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March 1, 2023
Vol. 80
No. 6

Leading a District Antiracism Journey

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After a grand jury report cited a pervasive pattern of racism and hate speech, a California school district took bold—sometimes uncomfortable—steps toward cultural change.

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EquityProfessional LearningLeadership
Leading a District Antiracism Journey
Credit: EMMA HANQUIST / IKON IMAGES
In the spring of 2021, the San Mateo Union High School District, a large and diverse district in the San Francisco Bay Area, was reeling from the pandemic as well as a grand jury report that detailed widespread racism and hate speech in its schools. District leaders were asking themselves, What would a bold, antiracist response to this situation look like? How can we create more equitable and inclusive schools, especially for students and educators of color?Rather than scheduling a few implicit bias trainings or appointing an equity committee, district leaders chose to invest in a multiyear initiative aimed at building the awareness and capacity of hundreds of educators to teach and lead with antiracism as a guiding principle.
The three of us—Julia Kempkey, San Mateo's assistant superintendent, and Shane Safir and Joe Truss as contracted leadership coaches—have been shepherding this change process. We have learned that the complex work of dismantling racism and systemic inequity doesn't follow a straight line; it's nonlinear, adaptive work that is best understood as a change journey with turning points that leaders must study and respond to strategically.

Five Principles for Leading an Antiracism Journey

At the heart of San Mateo's story is a piercing truth: the work of antiracism is about cultural change—shifting beliefs, mindsets, and ways of being and knowing. In other words, there is no antiracism policy, manual, or curriculum coming to save us; we can't mandate what matters. To transform legacies of oppression and harm into radical hope and inclusion, we must confront deeply held biases and behaviors at every level of the system. The following guiding principles, adaptable to other districts, can be used as a roadmap for leading similar systemwide change initiatives. These principles have emerged from both our real-time learning over the past 18 months and a deep well of research on complexity and change theories.

1. Build leadership among students, teachers, and administration.

An early turning point for San Mateo's district leaders was the realization that the traditional concept of leadership doesn't apply to antiracism work. This is not to say that those in official leadership positions can sit on the sidelines; it is crucial that leaders communicate the importance of the work and model the vulnerability and courage that it takes to push the system forward. The participation of San Mateo's superintendent and board members in districtwide professional learning was crucial in signaling that they were "all in."
However, this work required district leaders to shift and share power as a way to dismantle a hierarchical school system. That meant centering student voice. San Mateo's students were early leaders of this antiracism work. A passionate group of students coordinated a protest shortly after the murder of George Floyd and organized teach-ins for teachers and administrators. These young people were able to brilliantly articulate what the work meant to them and why it needed to happen.

There is no antiracism policy, manual, or curriculum coming to save us; we can't mandate what matters.

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As part of its antiracism initiative, the district collaborated with the Restorative Equity Partnership, through their Youth Catalyst Liberatory Leadership program, to train students throughout the district in core antiracist competencies: identity, freedom, liberatory leadership, and critical consciousness. Through this partnership, the district formed student equity councils that became sustainable structures for highlighting student voice and ensuring that the antiracism work remains, to this day, directly responsive to young people. The main purpose of these teams is to decrease the use of hateful speech among the student body while providing a vehicle for students to engage in equity projects of their own design.

2. Prioritize and model "looking in the mirror" to understand our identities, biases, and relationship to power and privilege.

As San Mateo entered one of the more challenging school years in recent memory in the fall of 2021, contact tracing, outbreaks, and the real threat of COVID loomed large; simultaneously, the district had acknowledged the harm of racism as another plague it needed to address. As counterintuitive as it sounds, we began our work by encouraging educators to slow down and reflect as individuals on their identities, biases, and relationship to power and privilege. In a series of five professional learning sessions, we worked with the district's 600+ educators on foundational competencies for antiracist work such as:
  • Developing the fluency to name inequities inside and outside of the classroom.
  • Cultivating empathy and gathering qualitative data from marginalized students.
  • Reflecting on teaching and leadership practices through an antiracist lens (and shifting practices based on emergent learning).
We asked staff to think about, and situate, their own lives and experiences in relationship to those of the students they serve.
This "slowing-down" leg of the journey can be uncomfortable, engendering a sense that we are not doing enough—fast enough or well enough—to make a dent in the harm of racism in our schools. In early workshops, we talked explicitly about the need to slow down and locate ourselves in the work—to understand our own identities and biases. We articulated the stance that antiracism work is culture-building work and therefore must be and feel different than routine professional development efforts. Although the emphasis on this kind of reflection, sometimes known as "mirror work,"  decreased across the year as the focus shifted toward practice, we continued to open each learning session with heart-centered, personal conversations that reflected a core belief: antiracism work emerges from our stories and requires us to navigate emotions and beliefs.
District leaders learned to continually communicate the "why" of antiracism in ways that wove in personal story and vulnerability without coming off as technical or performative. (For an example, see this early flyer on the initiative that was shared with all staff.) As one of our BIPOC colleagues reflected at the conclusion of the first year of learning:
We are getting more comfortable as a system, across the system, [using] words like white supremacy culture, antiracist, [and] white fragility. As a system that is made up of a lot of white teachers and staff, we are getting more comfortable talking about racism [and] normalizing the use of language that may have caused discomfort before.

