Strengthening the Role of the DEI Practitioner

Fall 2020

By Judith Osborne

dei_4_flat.jpgIn 2018, I was part of an Atlanta cohort presenting a workshop on supporting diversity directors in independent schools at the annual NAIS People of Color Conference. The title of the session was “For Diversity Directors Who’ve Considered Bouncing When the Rainbow Isn’t Enough.”
For those unfamiliar with playwright Ntozake Shange’s 1975 choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” our workshop title and theme served as an unflinching ode to her esteemed work and a warning siren for independent school leadership across the country. Shange’s poem highlights seven unnamed Black women living in ’70s Harlem who share deeply personal stories of being splintered by the brutalities of a life bulleted with racism and sexism and their desperate search for validation, healing, and wholeness. It eloquently frames the intersections of identity and powerfully explores notions of invisibility, accountability, and community.
The poem was more than apropos; the parallels are uncanny, strikingly similar to the daily work we call diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) on our independent school campuses and the challenges and triumphs therein. The workshop room was packed, wall to wall with mostly Black and brown faces searching for answers and sustenance, tidbits they could share with teams of administrators back home, or perhaps hold closely to the chest for moments of personal or professional crisis. The question on the minds of many DEI practitioners on any given day is, “Do we stay planted and frustrated, or should we bolt for higher ground?”
With music turned up and our guards let down, we welcomed attendees by dancing in the aisles, offering a chance to “free up” as we say in the islands before opening our survival kit of sorts: a safe space where they would be seen and heard. By the session’s end, random strangers shared tissues and recommended books, films, and even massage therapists. They exchanged cellphone numbers, favorite inspirational albums, religious texts, and even hair products, a litany of motivational keepsakes that might help them make it through what some described as “the unthinkable” in their school settings—experiences that range from Black male faculty members being mistaken for “intruders” on their own campus to being frequently called the name of other Black colleagues to blatant disparities in student disciplinary processes.
Ironically, they—mostly women—also professed to deeply loving their schools, the community at large, and the important work of equity and justice. They wake up most days ready and willing to give it their all with a smile: to teach, coach, build, deconstruct, resolve, support, and inspire. They don suits of armor and are ready to fight the good fight, loyal and energized. Until, of course, they are not. On those days they wonder: Do we “bounce,” or should we stay longer than what feels emotionally safe or right simply for the cause—the idea of a healthy community, including the students and families who need to see us—despite the mountains of work still to be done?

Reality Check

The onset of a global pandemic, followed by stay-at-home orders and quarantine, and the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd soon after, rekindled the powerful voices of the Black Lives Matter movement this past spring. A spotlight on racism and racial inequity in schools simultaneously lit a fire under many administrators across the country to tool up and place anti-racist work front and center or else, as James Baldwin writes, risk facing “The Fire Next Time” themselves as independent institutions. Baldwin’s prophetic language and theories about race in this 1963 classic book ring remarkably true today and seem to describe what many students of color say they have been experiencing on campus and in the curriculum. “The country should be proud of them, too, but, alas, not many people in the country even know of their existence.”
According to the “2019 NAIS State of the Diversity Practice” survey of about 350 U.S. diversity practitioners, there is still limited consistency in the “what and how” of the role itself, with only 54% of respondents performing their roles full time and only 57% of respondents reporting to the head of school or sitting on an administrative team. Only 46% said their school had a formal diversity strategic plan.
I engage with many DEI directors in both personal and professional capacities. We share common stories ranging from feeling voiceless or invisible to not feeling trusted or even feeling ill-equipped for the work itself. While perhaps well intended, the expectation of having an “all-knowing” cultural presence within every layer of a K–12 school can take a physical, emotional, and intellectual toll. Moreover, a lack of clarity between gatekeepers on what the DEI role actually entails makes it difficult for practitioners to set professional goals and actually attain them. Even practitioners in senior leadership positions who are seated at the table describe being the singular person of color on admission, hiring, or other administrative committees before switching hats to run off to more hands-on, programmatic duties in schools. While these can seem to be important and potentially invigorating parts of the role and contribute to the school’s community goals, they are also sources of fatigue and burnout for the DEI practitioner if not purposefully balanced and shared.
Other sentiments from DEI practitioners include:
  • I feel like it’s the most visible and most invisible role on campus.  
  • They don’t seem to trust my authority. When I make suggestions or offer a process, I’m questioned more than supported. If I try to be proactive about an issue, they say, “wait,” and when there’s a crisis they say, “hurry up!”  
  • They’ve assigned me the role, but I don’t have a budget or resources to make real change.  
  • I’m also teaching and coaching, so there’s little time to do the actual work.
  • They haven’t invested time and funds for my own professional development—I need training too.  
  • The work seems like an afterthought rather than connected to all parts of the school.
  • When issues arise even within other departments, I’m asked to facilitate or resolve conflicts for colleagues.
  • My title and pay don’t seem to match the amount of responsibility the role involves. I’m considered a liaison yet dealing with major communications and conflicts that require time and expertise.

