When Dena Keeling started her job as chief equity officer at Orange County Schools in North Carolina in 2019, she felt like there was a wave of enthusiasm for addressing inequities in schools.
Even with the disruptions brought on by COVID-19, Keeling was able to offer diversity training for staff and partner with organizations focused on racial equity work. But in spring 2021, when the national outrage against “critical race theory” surfaced in her district, she felt like her work started unraveling.
Over the past two years, Republican state lawmakers in 42 states introduced legislation to restrict conversations and lessons about race and racism in schools. In many cases, they mislabeled any lessons about the country’s history of racism or contemporary struggles with race as critical race theory, or CRT. Critical race theory is an academic framework explaining that racism is not just a result of individual bias or prejudice, but is also perpetuated by laws and policies. The academic theory, for the most part, is not directly taught in most K-12 schools.
The national uproar against critical race theory, however, resulted in many anti-racism and school district equity initiatives being banned or thrown into question in the 17 states that passed anti-CRT laws. Even in states that do not have these laws, local school board meetings were flooded by parents and community members who opposed teaching race, racism, sexuality and gender identity, or offering books that included those topics. Many districts were trapped between the push toward equity and fierce opposition from local parent groups.
One such district was Keeling’s former employer, Orange County Schools, in Hillsborough, N.C. Keeling, along with two of her chief equity officer peers in other school districts, spoke to Education Week about the backlash and criticisms they experienced on the job—opposition that heightened and at times made them feel unsafe when the anti-CRT movement began.
‘No one wants to go along with change’
Orange County is located near Durham, which is part of North Carolina’s Research Triangle. About 76 of the county’s population is white, 11 percent is Black and about 8 percent is Hispanic or Latino.
In September 2020, Keeling informed the district’s staff of her plan for an an “affinity space” to support Black employees following the Aug. 23, 2020, shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man in Kenosha. Wis., by a white police officer.
“An affinity space is a safe space where people who share an identity can talk and support each other through individual and collective healing,” Keeling wrote in an email, sent out by the school district’s public information officer. “It is not a space to organize around hate, instead the purpose is to reduce racial harm and increase harmony and community.”
The following March, an organization called Parents Defending Education filed a complaint against the Orange County district with the federal Office of Civil Rights, alleging that the district’s affinity group for Black staff was unlawful because it constituted segregation.
“As the Department of Education is no doubt aware, segregating on the basis of race at a public school has a long and unpleasant history in this country,” wrote Nicole Neily, the president of Parents Defending Education, in the complaint. “And we ask that OCR promptly investigate the allegations in this complaint, act swiftly to remedy unlawful policies and practices, and order appropriate relief.”
Keeling said the complaint caught her off guard. “But at the same time,” she added, “what I know is if you’re doing this correctly, there will be pushback, because no one wants to just go along with change.”
The complaint was eventually referred by OCR to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Raleigh, N.C., according to Neily. Neily sent EdWeek the response from OCR but did not respond to requests for comment.
What I know is if you're doing this correctly, there will be pushback, because no one wants to just go along with change.”
Over the past couple of years, Keeling has also dealt with right-wing groups, such as the Proud Boys, coming to school board meetings. There were emails from parents criticizing the development of gender support guidelines for transgender students undergoing transition (whom the emails called “disgusting”), and complaints against her to her superintendent and school board.
Once the backlash to critical race theory started, parents who were against equity efforts in North Carolina started making public records requests for emails between Keeling and equity officers in other districts, who supported each other professionally and discussed their work. Sometimes, those email exchanges among the equity officers were posted publicly in right-wing social media groups, she said.
“I feel like for most of us who are equity officers, we are people of color. Or we are people who sit in identities that have been marginalized,” she said. “So I think it does feel personal because I can’t disconnect from my identity. Every day I ask, do I feel like engaging in this fight? And some days, I don’t have the energy.”
This month, Keeling left her job at Orange County schools. She said she did not feel like she was able to do equity work anymore because she lacked support when she tried to pursue those initiatives following the national pushback to critical race theory, which she thought had made her district more cautious. Orange County Superintendent Monique Felder initially requested Keeling and her district be kept out of this article and twice declined to comment further.
Equity officers have a job to do
Equity officers in school districts are generally hired to change or institute policies and practices that make sure students who have been historically disadvantaged can get the same opportunities as their more-privileged counterparts. Many districts have had people who are responsible for this for years, but widespread use of the term “equity” and therefore people being hired as equity officers is more recent, and in large part can be attributed to the Black Lives Matter movement, said Meredith Honig, a professor of education policy, organizations, and leadership at the University of Washington.
