The Conversation: Is Momentum for Equity and Justice Work Waning?

Winter 2022

Capture.JPGIn the summer of 2020, amid the George Floyd protests and the revelations from the [email protected] Instagram accounts, many schools and educators renewed their commitments to their existing DEI initiatives and began to do their own personal work. Many hired more DEI staff and made an effort to put their equity work front and center. Now that schools have returned to a more normal cadence while living with the anxieties of the ongoing pandemic, has enthusiasm for equity and inclusion work waned in our schools?
That’s what Nimisha Barton and Regan Galvan, who met as colleagues at Vistamar School (CA), found themselves wondering last spring. The two women, who embraced the intersection of their roles—directors of equity and inclusion and teaching and learning respectively—and forged a friendship and professional collaboration while partnering on several schoolwide initiatives. A year and a half later, they suspected that racial justice work in schools was already slowing amid the exhaustion of the pandemic. And they knew they were not the only ones with this hunch.
In April 2021, they facilitated a California Teacher Development Collaborative workshop focused on sustaining racial justice work while honoring the real fatigue that so many in education are feeling. They reflected together on what they heard in the workshop and have since continued their conversation, excerpted here, exploring why schools are losing momentum and how they can bring it back.
Regan Galvan: Diversity was a founding principle at our school. Before COVID-19, our agenda was robust and full. And as the momentum to do this work took hold, folks leaned in even more. We saw more attendance at DEI committee and affinity meetings, and greater interest in grading for equity and teaching for social justice. The question became how to focus interest, as having too many new initiatives isn’t sustainable. As director of equity and inclusion, did you have your own unique challenges?
Nimisha Barton: There were lots of initiatives well underway for some time, from student affinity and interest group programs to anti-bias hiring processes. As protests erupted across the country, many of our schools could point to the DEI work that directors had been doing for a while, so it was really important to maintain that work. But you’re right, equity and inclusion work took on a new urgency, and DEI directors know that we have to take advantage of that energy and enthusiasm while it lasts.
I have spent a nonnegligible amount of time facilitating racial healing forums for students, staff, faculty, alumni, and parents, creating spaces where folks could process these historic events. The [email protected] accounts across indy schools called attention to the need for equity in restorative discipline protocols, so this also became a major priority of summer 2020. The window to help our most marginalized students was wide open, and I needed to make as much progress as I could in that short amount of time.
Galvan: It sounds like you anticipated that energy for DEI would wane?
Barton: I did. But I don’t think I’m much different than other equity practitioners. One of my mentors who works in DEI in higher ed says: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” It’s not pretty, but it’s accurate. DEI practitioners know to strike while the iron is hot, when there’s sudden attention—and in particular, white attention—on issues of equity and justice. Thankfully, there are always a few allies we can count on to understand the necessity of this work. As a white woman, what motivated you? Certainly you must have been feeling the exhaustion, too.
Galvan: Exhausted for sure but also invigorated by the energy. I know this isn’t an original idea, but DEI work tends to live in siloed committees in many independent schools. That summer, it gained a wider and whiter audience. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it started to feel less urgent toward the end of the 2020–2021 school year. Across the nation, energy shifted in schools to other school priorities—reopening, hybrid plans, and keeping students safe, all under this cloud of uncertainty. It was hard to balance sensitivity to cognitive load—teachers had just launched a new online school due to the pandemic—with keeping justice and equity work at the forefront of the agenda.
Barton: As it turned out, we weren’t alone in thinking that equity work had stalled. At the start of our workshop in April, we asked: What challenges do folks who engage in equity and justice work in schools (administrators and teachers) currently face? People named everything from teachers struggling with the content and delivery of anti-racist pedagogy to DEI directors who seemed to become solely responsible for the education of the entire school community. Moreover, folks voiced frustration about the fact that it’s always the same people who do the work while others opt out.
Galvan: Yes, and participants also named the tension around pace and having to move faster or slower to appease all constituents. Folks mentioned having to be patient and go at the pace of white colleagues holding onto “tradition” while also trying to meet the needs of their students of color.
Barton: Participants also wanted to see more than superficial or performative change. Beyond the institutional statements of support, what were our schools doing to promote real change?
Galvan: We heard stories, too, about white fatigue with ongoing conversations about race. As schools run out of the light lifts and goodwill, do white folks grow indifferent to DEI work because they just no longer want to think about racism and inequality? Maybe this speaks to what Robin DiAngelo calls racial stamina, which is about developing the stamina to have hard conversations about race, power, and justice. In the face of our white colleagues’ racial fatigue and fatigue with race talk, how can we move forward with equity work?
In planning the workshop, we started naming best practices in DEI that independent schools have tried, and as we did, we started to cluster and arrange them along a spectrum to visualize how equity work evolves in our schools. We started to see a framework emerging and wondered if this framework for thinking about the continuum of DEIJ work might be helpful for other schools that similarly felt stuck. We imagined it could be a useful in-progress tool that could help folks imagine where they’ve been, where they are, and where they need to go.
Galvan: Culture is embodied by policies and practices. And we need to change culture, which means the dominant culture has to stop being dominant. The chart we created and eventually shared in our workshop (see “The DEIJ Continuum” at left) can make those things visible, as well as some of the wider values that contribute to the practices under the DEIJ label.
Barton: Committing to diversity is the first step for so many schools. And, as the first column of the chart illustrates, much of the work schools do is about highlighting the positives of a diverse community and taking performative actions. The watchword of diversity work is colorblindness. Through the language of multiculturalism, we’re eager to celebrate differences, but we don’t think—or won’t think—about histories of systemic oppression. We often lack a common DEI vocabulary. In this mode, DEI directors mostly serve as crisis managers on behalf of their schools; for instance, when a racist incident occurs at school, school leaders call the DEI director immediately to help navigate the messy situation.
Galvan: Next on the journey is equity. This is where the school’s actions shift to reduce harm, folks gain more of a DEI vocabulary, the school spends more time “doing the work,” and school community members/leaders ask more questions. They create affinity spaces and committees, though they might meet over lunch on their own time. The subtext is perhaps “do what you like, we won’t stop you.”
Barton: Then comes inclusion. Inclusion is often conflated with assimilation, something we do not endorse. Inclusion is oriented toward belonging. It entails both curricular and cocurricular actions that speak to how institutions wish to create that sense of belonging for everyone in our community.
Galvan: And as we move toward justice, belonging becomes embedded in practice and culture, such that our time is scheduled to build belonging and attend to systems that create and maintain justice. Perhaps we see a thriving restorative discipline process. Perhaps folks are questioning practices with an abolitionist lens, and this questioning isn’t just permitted, it’s expected and encouraged. Programmatically, perhaps the school has eliminated tracking and has evolved assessment and grading practices. The classroom is a space not just for the delivery of content and skills but for the explicit purpose of critical consciousness-building and social justice. Folks at schools in this column can name white supremacy culture in a meeting without people freaking out. The school knows it is predominantly white (which is often the case in independent schools), can name whiteness, and knows that DEI work is actually whiteness work. The culture is centered on rethinking schools and questioning the stuff that (usually) doesn’t get questioned.
Barton: Since the workshop, I’ve continued to rely on this framework, almost as a diagnostic tool when working with other independent schools. And in my equity consulting, I like to riff on the important question you posed in our workshop. You asked participants to first reflect on where their school fell on this DEIJ spectrum. And then, critically, you asked: If you are white, would your colleagues of color agree? If you are a person of color, would your white colleagues agree? That little question opens up space for the kind of in-depth and often uncomfortable conversations we need to have more of.
Galvan: Something from this framework that sticks with me is being able to name white supremacy culture, like politeness, fear of conflict, etc., and specifically how it covertly hinders progress. Naming whiteness can be tricky. It’s like how Dolly Chugh points out in her book The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, asking good, caring people to see the intricacies of systemic racism leads folks to feeling less good. We have moving conversations about the impact of white supremacy culture in our white anti-racist affinity space, but how can we bring this conversation outside the affinity space, into the mainstream, knowing that it’s going to activate hard feelings. I feel fear, but given my racial identity as a white woman, I need to get over it.
Barton: I appreciate your naming that hesitancy, which is understandable. But I can’t emphasize enough how critical it is that DEI directors get that assist from white allies. People of color—and especially DEI directors—risk a lot, personally and professionally, when they try to bring the issues you just identified to the fore. White folks can use their privilege to have conversations that nonwhite people can’t have. That is one way you keep momentum going.
Free up your DEI practitioner to be able to get work done so they’re not tied up fighting the culture war. Our allies are doing that, and they’re bringing in their white and white-adjacent people along with them. White folks have a particular responsibility to show up and keep showing up, to get used to the discomfort of race talk. And while we don’t want our framework to serve as a checklist, we do hope that it might help all independent school folks visualize where they’re at and have some direction for how to move forward. 

