It was the 40th anniversary of the Brown v Board decision, and the local newspaper had published an article on the effect it had on our growing school district nestled in a bedroom suburb of Phoenix. I remember reading our superintendent’s quote and being troubled. The words struck a chord that vibrated within my soul like a toxic shadow of darkness. I remember feeling a little cold inside when I read them, and I knew I needed to act on my passion.
It’s been years since that article came out, but I can recall the sentiment with great clarity. It left an imprint on my memory, as it was the first time I had ever experienced such strong emotions as a professional. The paper quoted the superintendent as stating something to the effect of, ‘they come to us from broken homes, often without adequate food to eat, and without shoes on their feet’, and ‘it is a struggle to meet the needs of our diverse students’.
I pressed my eyelids together tightly, and took a journey along a pot-hole filled highway of deep and conflicted thought: Are these the core beliefs of the leader heading the district I’ve chosen to commit myself to? Is this how he feels about the decision to desegregate our schools? That it presents a ‘struggle’? It’s 1994 – why are we still drudging up words like ‘struggle’ when we talk about diversity? And what does he think about our students that come to us from different countries of origin? Students that receive additional supports to learn English? Or those with disabilities? Does he believe all our Black kids come from broken homes? He’s wrong. Does he believe most of them arrive without adequate food to eat or shoes to wear? Wrong again. Does he believe it’s a struggle for those of us doing the work in the trenches to meet their needs? If so, then our system has some serious culture and identity work to do. Or is he referring to his own lack of tolerance and understanding? I was worn and shaken, and these thoughts and questions didn’t escape me – this was a marathon journey.
I reflected deeply about his statements, and I although I wasn’t educated in the principles of equity, cultural competency, or inclusive leadership at the time, I knew the words I read were grounded in the ideals of advantage, privilege, and dare I say it, racism. They represented everything I detested; all the things I had gotten into this career with the hopes of dismantling. And I decided I was going to take a stand. I was a middle school special education resource teacher in my late-twenties. A mother to three children under the age of five. I had just finished up a Masters’ degree in Educational Leadership, and I determined the time was right to send the superintendent a letter outlining my discontent with the article, and moreover his statements that I deemed to be filled with stereotypes and racial bias that needed to be addressed and corrected in order to ensure all of our students had a fighting chance at success. I crafted what I believed to be a critical, yet constructive letter and sent it to his office. Before doing so, I shared it with a colleague or two that were Black, and my principal that was a White male. Each was positive and encouraging of my activism and advocacy. I remember the strong sense of courage I felt when I dropped the letter in the interoffice mail (my stomach turned quite a bit – I’m pretty sure that was the courage talking).
About a week later, I was summoned to attend a meeting with the superintendent. Alone. In his office.
I recall speaking to my principal about the preparation I should take, and he remained positive as he reminded me of the sentiments I felt when I read the article and wrote the letter in the first place. He told me to go into the meeting with the intent to understand, and then he cautioned me that sometimes journalists take snippets of interviews and create articles that evoke emotions in readers in order to sell papers. He said that I should listen intently to the superintendent to see if I felt he really held the beliefs printed in the paper or if I believed he felt misrepresented.
I felt so small that day as I entered the corner office on the second floor of the district office, entering the superintendent’s personal space. As the door closed behind me, I wasn’t sure what was going to take place. He brought out the newspaper and set it on the table that separated us, and then he took out the printed copy of the typed letter I sent him. He told me he was surprised to receive a letter like that from me, as he didn’t know who I was and hadn’t expected something so critical from a teacher so new to the profession. He let me know the letter made him feel disappointed because he believed the reporter had taken his comments out of context. He went on to explain that as a young missionary, he had spent time in other parts of the world, and had learned a great deal about other cultures. He mentioned his fluency in Spanish and his belief that ‘all men are created equal’. He went on to express how disappointed he was in the reporter’s misrepresentation of his words.
At that point, I listened, and then expressed my concern that the context of the article pointedly conveyed that he believed Brown v Board was harmful to our educational system, and that stereotypes were supported by the quotes made and reinforced in the article. I articulated to him that if I read the article in this way, I was certain that others in the community did as well.
He shook his head and looked downward in what appeared to be dismay. He let me know the reporter asked questions about Brown and asked questions about students from poverty. He said he should have known his responses may have been conflated. He requested my help. He wanted to ensure people knew he didn’t feel that way about the Brown decision. He asked if he could elicit my assistance in getting the word out among the people in my circles. As a young professional, relatively new to the community, I didn’t really feel like I had many people in my circle, but nonetheless, I assured him I would let the folks who had read my letter know of our conversation and his request.
I left his office feeling perplexed. I didn’t know if I truly believed him, or if he was squirming hard to get out of a political mess. On the other hand, I was also feeling like I had broken trust with the most powerful leader in our district. I was fairly certain I had ruined any chances of a leadership position within the district as long as he was superintendent. I crossed a line – maybe several – in writing that letter and sending it to him. He did not seem like the forgiving type.
