Leading for Equity: 5 Steps from Awareness to Commitment - ASCD
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April 11, 2019

Leading for Equity: 5 Steps from Awareness to Commitment

Equity-centered leaders transform their schools by first understanding the influence of their own identities, biases, and experiences.


We know two things about equity. First, it is measurable. Second, it is both a felt sense and lived experience. Therefore, instructional leaders must not only track metrics on equity issues in their schools, they must also use social-emotional learning to positively affect the culture within their schools. Beyond supporting instructional efficacy, we believe that the central focus of school leaders is to address issues of equity in a way that produces systemic shifts.

However, leaders are often left with little time to reflect on how their identity and experiences shape their approach to issues of equity. Without that awareness, leaders are constantly in a reactive state and are unable to understand how their biases affect their responses. As leaders, we can't disrupt inequities if we don't understand our relationship to them. We developed a five-step process to empower and support leaders as they take their self-reflective journey toward equity-centered leadership.


Step One: Name It

The first step is to reflect on and name our own experiences. By stepping outside of ourselves, looking back, and seeing our experiences with fresh eyes, it's easier to name them in ways that resonate with the experiences of others. When we work with leaders on this step, we ask them to create their own categories and labels for their identity and experiences. This shared list helps everyone see each other's lived experiences come to life in a succinct word or phrase that captures bias, emotion, and history. Participants identify things like gender, race, relationship status, cultural background, sexual orientation, generation, and job titles. These labels contribute to how we see the world and how the world sees us. Leaders must acknowledge, accept, and recognize these influences.

Step Two: Activate Self-Awareness

As equity-centered leaders, we must identify biases and assumptions to avoid the pitfalls of the systems we are trying to transform. In this step, leaders name their biases and reflect on how they affect their power, privilege, and behavior. Self-awareness isn't about feeling guilty about the power and privilege we hold or assuming that those with privilege are immune from hardship. Nor is it about feeling sorry for ourselves or pitying others. Self-awareness is an opportunity to recognize and call out experiences we've internalized, as well as understand when we move in and out of positions of power.

When we ask leaders to engage in this step, we have them share an experience where a bias or privilege has influenced their behavior. This step might be the most difficult. Although we can all readily admit that we have biases, naming them and laying their effects out in the open can be painful. But unless we can push ourselves and experience some discomfort, we can't move forward.

Step Three: Remember the Past

What lived experience has shaped your awareness of bias? We can peel back the layers of our prior experiences to find what insights they give us: How, where, or when did you experience a moment of stunned silence, vocal anger, a difficult conversation, or some other reaction to inequity that still sits with you today? What, if anything, do you want to do or have already done about it? When we connect to our story and dial into the insights, we are better prepared to build our counternarrative.

Step Four: Commit to Change

In her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, author Zaretta Hammond says that we each carry a set of narratives that act like software in our brains, telling us how to behave and react in different contexts. These narratives are often dominated by a master narrative, or society's notion of how things are and what it means to be a good member of society. (Historically, master narratives present a limited worldview; "good member of society" is narrowly-defined to replicate existing systems of power and privilege.) Hammond says everyone needs to be able to form a counternarrative, based on their identity and experiences, that rejects the misconceptions of the master narrative.

In this step, we ask leaders to construct a counternarrative that acknowledges how their experiences and identity inform their current actions, and that makes a commitment to act for equity. For example, a school leader might believe that student discipline can include other approaches, such as restorative justice, that are not based in a theory of punishment. This may conflict with the dominant narrative that students need to be punished in order to change their behavior.

Leading for equity and committing to an action means that you also commit to continual growth and reflection. We follow up with leaders over a six-month period to see how their counternarrative is holding up or has evolved. A leader who changed her thinking on restorative justice would commit to implementing a more equity-based discipline system.

Step Five: Schedule Self-Care

Leading for equity without self-care is not sustainable and will likely lead to frustration and burnout. Self-care starts with an honest assessment. If your health, personal relationships, or workload feel unsustainable, you know where you need to start. Leaders can practice self-care however they wish, as long as those practices are nonnegotiable. For example, Harvard University business professor Bill George writes that being mindful, regardless of the methods we use, helps us maintain clarity and passion for our work. Intentionally embed time for self-care in your calendar, honor that time and yourself, and know that the work of self-care ensures that you are here for your community for the long term.


Leading for equity requires us to focus on daily impact and long-term outcomes. As leaders, we have to examine our setting, whether it's our classrooms, office environments, community events, or other location, and create an environment where we are not simply "accommodating" (for example, hiring a woman of color, but expecting her to maintain the status quo); rather, we are transforming how we operate and acknowledging everyone's voices. We call this being an "equicentric" leader—a leader with equity at the core of their work. Equicentric leaders continually cultivate a deep understanding of their own biases and construct counternarratives so that they can create sustainable, equity-based practices that measurably and culturally transform their communities.

Being an equicentric leader is to be what UCLA professor of education Pedro Noguera calls a "guardian of equity": asking tough questions, challenging models that aren't working, and calling out inequities, even when it's uncomfortable. If we can learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, even when that discomfort is the awareness of our own biases, we can begin to challenge and change long-standing systemic inequities.

End Notes

Photo credit: Graphic courtesy of Robert Frost Design

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