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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Equity & Diversity Opinion

What I Learned About America’s Enslavement of People Shaped My District’s DEI Efforts

The journey to the Legacy Museum fostered a life-changing perspective
By Charles V. Khoury — February 20, 2023 6 min read
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As the superintendent of a board of cooperative education services (BOCES), I was deeply concerned when I received an affirmative-action complaint from a Black teacher alleging that she had been harassed by a white colleague. Although an outside investigator determined there had been no harassment or other wrongdoing, I found myself wondering if there was something I had missed in my own biases or those of my staff that made our organization less welcoming to people of all backgrounds than it could be. My search for answers led both me and my leadership team to drastically change how we approach diversity, equity, and inclusion in our BOCES.

Learning to Level-Set

When I don’t understand something, I tend to do a lot of reading to figure out what I am missing. In this process, I came across an article in the Harvard Business Review about Mike Kaufmann, the CEO of a health organization who had been in a similar position before he pushed his company to become one of the leading DEI proponents in their industry. People of all races and backgrounds are now eager to work there because of the hard work they’ve done to be a genuinely welcoming and inclusive workplace.

In this article, Kaufmann talked about how their journey began with a trip by his leadership team to Montgomery, Ala., to visit the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. He described the visit as a game-changer for his team because it helped him understand the challenges faced by the Black people on his team that he wasn’t even aware of. This new awareness helped him take the next critical steps to move the team forward.

I realized that we all have baggage about questions related to DEI. We all have unique perspectives shaped by our own life experiences, filtered through our own identities and positions of privilege in an unequal world. We’re all coming from different places. Perhaps, though, sharing a common experience would allow us to level-set so that our conversations could begin from a shared understanding. I hoped that a similar trip to Montgomery could serve as that level-setting experience for my own team.

Our Trip to Montgomery

We contracted with a company called Rethinc, which helps organizations improve their DEI efforts through a discovery, planning, and team-building process. While you can never really leave behind your role as the leader of an organization, I thought it was important that I be a participant in this process rather than the leader.

I then invited each of our 11 board members to join us. Three were able to accept, though one was unable to join us due to contracting COVID before the trip. My senior administrative team also came on the trip, though my deputy superintendent, Jonah Schenker, was unable to be there because of a family illness. Ultimately, 10 of us traveled to Montgomery together.

The trip began with a homework assignment: reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “A Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I used to be a history teacher, so I’d read the letter many times before, but this time one paragraph—the one where he writes, “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never’”—came to live in my heart. Here we were, 60 years later, and we are still asking people to “wait” for justice and equality. But my leadership team and I were now actively working on this; maybe the “Wait” within our own organization was just a matter of time.

I began learning more almost from the moment we arrived. I didn’t know, for example, that 2 million kidnapped Africans died on the journey here. The fact that 2 million people didn’t even make it here puts the magnitude of the horror of slavery into an entirely new perspective.

One day, after having lunch by the river, we were walking back to the hotel through a tunnel and chatting casually. One of the tour guides told us all to be quiet so we could “hear the voices.” I asked what she meant, and she said the wharf at the end of the street was where the slave ships came in. The slaves were walked through this tunnel from the wharf to the auction block. From then on, no one said a word. I couldn’t stop thinking of how many people saw their children or their spouse for the last time as they walked that tunnel to emerge into an unknown and terrifyingly violent new reality.

It was so powerful. I can’t imagine going through that experience and not having a change of perspective.

Future Plans

The whole idea of the trip was to bring key people together to level-set and then develop a plan for moving forward with our DEI work. But as we went through the experience, I realized that while some of the right people were in the room, many people were not there who needed to be. We began planning another trip for right after Thanksgiving with all the principals and the union leaders who are in student-based programs in the BOCES. This trip just concluded and was likewise a profound journey of discovery for those participants, this time including my deputy superintendent. This spring, there will be a third trip for teacher leaders, board members, and other members of our staff-based DEI initiative.

These subsequent trips will be similar to our first one; my human resources director and the head of our DEI initiative will be the leader, rather than someone from Rethinc. I think these groups will also spend more time in the Legacy Museum and less time in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This summer, we will bring all three groups together to turn our experiences into policies and initiatives that will strive to make the BOCES more sensitive and equitable.

In the meantime, I am trying to use my newfound perspective to identify my own blind spots. One challenge we have in our district is that our leadership team is not racially representative of the communities we serve—nor is our teaching staff, for that matter. I got some insight into why this might be when our human resource director told me about the neighbors on either side of her, whom she describes as wonderful, lovely people. But during this past election season, they put political signs in their yard and clearly had no idea how offensive this was to her as a Black woman. This made me think of how many of my colleague superintendents have told me that they bring in minority candidates to fill leadership positions in their schools who ultimately end up leaving—not because they feel unwelcome in the school but because they feel unwelcome in the community, even when no one is trying to make them feel that way.

An example of how to turn this broadened perspective into action came from John Deasy, one of our Rethinc facilitators and a former superintendent of the Los Angeles school district. He said that while he’d found that his staff was more representative of his community than he’d thought, they were not linguistically representative: 20 percent of LAUSD students spoke Spanish, and 40 percent of his students were dual-language speakers, but only about 5 percent of his staff were dual language speakers. To address this imbalance, he set up a teacher language academy so teachers could learn to speak to their students in their home language.

I don’t have all the answers and I probably never will. That’s why I encouraged so many people to share this experience with me. But I believe we have to do this work, even though it’s hard. As educators, we commit to being lifelong learners—and if we can’t learn to make our schools welcoming to all our teachers and students, we aren’t living up to that commitment.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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