There’s a Fine Line between Being Courageous and Being Unwise – and That’s Okay
As a superintendent now myself, I often speak about how every day is an interview; an opportunity to make an impression – good or bad –upon your present and future supervisors, colleagues, and community members. Each day you give it your best, your work speaks for itself. Each time you say or do something bold, you have to be prepared to stand by your words and actions, understanding that each moment transcends time, and your reputation as a leader may hang on the very words you’ve chosen to use or not use.
This year we are coming upon the 65th anniversary of the Brown v Board decision. It’s been nearly 25 years since I made the choice to boldly stand up for the young people in our school system, and I can’t say I would do it much differently if I had to do it again. Although the kids I stood up for had no idea I did it, it sits well with me. Interestingly enough, they are all nearing their 40s now, and could easily be colleagues, supervisors, or community members to me and many others.
Equity stands at the very core of my belief system as an educator and as a leader. This belief in getting it right for all of our students drives all that I do, every decision I make, and has ultimately led me to the place and position I currently hold. I understand the incredible opportunity I have in this position, as well as the enormous responsibility to thousands of students and community members. This is what that stand was about nearly 25 years ago.
At the time, it was likely unwise for me to take the stand I took. Politically, it could have destroyed opportunities to advance in my career. You see, I was working in a largely white, upper middle-class school district that resided in a highly conservative area. There were no district leaders of color, and to my recollection there may have been one principal from a culturally diverse background (out of about 15 at the time). In the school I worked at, we had two Latinx teachers, and two Black teachers out of sixty-seven total. It wasn’t a safe move, but it was a necessary move; a move that allowed me to be in peace with my conscience. A stand worth taking, because I wasn’t the type of person to stand up for just anything. No. This meant something big to me. It meant something even bigger for our students that were true minorities, many of them bused in over the mountain from their inner-city homes to this suburbia that looked and felt nothing like the neighborhoods from which they were bused. If I didn’t take a stand for them, I’m not sure who would have.
As leaders, courageous opportunities present themselves to us on a regular basis. It’s how and when we use this courage that makes all the difference. When making a particularly bold decision and deciding to take a stand for something you know will have long lasting (and perhaps political) implications, you have to go back to your core values and beliefs. In my last blog, “Know Where You Stand”, I referred to the importance of deep reflection on your core beliefs, and shared many of my own beliefs about school leadership. I implore you to write your beliefs down and revisit them consistently and fluidly when taking on a leadership role that requires courageous decisions.
Before taking a stand for something that evokes great emotion and passion, interrogate your inner-most beliefs and make sure there is absolute congruence. Ask yourself if this decision is intended to make a positive difference; and if so, will you be as content with the decision several years from now as you are today? How often is it that you are mustering up the courage to take big, bold stances for the things at the core of your beliefs? What are the other issues that drive you to this point? What’s in your locus of control? Is this this the hill worth dying on?
Think deeply about your thinking
Recognize that your decision-making habits are imprecise and require a careful examination of your thought process in order to be more deliberate and mindful. And while not all decisions require this careful deliberation, there are decisions that are more high-stakes; ones that take mind-boggling amounts of courage and are critical to whether you achieve your objective or not. These are the decisions that may be interpreted as unwise, so it’s important to know your intended outcome prior to going in. Most importantly, know your emotional state. Passion fueled by anger, love, exasperation, or distress are intense, and they can override your normal cognitive processing which can cause you to choose poorly or get lost in a dysfunctional loop of indecision – or worse – avoidance. None of which are productive to achieving your intended outcome. Think deeply, assess wisely, but don’t over-think. I usually take an evening to mull things over. More than a couple of days though, and you’ve lost the moment.
As leaders, we need to get better at taking a stand for equity in our school systems. This means urgently investing in our decision-making habits and competence. It also means putting on a new pair of glasses that allow us to see the inequities in our midst, and developing the courage to address these inequities with a sense of urgency, resolve and care.We have to know where we stand in order to take a stand. And we have to be wise enough to take a stand for the things that will truly benefit all of our learners, not just some.
What are the things you believe strongly enough in for which you’re willing to take a stand ?
What is one of the boldest moves you’ve made in support of equity?
How do you intend to invest in your decision-making habits?
Four years after my bold confrontation of the superintendent above, I interviewed for an assistant principal position with the same district. I was told I was one of the top two candidates and there were four openings. My interview was strong, and the connection I made with each of the committees was positive. When it came to the ultimate decision about whether or not I would be offered one of the four positions, this superintendent got the final say. I was fortunate enough to have two assistant superintendents who sat in the interviews that advocated on my behalf. They were bold and courageous as well. He was reluctant, but willing to give me a chance. I’ve been leading for equity ever since.
Fast forward to 2018: I ran into this same superintendent this past summer at a superintendent event. He has long since retired, but is still actively engaged in the education community. Our eyes locked when we saw each other, and I wondered if he remembered that day, nearly 25 years ago in his office… It forever changed my life. I’m betting he remembered too.