Updated: Dec 5, 2020

Racial inequality and injustice have captured the world’s attention. However, that doesn’t mean that schools (and other organizations) are going to change for the better.

Here’s why, as well as what can help schools get it right this time.

Quote: The keys to successful equity implementation are in the darkness.

The dynamics of COVID-19 have heightened awareness of the persistent inequities in schools and society. The constant presence of racial tension and conflict has dominated the summer months and brought the inequities into even greater focus.

In response, some school districts (like countless corporations) published statements to affirm the dignity of Black life. They issued proclamations to be the change so many of us want to see in the world. They promised to be better, especially for groups most vulnerable to the violence of anti-Blackness: Black people. Despite these gestures (regardless of how bold they might be), experience has taught us that most schools and districts seeking to “do something” are poised to fail (again) with equity implementation. Big time.

Why the doom and gloom? Especially when so many white teachers have become activated, ordered books about racism, and are no longer afraid to say that Black lives matter?

It’s because everything so far is predictable.

We’ve studied this process. We’ve written about it and can see the next phase (after schools publicly commit themselves to equity, inclusion, and/or social justice). Lurking around the corner are the common and predictable problems with implementation that result in maintaining the status quo.

We’ve even given this predictable process a name: The Dysfunctional Cycle of Equity Work.

It’s a common cycle that people have repeated for as long as organizations have been saying they’re trying to get better for all social groups. This is especially true when the efforts emerge from a “diversity crisis.”

The dynamics are nothing new, despite the astonishing scale at which the events of this summer are occurring. In fact, the increased attention on inequity coupled with poorly implemented change efforts creates a high probability of disappointment at levels we’ve also never seen (unless schools do something remarkably differently).

You can learn more about the Dysfunctional Cycle in chapter 1 of our book, Belonging Through a Culture of Dignity. To support educators in this moment, our publisher is offering Chapter 1 as a complimentary download, in hopes of increasing awareness of the pitfalls that we’ve learned through years of experience. Our hope is that this knowledge will lead schools to make atypical choices that break the Dysfunctional Cycle.

Figure 1.1, the Dysfunctional Cycle of Equity Work. A catalyst leads to a commitment to equity, then there are problems with implementation, and returnn to the inequitable status quo until another catalyst event.

We argue that the cycle has four primary phases. They follow this sequence: experiencing a catalyst, committing to equity, fumbling around with implementation, and upholding the inequitable status quo until the next catalyst occurs.

We define the catalyst as an event or incident that draws attention to social inequity. What typically follows are public, verbal and written promises to fight against and end injustice. (This is the moment in which we are living this summer.) From there, leaders fall back on predictable (and often narrow, additive, and shallow) strategies, which include:

  • Committees and task forces.
  • Trainings and workshops on diversity, anti-bias, or other buzzwords or trends.
  • Consultants who swoop in and then leave.
  • New diversity, equity, and inclusion “supervisor” positions that lack authority, budget, staff, and defined responsibilities.

When not part of a comprehensive approach guided by deep reflection and a vision of a transformed culture, such strategies become “problems with implementation.” In the end, frustrations that surround these strategies uphold the inequitable status quo, which keeps the environment ripe for the next catalyst.

We know this to be true because it happens over and over again, regardless of geographic location. Champions of educational equity work see it and have seen it. Past iterations of the Dysfunctional Cycle have offered educators theories and approaches (e.g. multicultural education, culturally responsive teaching, restorative justice) to help them better understand and respond. Yet all too often, people reduce the approaches to superficial actions, gimmicks, performances, and — at worst — weapons.

What’s missing is a deep understanding of the need for these theories and approaches in the first place.

In our book, we argue the existence of concepts foundational to equity theories and approaches. In general (schools and society), these concepts are absent, unacknowledged, or misunderstood (represented by the very cries for justice emerging from the racial tension and conflict that dominate American life). These concepts are belonging and dignity.

Within our work, we’ve drawn from scholars such as john a. powell and Donna Hicks. According to powell, belonging means being fully human — the opposite of othering (dehumanization). As Hicks teaches us, dignity (what we believe leads to belonging) is our innate human worth and value. For each of us, dignity is vulnerable, however, the frequency and degree to which each of us must endure that vulnerability has much to do with our social identities and context.

Endorsement for Belonging through a culture of Dignity.

Taken together, these concepts — belonging and dignity — explain the pervasiveness of educational inequality in American public education (and beyond). They also provide a vision of justice toward which we can work and, thus, break the Dysfunctional Cycle once and for all.

While neither of us could have predicted this precise moment in which we are now living when we wrote this book, we feel that it is a vital resource for understanding our current reality and forging a path forward.

Collectively, we have yet to recognize the inherent dignity of Black life. We have yet to affirm the right for Black Americans to assert that they belong here. As a result, we have experienced anti-Black police violence, vigilante behavior, false reporting, and continuous uprisings.

This anti-Blackness is present within the way we do schooling. Book studies alone cannot solve the problem. Forging a path forward requires sustained effort, and that path must be paved with dignity and belonging (as evidenced in practices and ensured by policies). Our schools need to center these concepts within a comprehensive approach to organizational change.

After all, saying “Black lives matter” is actually the easy part. Changing policies and practices to make that phrase a reality is the hard work. Regardless of its difficulty, this is the work we must do. Our students — especially those most vulnerable and marginalized — and our society as a whole deserve nothing less.

Let’s get it right this time.

Click here for a FREE DOWNLOAD of Chapter One!