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May 22, 2023
ASCD Blog

Taking a Stand as a Leader of Color

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When it comes to supporting students, neutrality isn’t an option.
LeadershipEquity
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“This is inspiring and overwhelming.” 
“I love my job and I need to keep my job.”  
“I want to do this but I’m not sure how in our current climate.” 
These are the kinds of comments I receive from education leaders when they are presented with the Archbishop Desmond Tutu quote, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”  
I spend a lot of time facilitating training on culturally responsive leadership for school and system-level leaders. These groups are often composed of racially diverse leaders, but the reaction to this quote tends to be deeper and more conflicted from those with a minoritized identity. It often feels to such leaders that they are walking on a tightrope. They experience biases based on their identities that can stifle their voices and agency, and work within a system that is not designed for them to succeed. As a result, it can seem nearly impossible to make decisions in the best interests of the students and community they serve.  

Individual strategies only move individuals; collective strategies move systems.

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As a Black woman and former school leader, I understand these circumstances. But advocating for change doesn't mean we have to engage in job-compromising grand gestures. To all education leaders—but specifically to leaders of color—who are hesitant to take a stand when they see injustice experienced by students, know that any action, no matter how small, can make a meaningful difference. Some of us are going to call people out and lay down in the streets to take a stand for students. Others are going to call people in and work within the system to make slow, calculated moves. And there are many of us who will respond somewhere in between. None of these tactics and approaches to fighting injustice are wrong. The only thing wrong is doing nothing—and not working together. The person laying in the streets should be talking to the person at the leadership table so that their approaches can be supportive of one another. Individual strategies only move individuals; collective strategies move systems.  

Taking Steps Toward Liberation

For my book Leading Within Systems of Inequity in Education: A Liberation Guide for Leaders of Color (ASCD, 2023), I talked with more than 30 equity officers and principals of color and asked them what they did not just to survive in their school systems but to thrive. This resulted in the development of 10 competencies leaders of color can embody to successfully lead in school systems. One of these competencies is “taking a stand.” Taking a stand means doing away with neutrality and instead taking a perspective that will bring about the drastic change necessary to create a liberatory education system.  
A liberatory education system supports the full participation of each human and the promotion of their full humanity in all aspects of their education (Love et al., 2008). Every leader I spoke with took a stand in their school communities to ensure minoritized populations were receiving the access and opportunity necessary for them to receive a high-quality education. As a result, they experienced resistance. However, they leaned on several strategies that helped them persevere. We, too, as education leaders—specifically leaders of color—can lean on these strategies to move through resistance toward liberation for the students, staff, and communities we serve.   

1. Always Be a Teacher  

Most of us leaders started in the classroom. It’s a role we never forget and one we can leverage, especially in charged environments. One of the leaders I interviewed, Tommy Welch, an equity officer in a medium-sized school district in Georgia, leaned on his teaching experience to educate the community about certain equity-related acronyms and language. He explains,  
In our spaces, yes, there have been people showing up at board meetings [to express disapproval of initiatives that they believe teach critical race theory (CRT)]. I think the first step that we have taken is educating people on the difference between Culturally Responsive Teaching and Critical Race Theory. We ensure that they understand what a legal term is and what’s an approach to instruction. (Rice-Boothe, 2023
Through school-based meetings, board meetings, and individual conversations, Welch regularly defined the terms Culturally Responsive Teaching and Critical Race Theory. Now there is shared understanding, and the community can direct their energy away from misconceptions and toward ensuring that all students receive a culturally responsive education. 

2. Stay Connected to the Community  

“The people closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” said civil rights activist Ella Baker. Every leader I interviewed spoke about having a committee, coalition, or advisors that they partnered with and valued as confidants. These trusted advisors provided a valuable and relevant perspective. This ensured that these leaders were taking a stand for the most pressing issues and concerns that were preventing students from receiving a quality education. I was a high school principal for several years, but I wasn’t a principal during COVID. So, I know that if I wanted to take a stand in support of principals, I would need to speak to principals who are currently in the role to understand their context.  

3. Be Systematic  

Being systematic is not easy because it takes time to look at an issue from all angles and perspectives. It is not what people are looking for when they want immediate solutions or approval—but being systematic is effective. Another leader I interviewed, Harold Miller, was part of a four-person team leading the equity office in a large school system in Massachusetts. His team worked collaboratively to develop a tool that is now used across the district in making decisions. This tool provides a process, including a set of questions and data analysis connected to the decision, to ensure that multiple viewpoints from across the community are collected and considered before any districtwide decision is made. Everyone has an opportunity to take a stand and provide their input. 

4. Recognize Intersectionality 

A final strategy is ensuring that when you are taking a stand it is not to the detriment of some minoritized students and communities. Tommy Welch explains,  
I'm not an advocate for one child, I'm an advocate for all children. So, I must make sure people know I'm an advocate for all students. No matter your gender, your sexual orientation, your religion . . . whatever the student brings to the table, they need to feel like they belong and [are] accepted because of who they are. (Rice-Boothe, 2023
Advocating for inclusive language, for example, can include use of pronouns and home language. There doesn’t have to be a focus on just gender expression or just multilingualism. One action can and should support multiple needs and communities.  

One action can and should support multiple needs and communities.

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Lead Bravely

In today’s climate, it may feel like too great a risk to take a stand. However, our students need brave leaders if we are going to truly change the education system. Our students do not have the luxury of time. No matter what combinations of strategies you utilize, I urge you to talk to your colleagues and work together in pursuit of a liberatory education system.

Leading Within Systems of Inequity in Education

A guide for leaders of color to overcome obstacles and create the path to genuine equity in schools.

Leading Within Systems of Inequity in Education

Mary Rice-Boothe, EdD, has more than 25 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, principal coach, curriculum designer, and equity officer. She currently serves as an executive director of curriculum development and equity at The Leadership Academy. In this role, she oversees the organization's internal and external equity strategy. Rice-Boothe is also the lead designer for the organization's instructional tools and resources.

Rice-Boothe began her career in education as a high school English teacher in East Harlem. She holds a BA in Metropolitan Studies from New York University, an MA in English and English Education from the City College of New York, and a doctorate in Leadership and Organizational Change from the University of Southern California.

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