The DEIJ Continuum

When Barton and Galvan planned a workshop, they started naming best practices in DEI that independent schools have tried. As they did, they started to cluster and arrange them along a spectrum to visualize how equity work evolves in our schools. They started to see a framework for thinking about the continuum of DEIJ work emerging and wondered if it could be a useful in-progress tool that could help schools imagine where they’ve been, where they are, and where they need to go.
  • Positives and performatives
  • Colorblind multiculturalism
  • Mission statements
  • Hire DEI director
  • Rainbow image on school social media
  • Multicultural student clubs
  • Identity wheel for student activities
  • History of the month curriculum
  • Read Ibram X. Kendi
  • DEI as reactive crisis management
  • Actions to reduce harm
  • Climate survey
  • Unpaid DEI staff/faculty volunteers
  • DEI vocabulary
  • Blind spots, microaggressions, implicit bias
  • Financial aid without extras
  • Lunchtime affinity/interest groups
  • Adult affinity spaces for people of color
  • Iceberg student activities
  • Read Robin DiAngelo
  • One-off cultural competency workshops
  • Proactive
  • Focused on student experience
  • Solidarity statements
  • Paid DEI labor
  • Communication norms
  • Financial aid with extras
  • Curriculum-driven affinity and interest groups for students, staff, faculty, and families
  • Read Zaretta Hammond
  • Ongoing staff/faculty DEI professional development and cultural competency training
  • Embedded DEI practice
  • Culture shift
  • Critical whiteness frameworks
  • Expanded and paid DEI team
  • Community partnerships and reconciliation
  • Naming white supremacy
  • Staff/faculty accountability mechanisms
  • Anti-racist white affinity spaces for students, staff, faculty, parents
  • Restorative discipline
  • Read Bettina Love
  • Abolitionism

Do You Have a Conversation to Share? 

Have you had a great conversation with a colleague recently that broke down silos or got you thinking about your work in a new way? Have you chatted with someone on (or off) campus that led to an unexpected collaboration? Tell us about it. Do you know of—or are you a part of—a great student–teacher duo? We want to hear about it. Send a brief description to [email protected], and we’ll follow up.