As a leader in your school community, what can you do that will really make a difference? Maybe this is a question you consider every day. Or, with so much always going on, it could be something you haven’t consciously thought about in a while. Either way, here’s a suggestion that I believe will create positive change at your school, just like it’s doing at mine: Encourage and embrace a journey in diversity, equity, and inclusion programming.
The key here is “journey” and not just an isolated plan or initiative. People usually look forward to journeys, while they tend to be apprehensive about new policies. Additionally, progress in DEI shouldn’t have a destination or a finish line, but it should continue as a means for real and lasting improvement. Make DEI work a perpetual journey intended to bring together students, parents, faculty, staff, administrators, and alumni. It’s not a competitive race that creates winners and losers.
At this moment in history, your reaction to the idea of DEI programming might be skepticism or angst. There’s no denying that schools have become the settings for intense debates about a variety of controversial issues. Why wade into choppy waters, especially right now?
Well, these debates underscore exactly why DEI efforts are so important. As leaders, we must cultivate environments that allow for challenging and sometimes uncomfortable conversations. We need a larger tent to celebrate our differences, not ever-increasing small ones that trap us in our fixed ideas.
Here are six strategies that I hope will encourage and support work in your school:
1. Appoint a DEI point person but invite others to help
To keep your efforts on course, it’s good to hire or appoint someone to spearhead your school’s DEI framework and measure goals. At the start, not all people in your school will be rowing in the same direction on DEI work, so you need a captain of the boat to set the pace and path. Beyond a point person, though, it’s critical to get buy-in from all school groups. Naming DEI ambassadors is a great way to promote awareness, while simultaneously spotlighting individuals who are invested in the programming. These ambassadors can be part of a DEI committee that helps design a calendar of diversity-related activities throughout the year.
2. Hold student forums
Giving students a voice in DEI work is an incredibly important part of the puzzle. Students deserve a say in their school’s climate. First, allow students opportunities to gather to discuss DEI topics and events. This could be done in tandem with student-government leaders. Second, make certain that these forums are safe spaces, with a group norm of respect, where students can speak freely. These need to be no-judgment zones, and sometimes it is helpful for adults to cede the floor entirely to students. The focus should be on empathic listening and guided discussion. Another thought: Hold forums where students can ask questions of staff and administrators. These can be “ask us anything” sessions, or they can be focused on a specific topic, like curriculum review or highlighting the contributions of marginalized groups.
3. Infuse training with opportunity for self-reflection
Host DEI self-reflection sessions to reach your learning objectives. In this structure, you present information—maybe the difference between equality and equity or cultural labels that are insensitive—and encourage participants to evaluate their own views. Similar to student forums, these periods should be nonjudgmental and not accusatory. They challenge people to grow within themselves.
4. Don’t treat bias like a dirty word
Regardless of race, gender, age, or background, we all have biases. “He’s gay so he won’t be good at football,” someone might say. When we normalize discussions about biases and habits of our minds, we decrease defensiveness and, instead, generate awareness. Shaming, on the other hand, can cause people to cover up their true thoughts or behavior. Once people begin recognizing their biases, they can start eliminating harmful thinking. And the goal should be continuous improvement—not immediate perfection.
5. Figure out how to track progress
Schools need to determine what areas to measure and track for success. Questions about feelings of inclusion and belonging should be part of engagement surveys. Establish benchmarks and then compare results over time. Progress might be slow at first, but after a while, there will be breakthroughs.
Once people begin recognizing their biases, they can start eliminating harmful thinking.
6. Adjust, lean on others, and don’t quit
Within every organization, there will be skeptics who openly oppose DEI efforts or resist programming. Despite them, keep going. Ask for, provide, and accept feedback. The best idea you get might be from your harshest critic. As the DEI point person in my school, I’ve also learned it’s helpful to build and frequently tap into a network of DEI leaders in education. Lean on them for advice—I’ve found my colleagues more than willing to share insights and be a sounding board.
Our children are watching. They want to learn. What are we teaching them about cultivating and appreciating diversity, striving for equity, and creating social spaces where everyone feels included? What can children teach us about these same subjects? Your DEI journey will surely have rough roads and detours, but every step your school takes will be invaluable to our children and their futures. Take that first step now.
A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2022 edition of Education Week as How to Promote Diversity And Inclusion at Your School