Getting It Right

Embedding equity and inclusion work into the structure of an institution requires deliberate and strategic efforts—it is work that begins at the very top with a board-certified mission, knowledge, framework, staffing, and resources. The work is purposeful. It trains, builds, evaluates—gets sucker punched—rehydrates, then immediately gets right back in the ring. DEI work is not for the faint of heart. It is the quintessential example of the grit we try to encourage our students to develop. Despite often being complicated and sometimes frustrating, the work is necessary.
School leaders who are in the process of creating an equity and inclusion position for the first time or who are considering ways to restructure and provide better support for the existing ones, need to embrace the following critical strategies and actions to be more proactive leaders and allies.
1. Self-work: Own it. Racial identity development and other forms of identity exploration and knowledge-building are essential to the personal and professional growth of anyone in school leadership today. These competencies are no longer optional. The DEI role is often mistakenly relied on to bring other administrators up to speed. Some leaders in predominantly white institutions feel intimidated to acknowledge that they need help navigating these topics, especially—but not exclusively—around race. It might lay bare a gaping hole in their leadership skills wheelhouse. Administrators and teams can and should seek out and use the plethora of industry resources that accommodate busy schedules and skill levels (including books and videos) while shifting the burden away from the DEI practitioner. Be truthful about where you are and where you are trying to go.
Take charge of your own professional development. Shift the paradigm of identity education and conversations by describing them as “unpracticed” rather than “difficult.” Consider hiring a consultant or coach to help you along, and commit to attending conferences, webinars, and experiences that immerse you in the work. In the meantime, each week, check out an article, podcast, or short video clip on the topic of identity (race, class, gender/expression, religion, LGBTQ+ status, etc.) that will get and keep you in the loop.
2. Seek out professional affinity. Connect with other area heads and administrators over coffee, lunch, or video chat for honest dialogue about what you are doing in your schools to help move DEI work forward. Use this space to process and strategize about challenges. These high-level spaces are vital to the success of DEI work and can help pave the road for practitioner success.
During such meetings, share the article, podcast, or video that you found helpful with the group. Commit to future meetings or conversations where equity and inclusion is the central topic.
3. Offer tangible support. Provide the resources, attention, and tools needed to deliver outcomes that best serve students and your entire educational community. DEI work can feel isolating and emotionally and physically exhausting. Assigning a group of colleagues to the work and providing adequate resources, including time and funding to support their efforts, can be a total game changer, laying the necessary groundwork for progress. Building such a team could be as simple as mentioning the need (along with a description of how they can fill a specific role) during a routine department or faculty meeting. Schools can inadvertently overlook members of their own communities who actually have the knowledge, will, and skill to better support DEI initiatives. Ask them!
Another relatively small investment that pays huge dividends is creating a comfortable and inviting DEI office space with a couch and a couple of cozy chairs—a space that says “welcome” to the students, teachers, and parents who will inevitably lean on the DEI practitioners to lead, console, and inspire. It also provides a much-needed safe haven for the practitioners themselves, especially on those challenging days when they might need a safe space the most.
4. Create realistic job descriptions and applicable titles. Prioritize creating a unique and realistic description for the DEI role that is specific to your organizational needs. While your school may have many things in common with other independent schools, the campus size, history, location, racial or other demographics, religious affiliation, and financial resources of your school might impact how your work is executed and received. Clear, thoughtful, realistic language and expectations can help DEI practitioners meet incremental goals and feel more accomplished. It’s not particularly helpful if someone’s title is “VP of institutional equity” and most of their day is spent driving a school bus for student field trips.
Set up a meeting with your DEI practitioner and with peer administrators in your area to discuss appropriate job titles and responsibilities that respect the work and the people doing it. Be creative and intentional. Look at budgets, spaces, and other designated roles within your school to ensure that all departments are working with a special lens on equity work.
5. Carefully examine compensation. DEI work is leadership! The pay should be commensurate with similar leadership roles in the school. It is not simply inherent, passion-based busy work. It is skill-based and is learned and practiced. A person in this role is likely very well-qualified to be a candidate for another type of leadership role within the school but might be boxed in by the DEI title. Many faculty of color have expressed how their participation in equity and social justice work in their schools is assumed and relied upon, but not compensated as a contribution to the overall well-being of the community. Beyond base salary, also consider reducing teaching loads and offering awards and stipends to acknowledge the value of their work. Bonuses are always welcome.
