You don’t need to be a ‘savior.’ You do need to put building trust and reaching out at the top of your list.
- Originally published in Education Weekly by Jennifer Cheatham & John B. Diamond — June 14, 2021
- This is the last of three essays by Diamond and Cheatham about leading for racial justice.
Jennifer Cheatham & John B. Diamond
Jennifer Cheatham is a senior lecturer on education and the co-chair of the Public Education Leadership Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is a former superintendent of the Madison school district in Wisconsin. John B. Diamond is the Kellner Family Distinguished Chair in Urban Education and a professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education. A sociologist, he studies the relationship between social inequality and educational opportunity.
Public schooling needs a new paradigm for racial-justice leadership. One that explicitly focuses on eliminating white supremacy, meaning white control of power and resources and beliefs in white superiority and entitlement. One that establishes a robust vision for racial equity. And one that better cultivates the “bottom-up” leadership and shared power that produces and sustains the real change our youth deserve.
We have both tried to understand, promote, and model leadership as a collaborative process rather than embrace the heroic—or savior—leadership paradigms that have dominated the field of education for far too long. John helped develop the distributed-leadership perspective early in his career, emphasizing the organizational conditions and social interactions that leaders can use to promote positive change. Jen has tried to take a shared approach to leadership practice, one focused on leadership development, collaborative learning, and acting on common values with steady determination. And while these collaborative approaches are promising, we have come to believe they still aren’t enough to produce racial justice.
Years of observation have shown us that the schools that make the most academic progress for Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx youth have moved beyond collaborative practice and built cultures based on trust and belonging. As john a. powell, the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley, explains, “In a legitimate democracy, belonging means that your well-being is considered and your ability to help design and give meaning to its structures and institutions is realized.”
This leadership paradigm always seeks to disrupt the power of one group over another so that the voices and well-being of one group do not dominate those of others. This is the paradigm we need to teach, practice, and spread.
Here are a few of the skills and dispositions we believe are most important now:
Listening. We both have come to understand that listening focused on the consideration of another’s well-being is an essential skill and disposition that racial-equity leaders must hone. When done with an authentic stance of curiosity, deep listening can genuinely help one’s understanding grow.
Leaders for racial justice must seek out the voices of Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx youth, families, and staff to center their hopes, dreams, and desires for the future. They must also listen with empathy for a deeper understanding of the real problems that stand in the way of progress toward those visions of the future. Somewhere between a more robust vision and a better understanding of real problems that strategy will emerge. Listening to those who seek to maintain the status quo is essential, too, if only to understand the underlying assumptions and related fears that lead them to resist change.
We realize that in fields like education, which require an empathic mindset, listening can be exhausting. Painful stories are inevitable. Listening to depictions of racism can often be retraumatizing for Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx leaders, so thoughtfulness and careful planning are essential. Ultimately, when making the most challenging decisions, the ones in which a leader stands alone, it is the stories, not just the data, that will help the leader stay true to core values and navigate the turbulence of change.
Instead of packing agendas, lessons, and professional-development sessions with new content, leaders can promote processing, breathing, and making meaning together.
Healing. As psychotherapist Resmaa Menakem describes in his book My Grandmother’s Hands, “In America, nearly all of us, regardless of our background or skin color, carry trauma in our bodies around the myth of race.” The current political environment has heightened the pain and made it even rawer.
Creating a loving and caring space for sense making and healing for our students, parents, and staff is an overlooked but essential part of leadership that can produce the collective courage to change and act. Instead of packing agendas, lessons, and professional-development sessions with new content, leaders can promote processing, breathing, and making meaning together. Leaders can also make room for emotion—for anger and grief as well as joy—by showing emotion and making the expression of emotion normal. For example, they can thoughtfully use racial-affinity groups to build community, reduce harm, and promote cross-racial understanding.
This emphasis on the healing of long-standing racial wounds, however, must never supersede the need for swift responses to acute harms that occur in racially oppressive systems. That said, providing spaces for meaning making, both for children and adults, is necessary to lead for racial justice.
Empowering Youth. Finally, we believe that leaders for racial equity can learn much from the work of activists and organizers. So many school and district leaders we know are trying to make change from within organizations, but educational transformation is often the result of social movements and community organizing for racial justice. School district leaders working for racial justice could partner with community leaders more deeply, push for change that is outside of current spheres of control, and fund leadership-development opportunities for parents and youth. Most importantly, they could give more Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students a seat at the decisionmaking table.
We have both seen how organized student and community leaders can shape district policy and practice to make schools more racially and socially just in areas from dress codes to health education to discipline and policing. Students should also have a say in what they learn, which includes an honest and comprehensive history of racial oppression in this county. School and district leaders have much to learn about what it looks like to truly empower school communities, especially the young people who are most directly affected by school inequities. It takes deep listening, often in an emotionally charged setting, but our students have a lot to say about what needs to change and how, and we must follow through.
We recognize that it has been hard to enact these approaches to leadership consistently within a larger system of oppression that values “expertise” over experience, being right over real understanding, and maintaining surface-level harmony over the disequilibrium that leads to individual and organizational learning.
Racial-justice leadership requires humility, courage, and a willingness to grow. When leaders do this difficult work, we know they can pave the way to a better future.