Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion in Schools: Steps to Transformation

By Jada Monica Drew, MS

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The core of inequity is engulfed in fear and ignorance. We are socialized to avoid conversations about race, politics, and money. Yet, these topics are what makes our country vibrant in its diversity of people, perspective, place of origin and access to wealth. Talk more about these topics! In the United States of America, school systems, whether private or public, are facing the reality of changing demographics and are asking the question, “What do we do?” That’s easy; create an environment where all students, faculty, and staff are successful. “How do we do it?” That’s the harder question to answer.

Many education models are moving in the direction of more diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) frameworks or curriculum that is culturally responsive. However, the reality is DEI efforts and initiatives are add-ons. Add-ons are extra to-dos added to your scope of work. No one likes more work. Teachers, administrators, and staff are busy with meetings, grading, coordinating, and making sure children are learning. If people do not feel like add-ons are immediately applicable to their work, they may not support DEI initiatives. You must find common links, access points, and time within the normal operations of your school calendar.

Note: Diversity, equity, & inclusion are all different, yet connectors on the continuum of ensuring belonging and equal opportunity.

Steps to Transformation

DEI has been advertised as a must to change or transform organizations because the population of the United States is changing, but teachers, principals, staff, parents, and board members are tired of talking about the problems diversity brings. Diversity was once a word that brought positivity and hope. Now it represents politically correct language patrol and nervous feelings prohibiting focus and fully engaged people ready to give their all. In tackling the task of creating equity, we need everyone at their best. How do we do this? There are four preliminary steps we encourage organizations to take to transform schools and communities. Each step looks differently at each institution. 

  1. Analyze how you are collecting and examining data; qualitative and qualitative. 
  2. Develop interpersonal skills through story-telling and story-listening. 
  3. Create innovative solutions with the help of the students with fun tools. 
  4. Accept non-closure and discomfort as indicators of growth.

Step 1: Analyze how you are collecting and examining data: qualitative and qualitative

The Social Designs formula is Historic Truth telling + Building Relationships + Creative Action = Social Justice. In order to build equity within an organization you must assess the history of how data has been collected and aggregated.  Make sure there is a system in place to gather demographic information based on race, gender, and other determinants at every entry point possible. This data will help you to develop a historic and current picture of the impact of your work across lines of difference. Gathering qualitative information from people within the school, alumni, and community supporters is important as well to help you think critically about next steps.

Step 2: Develop interpersonal skills through story-telling and story listening

Many adults lack the soft skill of high emotional intelligence when it comes to being okay with being wrong. Yes, this happens in schools too. This is ironic because the purpose of school is to explore, think critically, and test ideas. Yet, when we get "diversity" wrong, some react as if it is the worst thing in the world. Grace has to be extended to each other when embarking on areas of diversity and inclusion.  We all make mistakes, but we have built an unforgiving culture in diversity.  We have all mispronounced someone’s name or used the wrong pronoun or even said statements others may deem disrespectful.  Our goal is to help people understand the power of ownership and forgiveness. Leaders sometimes lack the character traits of accountability and compassion which hinders communal growth and mutual awareness building. Each meeting, orientation, and professional development opportunity can include intentional and challenging questions, prompts, queries, or activities to push your staff to share with one another. Be intentional about each person sharing equally and build relationships by telling stories of culture, challenge, and success. A great activity to use for this is the Culture Wheel.

Step 3: Include students in the process “The Spill Over Effect”

When we practice, we are more confident to practice in the classroom. Teachers we work with duplicate the tools and activities we teach during professional development training sessions into classroom practices and curriculum. In many cases, students are more excited and engaged to discuss difficult topics and to celebrate each other. As you are going through the process of learning more about DEI, add the same activities to your curriculum. You can do it!  Teachers we’ve worked with have incorporated activities such as: Dialogue Principle Practice, the Culture Wheel, and Differentiating DEI to their lesson plans for elementary, middle, and high school students. In turn, students have been given the opportunity to then lead conversations and activities with peers and other teachers.

Step 4: Accept non-closure and discomfort as indicators of growth

The same way we are encouraged to visit the doctor for routine checks or the grocery store to restock our refrigerators, DEI work is continuous and ever evolving.  When you feel uncomfortable, this is the time to step into your growing edge. Pull on the notion of critically challenging perspectives and opinions in dialogue and debate form. Dialogue creates opportunities of deep learning, while debating helps us to sharpen our ability to test facts. Dialogue helps us to appreciate experiences and invites mistakes, while debating pushes our research skills a step further. The more questions you leave a DEI session with, the better.  There is no ending solution for diversity, equity, and inclusion. However, there are policies and practices to examine and shift to create as much fairness as possible.  

Now what?

You have the skills to start or continue your journey to setting an environment of equity becoming the new normal. Set SMART goals and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Reach out to other schools to engage in masterminds and solution incubators. Connect with local economic hubs to align with investing in the vitality of your community’s economic future.  We need to think outside of the box to find solutions.