Photo by Jill Anderson
Crystal Ward, Ed.L.D.’19, came to HGSE concerned about how schools defined success for black and brown children. In her roles as a teacher, elementary school founder, and education leader, she struggled with issues of systemic racism in education.
“Despite being held up as a model leader with a successful school and reputation, it didn’t feel like it was enough. I knew the definition of success was too narrow and not enough for our children,” she says, explaining her desire to attend the Ed.L.D. Program. “I had been lauded as a leader yet felt so many gaps in my own leadership and abilities to truly effect change. I didn’t want to continue to be pushed into more senior leadership roles without adequately arming myself with an education that could transform the way I lead in this work.”
Part of her work in the Ed.L.D. Program, including her capstone, explored how to reimagine school systems so that, by design, they disrupt systemic racism. As a resident at Transcend, a nonprofit dedicated to innovation in the core design of school, Ward led two projects focused on coaching educators to innovate and envision new schools that break from traditional model. Ward will return to Transcend this fall to work as a school design partner.
Why is it important to disrupt systemic racism in schools? Children spend 13 years of their lives, eight hours a day, 180 days each year in school. Yet, by and large, school does not change the social position of our poorest and most marginalized children. This is not by accident. It is by design. We must define the purpose of school for our society in order to disrupt systemic and institutionalized racism that impacts schools.
How do we do this? Upending the historical and perpetual failure of the American education system requires disrupting the institutionalized power structures and deeply engrained mindsets that harm our entire society. Everyone in America suffers when we shy away from challenging our biases and privileges, when we remain complicit in our ignorance of authority and history, and when we choose silence over discomfort. American schools were never designed for black and brown and poor children to succeed. Schooling was designed around the idea of retaining power in the hands of a few and subjugating others to accept systemic failure as personal failure. “Fixing” education connotes the need for a simple repair, a futile idea in the face of the profound and collective societal failures we have allowed our children to experience. It is because of these hard truths that the purpose of education must be redefined and education recreated with equity as the center pillar.
Education can only live up to its promise to provide opportunity and freedom to all of America’s children when the adults and system leaders are ready to align their actions and behavior with the values they say they are committed to. It is time for us to individually reckon with giving up some aspect of our privilege and power for the greater good of our nation and our nation’s children. Educating a child in an effort to unleash the excellence, passion, and unique gifts that exist within them is an act of resistance. I am firm in my conviction that schools must be redesigned and redefined with an unwavering commitment to place equity at the center, because no child should go through 13 years of public schooling and come out inadequately prepared for their future.
How has the Ed.L.D. Program prepared you for this work? Ed.L.D. has changed me in ways I could never have imagined upon entering the program. My level of self-awareness, confidence, and calm in the face of chaos has skyrocketed as a result of the incredible program and the brilliant leaders and professors I have been privileged to learn alongside. Before the program, I was exhausted and becoming disenchanted from working tirelessly and feeling undervalued. I fell into the dangerous and virtuous cycle many black female leaders fall into who are dedicated and successful in the work — unhealthy overexertion, ignoring boundaries, and centering “work” as the primary source of my value.
I’ve learned to look deeper and more closely at why I behave in the ways that I do and started to make a habit of questioning everything instead of accepting it at face value. When I step back to actually see the influences of society, workplace culture, white dominant culture and the stereotypical tropes superimposed upon me as a black leader, it makes perfect sense why I found myself in the unhealthy cycle I came to see as normal. As a result of having three years to reflect with skills and tools to help me along the way, I have the words to name what is happening in unjust moments and no longer just carry these moments with me. I have found my voice and my confidence to “call in” colleagues that are putting more work on black and brown leaders because of their own lack of awareness and reflection. Most importantly, I walk away from Ed.L.D. convicted and clear in my own value and how profoundly important it is for me to put energy into cultivating my strengths in order to work smarter and more balanced.
What is one takeaway from your time at HGSE? Don’t go at it alone. I have been privileged to be in community with people that I now call family, and I don’t want to go back to leading alone. Leadership can feel isolated and lonely, and this program has shown me the value of collaboration. I know the outcomes for our children and the impact we can ultimately make will be more profound and effective if I am working in community with others rather than alone.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.