Using a Social Justice Framework to Guide Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Work

Fall 2018

By Jesse Gillispie

In our increasingly international, connected world, independent schools are rightly focusing time and effort to diversify their student bodies and cultivate places in which these diverse communities can reach their potential. Research shows unequivocally that diverse groups are more innovative than homogenous groups and force group members to think more creatively and critically and better anticipate alternative viewpoints. And movements like Black Lives Matter, #Dreamers, #metoo, and #woke point to increased consciousness around injustice and show that efforts to support diversity are not merely academic. At the heart of these movements, however, is the awareness that growing diversity in the United States has not resulted in increased opportunity for all. 

Despite increased efforts to create and sustain diverse learning communities, independent schools often fall short of building communities that are also equitable and inclusive. Merely attracting and admitting students and families with diverse backgrounds and experiences doesn’t necessarily lead to the equitable and inclusive environments we desire. 

Diversity and inclusion consultant Verna Myers explains that diversity is receiving an invitation to a dance, equity is possessing the resources to attend, and inclusion is being asked to dance. Our equity goals must focus on the pursuit of fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all while striving to identify and eliminate barriers that prevent full participation. Our inclusion goals must center on creating environments in which any individual or group is and feels welcomed, respected, and valued enough to participate fully. 

In independent schools, diversity goals are most visible in admission and hiring decisions, while equity goals might play out in tuition assistance, salaries, learning support, and the distribution of other resources; inclusion goals address culture, interaction, and attitudes around how we engage with those who are different. But how do these things interrelate? The more diversity within a given context, the more possible it becomes to consider multiple perspectives. The more these perspectives are acknowledged and weighted equitably, the more inclusive a social context becomes.

Using a social justice framework to guide diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work can help propel these initiatives forward by urging us to specifically address issues of injustice, especially where access and marginalization are concerned. A social justice framework emphasizes taking responsibility for change over blame and shame. It requires community members to examine their own beliefs and behaviors in order to avoid colluding with systemic injustice.

This might ultimately require a shift in the culture of our educational institutions. When we invite people into our school communities, we need to welcome them by asking them to dance. And as we strive for change in our schools, we may even need to consider changing the dance to represent the communities our schools serve. 

Understanding Ourselves

All human beings are socialized within the norms and expectations of their particular community. Our beliefs and biases—about ourselves and others—are continually reinforced through the messages we receive from those around us. We are each identified and identify in multiple ways (female, bisexual, working class, Mexican-American), and in myriad combinations that intersect to make us who we are, shaping our cultural patterns and worldviews. 

However, successful DEI initiatives will need to go beyond acknowledging bias to explore how these biases result in the subordination of one group over another. To confront injustice, we have to understand our role in the cycle of injustice, seek experiences outside our comfort zone, and challenge our assumptions about ourselves and others. In many instances, this will mean coming to terms with previously unrecognized advantages or privilege. We all hold biases. The problem arises when we act on our biases and hold power over others, acting as gatekeepers to important educational opportunities.  

Defensiveness Is a Barrier

To reach our DEI goals, we must change—as individuals and institutions. Whether in the racial and
ethnic makeup of our community, the distribution of financial resources, new approaches to curriculum, or the frequency with which we engage in conversations that take us out of our comfort zone, DEI initiatives at independent schools might seem to threaten things we hold dear, such as long-standing cultural traditions or monuments to controversial heroes. Despite this, crafting spaces that are safe for dialogue by modeling an openness to hearing concerns communicates a commitment to inclusion. 

While independent schools may reach laudable goals of attracting and bringing in community members with a diverse set of backgrounds, identities, and experiences, we also need to understand the lived realities of those community members inside and outside our schools. Perhaps, for example, a community member voices concern that school functions privilege families with traditional nine-to-five work schedules, or that certain curriculum gives a cursory or shallow portrayal of their ancestors. Rather than dismissing these concerns as inaccurate, organizations need to welcome all the various, sometimes conflicting, perspectives that diversity brings. In fact, we need to recognize that this is one of the reasons for creating diverse learning communities in the first place. 

Undoing Structural Inequities 

Equitable environments require an understanding of the root causes of injustice within our society, which is why successful DEI initiatives need to address practices within an institution as much as they address the local and global contexts that shape the distribution of wealth, individual opportunities, and social privilege. Independent school leaders must design initiatives to address these inequities and take institutional action. 

What does this look like on the ground? At the admission and hiring level, we must work to increase underrepresented groups and reduce the obstacles that prevent those groups from advancing or matriculating. We must look at our pedagogy with fresh eyes to consider whose narratives we are telling and address the ways in which our curriculum has traditionally privileged the cultural narratives of certain groups over others. Institutional action might also take the form of increased tuition assistance, better compensation for teachers and staff, or facilities that are accessible for those with limited mobility.

But smaller, everyday changes in our individual behavior are also imperative if we are to act in service of a more just society. Through everyday interaction we are continually (re)negotiating unequal power relations. Paying attention to the dynamics in meetings, for example, to make sure all perspectives are voiced and valued. Recognizing that injustice is the status quo and asking where is it manifesting in our schools, not whether it is manifesting there, is one way to disrupt the cycle of injustice. 

Power With Not Power Over

Taking action often centers on ceding power and control, but at its very heart, this work requires trust and acknowledgement that we each have unique experiences in this world—and  that no one knows their own problems better than they themselves. 

Recognize the value in building authentic coalitions, within and across groups, to create and sustain learning communities that are self-determining and interconnected. On campus, building power with others in a learning community might take the form of affinity groups, diversity committees, or other groups that seek to create community and raise consciousness within and among constituencies. We must validate and support those who are socially or institutionally marginalized and learn to listen with humility. We must work in solidarity with others and not in isolation by allying ourselves with those who are different from us and by using any privilege we might have to speak out against injustice.

A Goal and a Process

The goal for social justice is full and equitable participation from all members within a community that is shaped to meet each member’s needs. This is not some nebulous future state but something we can begin to work toward today, tomorrow, and next week by demonstrating the importance of addressing issues of injustice in our everyday actions.

Recently, I was reminded of the value of a using a social justice framework during a conversation when a well-meaning member of an educational community asked, “But isn’t that going too far?” Perhaps this seems like a reasonable enough question. When tasked with enacting systemic change, the work required can seem daunting—nearly impossible even—especially when that change requires examination of taken-for-granted cultural norms and power relations. 

But what does it mean to go “too far”? Too often, we are unwilling or unable to go far enough in our implementation of diversity work to truly effect systemic change. If we shift our focus of diversity, equity, and inclusion work to a social justice lens, however, it becomes clear that we cannot go too far. When we use this framework, we can stop asking why we are still doing diversity work and begin to see this work where it should be: as part and parcel of the mission, vision, and values of our schools. As long as there is injustice outside our schools, we need to continually work toward equitable and inclusive communities within.

Readings and Resources
Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, by Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo
Readings on Diversity and Social Justice, edited by Maurianne Adams, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Carmelita (Rosie) Castaneda, Heather W. Hackman, Madeline L. Peters, Ximena Zuniga

Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, edited by Maurianne Adams, Lee Ann Bell,
with Diane J. Goodman and Khyati Y. Joshi
Jesse Gillispie

Jesse Gillispie is a trustee at Peninsula School in Menlo Park, California. She teaches social justice at University of California, Santa Cruz, and student teachers at UCSC, Silicon Valley.