3. Leverage affinity spaces to create identity safety and a protected zone for learning and reflection.

One major pitfall of racial equity development work is using a one-size-fits-all approach to adult learning. Often that "one size" is a white size, and we ain't all white. At the same time, mere mention of creating racial affinity spaces—groupings and conversations based on a shared racial identity—brings up fear and anxiety and is often met by resistance. Should we do this? Will it work? What will white folks say? Will there be pushback? What if …?
Our design team—Joe, Shane, Julia, and other district partners—could have succumbed to this discomfort and kept the content (the fluency building and reflection work) "light." We also could have used discussion prompts that put the burden on BIPOC educators to listen, yet again, to white folks' "new" reflections. A white-centered approach such as this can contribute to BIPOC educators' racial battle fatigue: "the cumulative result of a natural race-related stress response to distressing mental and emotional conditions" (Smith, 2004).
Instead, during our districtwide training, we regularly incorporated racial affinity-based discussions. First, participants opted into a Zoom room: one for BIPOC educators and one for educators of European descent. They were then migrated into breakouts with two to three participants each. As facilitators, we offered these small groups a reflection prompt and a structured protocol to ensure everyone had time to share. Often, we reconvened the breakouts into the larger racial affinity room to hear reflections on how the conversations felt and what insights were arising for participants. All 600+ educators participating in the yearlong learning series had the opportunity—and for many, the challenge—to experience racial affinity groupings multiple times.
These spaces enabled us to craft different prompts that aligned with a more accurate zone of proximal development for educators—stretching them at a just-right level. In addition, racial affinity spaces allowed for BIPOC educators and mixed-race educators to explore internalized racism and discuss the effects of systemic bias, free from possible expressions of white fragility, the white gaze, or white rage. A white affinity space also allowed for white educators to explore their susceptibility to internalized superiority and consider its possible impact on their teaching practices.
In these safe spaces, educators were able to unpack their racial identities, biases, and perspectives without judgment. This laid the foundation for folks to begin to change their relationship with students and, ultimately, change their pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment practices. In our end-of-year symposium, the culminating event of the professional learning series, teachers presented on dozens of shifts they were beginning to enact—including more inclusive grading practices, new ways of creating a welcoming classroom space, and conducting regular empathy interviews to understand student perspectives.

4. Stay the course and listen—centering voices from the margins.

Throughout the first year of the initiative, we aimed to model and teach the practice of deep listening each time we led a districtwide learning session. Drawing on Shane's book with Jamila Dugan, Street Data, we used each workshop to frame the importance of centering voices from the margins for the educators in attendance, demonstrating several ways to gather qualitative, ground-level data on the voices and experiences of students, staff, and families (Safir & Dugan, 2021).
For example, Shane modeled a one-on-one empathy interview with a transgender student of color who bravely shared his experiences in front of hundreds of educators. This student talked about the importance of teachers using students' chosen pronouns and confronting homophobic and transphobic comments in the classroom. After the session, district leaders asked teachers to conduct at least one empathy interview with one of their students. This invitation (it was not a mandate) generated blowback when a handful of teachers expressed concern that the district hadn't built in an Institutional Review Board (IRB) process to get formal permission from parents for teachers to talk to their students. This technical response to an adaptive ask—please take time to listen and learn from one of your students—could have slowed down the initiative mid-semester. But we continued to move forward, framing the empathy interviews as embedded in the work of teaching and learning rather than an add-on or an IRB protocol. A coalition of willing staff emerged at each site as the majority of teachers took the risk to do an empathy interview. Many were changed by what they heard.
In another professional learning session, we shared a video of a facilitated panel with three students who had transferred to the district's continuation high school. These courageous youth shed light on the subtle and pernicious ways that systemic racism had played out in the large comprehensive high schools that they had exited. They shared both the "push factors" of exclusion and lack of support that caused them to leave their big schools, sometimes unwillingly, and the "pull factors" of care, warmth, and belonging that they found at the continuation school. Hearing from some of the most marginalized students in the district was deeply moving for the educators assembled, as attested to in the survey feedback and comments we received.
The director of curriculum and assessment summarized this critical turning point:
We spend a lot of time with students on the margins every day, engaging with them on the schoolwork, but not really on the heart work or the listening work. [But] I think that the empathy interviews and Kiva panels really pushed us to transform. Because it's a personal connection … you can't ignore what a student tells you about their experience.
Through these experiences, we were changing the conversation in the district about and with students.

