 
Looking at it that way, as a coach, what would your words be to your school, your student body? In so many cases, I come across principals who have nothing to say, so they don’t say anything. School just begins. Students enter school and go to homeroom or first period, but we don't hear what’s on the mind of the head coach, meaning the principal.  
Before school starts, the head coach must say something to fire up the student body; to bring about a feeling of upliftment, a feeling of inspiration, and a feeling of motivation that sets the tone for the day. 
Students need to hear a positive message first thing because they might be coming from a home where those kind of messages are never uttered.
This interview has been edited for space.  

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