“Many superintendents create these positions to elevate the importance of racial equity for work across the entire system,” she said.
“Part of it is symbolic, to say our work on equity is so important, it’s now a cabinet-level position. And a lot of the hopes behind it are strategic, that the people in these positions can leverage the kind of deep changes throughout district systems that really getting to educational equity are going to take.”
It’s hard to estimate how many equity officers there are in school districts across the country, but dozens of large districts employ someone to oversee diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Equity officers’ roles can encompass a wide variety of objectives, but to achieve their goals, they are often required to analyze and reform the systems within their districts that helped create racial disparities in students’ academic achievement and discipline.
Given support from district administrators and school boards, equity officers can build programs to make schools more equitable. This can include anti-racism training for staff, creating additional opportunities for historically marginalized students, analyzing achievement and other data to see where the opportunity gaps are, and writing and advocating for policies to address such gaps.
It can be an isolating job, both inside and outside their school systems. School staff and school community members often struggle with the idea that their policies, practices, and beliefs contribute to large gaps in opportunity and achievement between white and upper-income students and those who are Black, Hispanic, Native American, or come from lower-income families.
And as the national backlash against equity in education swelled over the last year, these difficult and often controversial jobs have become even more polarizing. A University of California, Los Angeles, report from 2021 that surveyed hundreds of educators and interviewed 21 school district equity officers found that many feared for their safety in light of the rising anti-equity movement.
“Part of it is what these people represent, and the national conflict around fundamental issues like who the school system should serve, whose knowledge matters, who actually has expertise and success,” Honig said.
“And so there’s that kind of symbolic component. And then there’s just a really practical component of what they’re asked to do, which is to interrupt the status quo.”
Education Week reached out to more than a dozen equity officers for this article, but only three agreed to talk. All three said they have faced public scrutiny for almost the entire time they have held their jobs. Two experienced pushback to their proposed policy and curriculum changes long before the national backlash to critical race theory, but all agreed that the slew of legislation restricting lessons and training about race and racism in schools has led to local pressure on their districts to back away from some equity measures.
In some districts, where superintendents and school boards have stood their ground and refused to roll back inclusion and equity policies, equity officers still faced a barrage of personal and professional attacks over emails.
“The work has become very political,” Keeling said. “And it didn’t feel like that when I first started.”
In districts where administrators have rescinded their support, it’s worse. Equity officers have found themselves unable to advocate for Black, brown, indigenous, LGBTQ, and special needs students in those districts, sometimes because of apprehensive district leaders, other times because of school board members that do not agree with their equity initiatives, according to the three officers who spoke with Education Week as well as the UCLA research.
“I believe that positions like mine are often tokenized and depowered, by way of folks just wanting to absolve themselves of their responsibility, which is a ruse,” said Shomari Jones, an equity officer in Bellevue, Wash.“I have many colleagues who have been put into positions where we hear ‘we want to give you this power, but once you start making change, we remove the ability for you [to do that.]’”
‘It is nothing new’
John Marshall has been a chief equity officer for the Jefferson County school district since 2012 in Louisville, Ky., a district with one of the longest-standing commitments to address racial inequities—in large part through a complex school assignment process meant to attain a diverse mix of students. Even still, he’s faced pushback since he started.
Jefferson County public schools in Louisville, Ky., sits in a country with a general population that is 70 percent white. The school system already had a policy in place that requires changes to make the curriculum more culturally responsive. The district also offers training for all district leaders, teachers, and principals on the policy in culturally responsive teaching and anti-racism.
Because of the curriculum policy, Marshall’s critics have not been able to dismantle much of the equity work within the district despite some parents’ complaints. At school board meetings or in letters to school officials, they accused the district of making white students feel ashamed of their heritage and forcing teachers to indoctrinate kids with critical race theory.
However, the slew of nasty emails and letters is nothing new to Marshall, who has been receiving them since he started working as the chief equity officer in Jefferson County 10 years ago. (In 2019, Education Week profiled Marshall for his innovative work on equity in its Leaders To Learn From special report.)
“There are equity officers that have been in this rash of vitriolic propaganda and harassment. It’s nothing new,” he said. “As we move forward with this whole critical race trend, it has worsened as far as to how it has impacted me and the work.”
Like Keeling, Marshall’s district has also received public records requests for communication between him and other district officials, he said.
Around 2014, Marshall and his team were trying to change the code of conduct when a student assaulted his daughter, who attends Jefferson County schools.