5. Decenter resistance and white fragility while lifting up BIPOC leaders and white co-conspirators.

Did it get hard? Yes. Was there resistance? Definitely. We could have given up. There were folks who were uncomfortable with our work, with the questions we asked, with the content, and especially with the words "white supremacy." The resistance sometimes came in a telephone game of who said what, through emails and chat comments. Sometimes it took the form of a survey response like this one: "I just don't feel right about this. I think we are alienating a large group of educators. We are creating division."
We could have centered those voices and the cognitive dissonance they expressed, which often happens in a change process. But we did not waver. We had a district commitment, a school board resolution, continued support from BIPOC educators, and—increasingly across the district—we had white co-conspirators, those willing to go beyond simple allyship to leverage their privilege to address racial inequities.

As we slow ourselves down to listen to the stories of our students, we shift our focal point and, gradually, our ways of being.

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During one whole-district PD session, we introduced an antiracist teaching rubric developed by Joe that unpacked the difference between, for example, assimilationist and antiracist pedagogical moves. Again, district leaders began to hear undercurrents of discomfort with the explicit nature of the rubric—the naming of common practices that often marginalize students. At the following PD session, we asked a white teacher—also an official in the local teachers' union—to model courage by sharing her reflections on using the rubric. She disclosed her early defensiveness and subsequent evolution to adopt the rubric as a tool to transform her practice, and she did it with vulnerability and poise. This was a key turning point, for staff in general, but for white teachers especially. Now it was not an outside consultant or a district leader leading the charge, but a rank-and-file educator. Afterwards, her colleagues applauded her bravery and began to engage in the same reflection of their own practices.

Shifting Mindsets, Beliefs, and Values

San Mateo's antiracism initiative has been a journey of reflection that continues to this day. Now, well into year two, we are focusing on coaching site-based professional development teams composed of teachers and administrators who are designing the initiative's next phase. Having spent the first year equipping the district with shared language and processes for antiracism, including elevating student voice, we are turning our attention toward building local capacity to sustain the work through more inclusive, culturally responsive teaching and leadership practices. We are also surveying students on the presence of hate speech or bias in schools to assess the impact of our work thus far. We do know, at least anecdotally, that there has already been significant cultural change in several of the district's high schools.
This journey has required grappling with what it means to take responsibility for the legacy and impact of systemic oppression in our schools. On the aspirational side, antiracism work like this is about "the radical possibility of 'choosing the margins'" of our classrooms and school communities "as a site of belonging as much as a site of struggle and resistance" (bell hooks in Smith, 2012). The margins are a source of cultural wealth and wisdom and a powerful lever for change.
As we invite educators to center voices from the margins and change their practices in response, they begin to alter their mindsets, beliefs, and values—their orientation to everything they do. As we slow ourselves down to listen to the stories of our students, we shift our focal point and, gradually, our ways of being. Through truth-telling and listening to those who've been silenced (and then taking action), we can create the schools we long for.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ How could your school or district strategically center student voice in its equity work?

➛ Have you ever facilitated or participated in a racial affinity space? If yes, what was the experience like? What are the risks and benefits?

➛ In what ways could you focus more on "street data" in your school or district? How might this help with equity efforts?

References

Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives6(3), ix–xi.

Safir, S., & Dugan, J. (2021). Street data: A next-generation model for equity, pedagogy, and school transformation. Corwin.

Smith, L. T. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Zed Books.

Smith, W. A. (2004). Black faculty coping with racial battle fatigue: The campus racial climate in a post-civil rights era. A long way to go: Conversations about race by African American faculty and graduate students14(5), 171–190.

End Notes

1 The metaphor of "mirror work" was coined by scholar Rudine Sims Bishop.

Shane Safir is an educator, leadership coach, and facilitator who has worked in public education for over 20 years. She is the founding principal of June Jordan School for Equity, author of The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for Equitable School Transformation (Jossey-Bass, 2017), and coauthor of Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation (Corwin, 2021).





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