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Equity & Diversity Opinion

How to Thwart an Anti-Equity Agenda: Advice for Teachers, Administrators, and Families

Ignoring right-wing smear campaigns won’t make them go away
By Katy Swalwell & Noreen Naseem Rodríguez — April 18, 2023 5 min read
Illustration of a woman sheltering herself from online comments and social media posts.
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Coordinated, well-funded campaigns by conservative lawmakers across the United States are fast-tracking a radical agenda to shut down diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in schools. Book bans, rules for restroom and pronoun use, regulations against rainbow flags, restrictions on curriculum addressing race and gender, and other efforts fly in the face of facts, logic, democratic norms, and basic humanity. Even in areas with a liberal majority, it can only take one or two powerful parents to disrupt long-needed efforts for change.

As a result, educators committed to inclusive, equitable, information-rich schooling are asking: How can we avoid becoming targets for right-wing smear campaigns? What might get us in trouble with a zealous school board? What if we get fired—or even prosecuted? Should we quit rather than comply with a policy that hurts youth?

Even if we continue to teach in humane, loving, accurate ways regardless of reprimand or retribution, we must consider these questions. They are not irrational hypotheticals. Teachers have been asked to change their curriculum and disciplined or fired when they didn’t. Educators have been doxxed and harassed. Teachers have quit. These dilemmas are especially intense for Black, queer, and trans teachers, whose identities are currently under attack.

So, what do we do? There is no surefire, one-size-fits-all solution to navigating anti-equity campaigns, but we can find inspiration in the strategies of courageous, creative educators past and present.

Recommendations for educators

  • Connect with people who show up to support efforts that center marginalized students and communities, including members of local organizations and online networks.
  • Dedicate time for students to build the relationships of care and concern that make dehumanizing someone or jumping to conclusions less likely.
  • Create a clear process for students to raise concerns with you.
  • Engage students in primary-source inquiry, allowing them to draw their own conclusions to compelling questions. Couple this inquiry with lessons about critical media literacy and the civics of technology so their claims utilize credible evidence.
  • Connect your state standards to students’ questions and interests.
  • Know your content well enough to anticipate and plan for dilemmas that might arise—missteps are more likely when teaching a complex topic without a robust understanding of the material.
  • Review district policies and state legislation carefully so you can avoid the chilling effect of ill-informed or bogus interpretations of new rules.
  • Keep school leadership in the loop about your students’ engagement and success. This provides evidence if they need to defend you and gives them time to prepare for pushback.
  • Build trust by communicating with families about your appreciation for their child, what you’re doing, and why—not just when controversies arise.
  • When families, students, or colleagues raise concerns, seek to understand different perspectives rather than dismissing them outright—and document every conversation.
  • In consideration of your own health and well-being, know which lines you refuse to cross and have a plan should you get fired, quit, or risk legal action.
  • Draw inspiration from how educators and students (particularly those from communities of color and LGBTQIA+ communities) have responded to attacks like these with organizational networks, creative acts of resistance, walkouts, freedom schools, and more. Actively continue these legacies of what education scholars Jarvis R. Givens calls fugitive pedagogy and Harper Keenan calls fugitive learning.

Even the best, bravest educators in the world can only do so much if no one has their backs. Every single one of us has a role to play in helping make the work of educators less fraught and dangerous.

Recommendations for administrators

  • Develop a detailed plan for how to support and protect staff and students if they get targeted by community members, media, or lawmakers on the anti-equity bandwagon.
  • Remind yourself that it’s not all pushback. There has always been an incredible push for justice in schools that deserves your advocacy.
  • Educate staff about the political climate so they can be more proactive about the support students and colleagues in targeted groups need.
  • Confirm your commitment to equity and justice with clear plans. If staff ignore your initiatives, coach them up or out as you remind them of their professional responsibility to care for all students.
  • Celebrate and allocate resources for staff and youth defending educational equity.
  • Get creative with your leadership team about how to adhere to the letter of the law while leveraging loopholes in poorly crafted policy, such as laws against teaching that this country is systemically racist while simultaneously permitting instruction about racial oppression.
  • Have a backup plan for your own employment and know the line you will not cross. Fear of being fired cannot motivate our decisionmaking about children’s education.

Recommendations for families and community members

  • Ask young people what they need from you to feel safe and supported.
  • Support local and national organizations defending teachers and librarians’ efforts to make schools more inclusive and just.
  • Donate or request books at libraries from banned lists.
  • Organize advocates to attend and speak at school board meetings or legislative hearings using a prepared list of talking points to counter anti-equity agendas.
  • Support educators who refuse to comply with bigotry and ignorance.
  • Pool resources in a legal defense fund for educators in trouble for defying anti-equity policies.
  • Pressure your employers to take public stands against these bills.
  • If you can, launch a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of these laws and policies.

We opted not to list recommendations for students because they should never be in the position to defend themselves. And they don’t need our advice! Many are already strategically advocating equity and justice, organizing and building coalitions while too many adults stay silent.

Whatever we do, we cannot choose to ignore this moment or shrink from scrutiny. That will not make these problems go away. It simply offloads them onto the shoulders of youth. And of any of the options before us right now, that is the least conscionable.

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