There are certain experiences in life for which there are no words, and certain conversations that can leave a lasting impact. Here I was, a Pakistani-American woman and the new director of school operations, charged with leading our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, checking in with the principal when we started talking about the previous director’s departure.
“She’s dead to me,” my white school leader said to me during one of our first weekly meetings. I blinked, processing her words.
“Why?” I remember myself asking.
“I lost faith in her when she said that I was biased in favor of [another white] teacher. She’s not in my circle of trust anymore.” When I asked whether she had shared those feelings with the previous director, the principal responded, “No, she left. It wasn’t worth it.”
I became quiet. It wasn’t lost on me that the woman who had transitioned mid-year was Black and that she had left her role when did not feel valued or heard. She was also a brilliant educator. She knew how to develop meaningful relationships with the largely Black and Latinx students that attended our school. When she saw that particular white teachers were being punitive in their approach to students, she pulled the students aside and made them feel heard, valued and respected. But that wasn’t a value-add for my principal.
During that conversation I could feel blood rushing to my face but I didn’t say anything. I had a job to keep and I knew that my feedback would not be welcome. So I changed the subject. Maybe we didn’t need to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion during this check-in after all. I was silent.
For me, my silence was the most deafening noise of this past year, and the nudge I needed to take meaningful steps toward change in my own life, career and approach to conducting meaningful DEI work.
Grounded in Action
I have spent the greater part of my life, about 13 years, working on making diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives a reality for schools across the country. It has been a journey in which I have learned to find my voice. DEI, a term welcome by some and misunderstood by many, uses data to create change. It’s a people-centered strategy that builds bridges within and among communities to foster a culture of respect, trust and understanding. Diversity, equity and inclusion should not just be buzzwords. They should be purposeful and deliberate concepts, centering people’s lived experiences and culture, helping them become their best and most authentic selves.
Meaningful DEI strategy is not just grounded in conversations; it’s grounded in action. It is anchored in the realization that people of color in this country have markedly different life experiences based on the color of their skin and their country of origin.
My journey in DEI work is personal. At the University of California Berkeley, I build bridges between the LGBTQ+ and Muslim communities through shared dialogue and community dinners during Ramadan. As an 11th grade English teacher in Baltimore, I encouraged my students, all of whom were Black, to debate, discuss, and engage with topics surrounding race, class and privilege, and how they could take control of their education and educational experiences in a world where these things matter a great deal.
Like my predecessor, I’ve also stepped away from my school and my role as Director of Operations. I had wanted to help steward organizational change at my school and I was excited at the prospect of creating inclusive spaces where students did not feel that they had to hide who they were. Through the equitable development of systems, I wanted to create a space where students knew what to expect and had a safe space to learn and thrive.
Do I feel that my commitment to DEI work helped steward that change? I am not sure, but by all accounts I did try. I sat on the anti-racist committee at our school and lead professional development sessions on bias. I vocalized my discontent on harmful teaching practices that were not student-centered. I denounced the systemic discrimination in our country: the murder of George Floyd, the terrorist attack on our capitol, the Atlanta massacre of Asian-American women.
However, when difficult conversations arose on the team and I witnessed microaggressions, I didn’t speak up. I had made the assumption that my school leader was not amenable to change and that decision made me feel helpless. I had spent over a decade working in education, as a teacher, teacher coach, operations director, fellow, and even obtained a doctorate. When I saw face-to-face that my experience and my accolades were not enough, I became silent and turned inward. Upon reflection, not feeling heard was triggering.
As an organization, we wanted to commit to equity, but we had to ask ourselves if we were really doing the hard work it takes to achieve it. For us, or any educator or institution that has committed to DEI, we must answer four critical questions about our work:
What does it mean to do DEI work? I have seen school educators and administrators quick to acknowledge that they are anti-racist, but they often lack clarity when probed. In order to make progress, there needs to be a clear understanding of what we are working toward and metrics to provide that framework. Metrics are first grounded in a clear mission and vision. Moreover, they require difficult internal school-wide conversations. There needs to be a variety of data being gathered to get perspective from school members, community members and students. They also require gathering data from students, staff and the community through focus groups and interviews. This provides the groundwork for both short and long-term change.
How can we incorporate student voice in school-wide decisions? The best people to make decisions about their education are those who are most impacted by those decisions. To know what students want, we need to ask them. There must also be a concerted desire to implement those changes in class and school-wide decisions.
How are we quantifying growth? Often, it seems, professional development around DEI is about educators exchanging their stories on overcoming stereotypes or biases in the classroom. The conversations become cyclical and are either viewed as a form of collective therapy or denounced as repetitive. Though acknowledging implicit or explicit bias is a powerful personal exercise, it should not serve as the only topic of conversation. Instead, there should be strategic metrics developed in the short- and long-term for quantifying change.
How do we honor BIPOC knowledge and expertise on our team? DEI work needs to be immersed in all aspects of school-wide planning decisions to effectively be scaled for impact. While meaningful organizational change is slow and iterative, there is power in recognizing the authentic stories and experiences of BIPOC educators (those who are Black and Indigenous People of Color) who have navigated school systems their whole lives. For white educators, it is important to acknowledge and validate the rich and varied cultural, linguistic, and life experiences their BIPOC colleagues bring to their work. Asking questions, leaning in, and leading with humility are important ways of creating rapport and trust within the team.
When I think back on my DEI work this year, there are many things I could have done differently. Perhaps my biggest lesson learned is to not feel silenced when encountering obstacles. Instead, I might have worked toward greater buy-in among my colleagues when change was needed. Ultimately, systems change is incremental and I wanted fast results. It’s OK to slow down and it’s OK to extend grace to yourself and your colleagues in the process.
In the end, I experienced many self reckonings this year. One was that our preeminent job as educators is to create spaces of power for our Black and brown children to learn to become their best selves. To create those spaces of power and resilience, we can’t be silent. To make a collective impact, we cannot forget the power of bringing ourselves to our work. Our power is our voice. We should not be silenced or silent. These days, the stakes are just too high.