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Authentic Equity Leadership: A Listening Journey

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This post is by Gia Truong, CEO of Envision Education.

In my last post, I suggested that the problem schools are facing is one of white supremacy and that educators need to be talking more explicitly about white supremacy in order to improve education outcomes for America's students.

A few years ago at Envision Education, we embarked on an organization-wide equity journey to have those conversations and to see where they would lead us. We were motivated to begin the journey when we learned from our staff of color, through a staff survey and focus groups, that they have experienced discrimination at Envision. This was far from our hoped for vision of our organization. It was hard to hear, and hard to think about. But one thing was clear: we needed to listen. We needed to learn more about the experiences of our colleagues of color.

We made a conscious decision to embark on the difficult process of looking for those daily reenactments and invisible structures that perpetuate injustice right here at home, within our own community. For me, this has been a journey of humility and vulnerability, and one that has led to enlightened discussions and actions. I know that every conversation, every act of listening is making Envision stronger for our staff and ultimately, for our students. Here are the steps we are taking, inspired by the National Equity Project, and that I invite all education leaders to consider:

  • Listen to The System. Education leaders need to listen to the people who are closest to the problem in order to understand the impact of systemic oppression. We believe that everyone--regardless of race, class, gender, or status--has been impacted by systemic oppression. At Envision, we are engaging in a series of Empathy Interviews, to hear how our staff, especially those of color, experience their work; where we need to make improvements; and whom we are silencing in the current system, intentionally or not. Silencing others is an oppressive tactic, regardless of whether those doing the silencing intend to oppress or not. Taking specific actions in order to make room for people to speak is one of the most powerful and liberating things a leader can do. We have also found that it is important to create multiple ways for people to speak up: forums and focus groups, surveys, personal and repeated invitations from more than one leader, suggestion boxes (virtual and physical), etc. When I listen to Envisioners speak their truths, I learn how the system and actions by those in power have impacted them. This kind of information has the ability to shape my leadership in essential ways, and no one else can provide it except those who experience the system directly. It is only when we hear their stories that we can take action to interrupt unjust practices or structures.
  • Elevate Diverse Voices. Education leaders need to make room for more and different voices to emerge. At Envision, this means sharing the responsibility for our equity work with many people by not relying on a small group to lead the efforts. Different teams are taking on a wide range of efforts through Equity Teams at each of our school sites and our support office. We have built equity training and equity conversations into our professional development, led by site-based Equity Teams, not strictly by administrative leaders. Opening up to additional voices leads to richer solutions that resonate more strongly with the people in our organization, which helps us collectively embrace the paths we choose to move forward.  

    Elevating diverse voices starts with inviting people to participate, but it cannot end there. We must take the second step. When we invite people to contribute, and then settle for the first handful of volunteers to come forward, we are missing an opportunity for richness, for improving relationships, and for hearing more diverse voices. The second step is critical: look who has come forward and look who has not, and reach out to specific individuals to personally invite their participation. Look for those who are invisible or feel invisible and ask them to participate. Acknowledge that they bring a perspective that the system needs, that you need as a leader. Always ask yourself what might be your second step.  
  • Take Action. The purpose of listening to the people in your system and elevating multiple voices is to find new ways to learn and work together; the conversations we've had and the listening we've done have informed our next steps. Every context is different, and the actions we've taken at Envision may be different from the ones your organization should take. But taking the two steps defined above has helped us allow new ideas to emerge and new directions to present themselves. At Envision, these new directions have led to actions like: embedding equity work into professional development; offering additional learning and leading opportunities to potentially marginalized colleagues; and revamping our hiring process with an explicit focus on equity, including examining the biases in our existing process. We will continue to listen and learn, and take the steps that emerge from that process. We encourage you to do your own participatory action research on your equity dilemmas in order to discover what actions will be most helpful for your organization and culture.

These are the steps that are making a difference for us at Envision Education, and I am proud of the ways our culture and community have strengthened through this process. Since focusing more intentionally on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, we have seen noticeable improvements in retention and culture: in the last year, we increased our retention of teachers of color by 10 percent; we saw a 17 percent increase on our Staff Satisfaction Survey for "Envision takes action to prioritize Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion even among other pressing priorities"; and on the same survey, we saw a 10 percent increase in affirmative responses to "My opinion seems to count."

These positive changes tell me we are on the right path. It also tells me that even if we don't have all the answers, we do have directions to go in that are meaningful and purposeful. I invite other educators and leaders to take this journey with us. When we acknowledge that we're part of the system and commit to hard--and then harder--conversations, then we can together envision a different future for students and teachers alike.

This is the work of educators who want all students to know that they belong in and deserve schools that inspire and empower them--schools that are strong community institutions not beholden to race or income difference. The journey toward authentic educational equity is marked by awareness, self-discovery, and reimagining what is possible for education. And it all starts by listening--listening in service of the speaker--and inviting diverse voices as we collectively decide on intentional actions that foster equity and excellence in our schools.

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