Are there ways to provide additional equity, clarity, and support? Are there additional incentives and professional development opportunities that would help move the work forward and honor the people doing it? Practitioners have a broad array of interests, skills, and needs. They might want to learn more about technology, for example, including podcasting or web design, film and literature, or even public speaking. Any and all of these skills can creatively enhance the ongoing work of social justice and equity in your school, and more important, it can help them prepare for future career and leadership positions.
6. Practice creative risk-taking. Allowing for creative execution can revitalize and uplift while influencing positive programmatic outcomes. Things don’t always have to be done the way they’ve “always been done.” This includes when and how we recognize, celebrate, and support traditionally marginalized populations within our communities. Plan ahead to best address the needs of your own school rather than doing what every other school does. Ask community members what those needs are. Talk with students frequently. Talk with faculty members. The issues that need attention are sitting right in front of you. Do not miss the opportunity to be out in front of an issue rather than doing performative triage and cleanup.
Reevaluate standing programs, processes, and traditions in your school and decide whether they best serve all community members. Are there some who feel invisible or silenced? Are racism and other -isms stifling honest reporting out by young people and adults in the community? Are there regular opportunities for affinity dialogue? Is there a clear understanding as to why and how traditionally marginalized groups might need additional support in predominantly white spaces? Are there learning spaces for the white students and adults to practice anti-racist leadership? Are there curricular gaps?
7. Create accountability. Heads must ensure that every department in the school is engaged in the work of equity building and hold them accountable. It’s not the DEI practitioner’s job to introduce this mandate to peers and colleagues. When it comes to equity, all hands should be on deck—trustees, admission, advancement, counseling, athletics, academics, marketing and communications, human resources—for learning, creating, and carrying out a school’s vision and mission for equity and inclusion.
Self-audit regularly with an internal survey or regularly scheduled accountability meetings, and make space for adequate discussions with all school teams to follow up on progress, hear challenges, and stay connected. Each head of each department should be required to set and meet goals in this effort, asking questions that help keep them on track, such as: Have we participated in professional learning this month? Is there an article we can discuss at our next meeting? Did we create a resource list to help guide our work? Have we set up norms for discussions about identity in the workplace?
8. Listen and trust. Though very rarely shared aloud, managing a multitude of racist, sexist, homophobic, or other incidents of bias—language and behaviors—involving students or colleagues can be traumatic. It is particularly draining and even triggering for DEI leaders, especially people of color. Understand that your practitioner might “need a moment.” They will need to reflect and recharge to get back in this complicated ring, so be patient and provide a glass of water and a gift card if necessary to let them know they are seen and that you care.
Make time to check in and listen, listen, and listen some more—especially when there is not a crisis unfolding. If this summer’s national racial reckoning wasn’t enough to make that clear, please hit rewind: Many DEI leaders are also qualified to be heads of school, and a few of them, thankfully, are now transitioning into these roles across the country. Make room to hear your practitioner’s proactive, creative ideas and their biggest, most outlandish dreams. Offer support and take action. Encourage self-care, flextime, and other wellness strategies that aim to alleviate the sense of isolation and responsibility for saving the world.
And most of all, trust the process of equity, inclusion, and justice work because even as the adjectives describing the profession in schools may change, the work itself consistently remains as important to your school’s success as it ever was. Trust the DEI professionals leading the charge.  


Go Deeper

The Fall 2018 issue of Independent School magazine includes a conversation between a director of equity and inclusion and a head of school about their shared work, articles about getting the board on board with DEI work and using a social justice framework to guide DEI work, and more. Purchase a copy of the issue.
Two recent NAIS research reports examine the scope of DEI work in independent schools. In “The Path to More Diverse Leadership,” a December 2019 article on the Independent Ideas blog, two NAIS staff members take a more in-depth look at the state of the diversity practice, noting that the DEI practitioner role is among the strongest stepping-stones to headship. Also on the blog, two heads of school reflect on why getting immersed in DEI work is so crucial in “Seven Reasons Heads of School Should Attend the Diversity Leadership Institute,” an August 2019 post.
Judith Osborne

Judith Osborne is an equity and inclusion practitioner at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia, and a DEI coach.