“This child, not understanding everything, approached my daughter and shoved her down and said ‘my dad says your dad is trying to make schools unsafe,’” he said.
Well before the CRT backlash began, Marshall found a Post-it note on his car that said, “Hope your brakes work.”
In districts where equity officers do not feel like the superintendent and district leadership is supportive of their initiatives, they not only have to face backlash, but also find it hard to advocate for racial equity within schools through policy, professional development, and training or curriculum changes.
Shomari Jones, an equity officer in Bellevue, Wash., said in recent years, his team of 17 had once included graduation success coaches, equity specialists, family engagement specialists and others who were shuffled to different departments by a former superintendent.
“Some of our work has been massively fragmented,” he said. “A superintendent prior to the present interim dismantled our equity movement from its center.”
Each of Bellevue’s 29 schools used to have an equity team, but now it’s up to each principal to determine whether that team exists, what it does, and how it pursues the equity and inclusion goals that all the teams once shared, Jones said. (Education Week profiled Jones’ work on equity initiatives in Bellevue in its 2019 Leaders To Learn From special report.)
Bellevue is a city of about 150,000 right next to Seattle. Its population is about 52 percent white, 37 percent Asian and 3 percent Black. The median household income is almost $130,000.
A few years ago, Jones first tried to get an equity policy passed, which was when the backlash against his work in Bellevue started, predating the national pushback against equity in schools.
“I had personal threats against me because of the work that I was doing to bring an equitable lens and an equitable response of our districts,” he said. “And that happened far before this unprecedented thing happened for many across our country.”
Even before the backlash against critical race theory and equity, Jones received continuous email threats telling him he needs to quit, be fired, and even calling him racist for doing equity work. At the board meetings that he is required to attend, some parents and community members have tried to question him.
Even outside school, people approached him at grocery stores and gas stations, trying to capture him on camera or voice recordings as they asked why he was trying to push for equity in Bellevue schools.
“It was a threat to my sense of safety in the community in which I live, which happens to be the same community in which I work,” he said.
Without the support he sought from his administration, Jones has begun reaching out to community members and organizations in Bellevue that are committed to equity in schools. That includes student advisory teams, family advisory teams and groups of Black parents and Latino parents who can counter the anti-critical race theory pressure other groups have been putting on the school board, he said.
Janine Thorn, the district’s chief communication officer, said she could not comment on the district’s support for all of Jones’s initiatives, but that the district was committed to improving educational equity.
“This work is always evolving as administrators continue to learn and engage in professional development and learning in order to implement equitable practices and methods across departments,” she said in an email statement sent in response to Education Week’s request. “The district will continue to find ways to increase learning for staff systematically and implement best practices for equity and inclusion across language, physical and learning abilities, ethnicity and culture, homelessness, and all other areas in which students and families may feel marginalized.”
Jones, for his part, said he never imagined “that becoming an educator would lead me to such a social justice experience.”
“I spend a lot of energy developing and galvanizing teams of leaders outside of those who receive a paycheck from our organization to be the voice of what change is necessary within our system,” he added.
‘Who am I to not keep going?’
All three equity officers are determined to keep going because of the impact they believe their work has on all students. Although Keeling has left her district, she now works in higher education in a similar capacity.
Last year, she said she intended to keep going for the students and families who have been historically disadvantaged by inequities in public education.
“Everything I do, it’s really about the students, the families, and the staff who are being pushed to the margins and silenced,” she said. “The only way that we begin to chip away at that is to begin to listen to those who are closest to those inequities, and begin to turn that around.”
To John Marshall, it’s a sense of obligation to serve his community.
“The threat to Black Lives, Black minds, Black brilliance, and Black progress has always been in existence,” he said. “I just need to determine if I wish to continue and although it is very taxing physically and mentally, who am I not to keep going?”
“Personally. I don’t see any other choice. I mean, if you stop, they win. If you keep going, they might win,” he added.
Jones also said he feels a sense of responsibility to continue doing equity work, because he is in a position to create change for disenfranchised communities, specifically his own. “As a Black male, I think it is my responsibility to pay it forward and reach out a hand to those who need my support. Because of the privilege that I’ve been offered,” Jones said.
“I think it is vital that I seek to because of that privilege,” he said.
Coverage of race, opportunity, and equity is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 17, 2022 edition of Education Week as Backlash, Hostility, and Safety Fears: What It’s Like To Be a Chief Equity Officer in the Anti-CRT Era