So you want to combat inequities in your school district? Many district leaders looking to kick-start such efforts begin by hiring an equity leader or diversity officer. But Tauheedah Baker-Jones, chief equity and social justice officer at Atlanta Public Schools, recommends that districts not hire equity chiefs before first doing the ground work.
The average equity officer holds the position for nearly three years, in roles that can be isolating and challenging, she says, and often lacking the proper supports. “They don’t have the budgets to support the work they need to do. They don’t have the staff on hand and the capacity that they need to support the work that they need to do. And, most importantly, they don’t have access to the power in the power structures that they need so they can move the work,” says Baker-Jones, who earned a doctorate in education leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Those three things result in isolation, burnout, and turnover.”
To avoid that, districts should have a plan in place for knowing what the equity office is going to do — and how they are going to do it. Here, Baker-Jones offers five ways that district leaders can build an environment critical to an equity officer’s success:
1. Align, align, align. Before hiring your equity leader, a proactive district needs to have a clear commitment and an understanding of its equity goals reflected in the mission and in policies. “Policy drives everything. If it's not written in policy, then it probably isn't going to be done because you don't have the accountability and legitimacy you need,” Baker-Jones says.
Districts should also have a strategic plan, grounded in equity, that articulates what equitable instruction looks like for children from historically marginalized and underserved communities.
“We don't have the luxury of doing this work wrong, rushing to do it, or not being intentional in our efforts because we risk further traumatizing groups of students who have already been adversely impacted by the system,” she says.
2. Find the money and the mentorship. Baker-Jones recommends having the finances in place to support the work and also to hire a team to support the equity officer. Before she took on the position of equity officer in Atlanta, her district secured funding from several major foundations, allowing them to reorganize two department and create 10 new positions to support the work.
Mentorship is also needed, particularly for those who are new to the equity officer position or even to DEI work. Baker-Jones recommends making your equity officer’s development a priority, investing in executive coaching, and connecting the equity officer with job-alike colleagues in other areas, or even in other sectors, for ongoing support and knowledge transfer.
“This field is so new that it’s hard to find people with experience,” she says, or with the right mix of skill sets, including knowledge of DEI best practices, change management, systems thinking, and strategic communications. “You are looking for a unicorn and the stakes are high.”
3. Make equity a part of every department in the district. While it’s great to have a mission in place, Baker-Jones says that equity work doesn’t live in just one department or division. Instead, equity needs to find a place in every department of the district. This work will look different depending on the district and the leadership in place. “Equity-focused leadership is about how you execute the vision so it lives not just in the office but in every nook and cranny In the system,” she says. “But no one can do that if they don’t have the mission, vision, policies and funding in place before they get there.”
4. Give your equity officer a seat at the table. Equity leaders’ jobs can be isolating and challenging, and often require the support and protection of powerful leaders in a district. Since the work isn’t completed in just three years — the average superintendent’s tenure — Baker-Jones says equity officers benefit from being positioned as part of the senior leadership team. This work, she says, often means facing dominant groups who don’t fully understand or shining a light on what no one wants to see.
“Equity officers are the flashlights of the district,” Baker Jones says. “People would rather hear comforting lies than uncomfortable truths, and an equity officer’s job is to tell those uncomfortable truths…. It can be isolating and emotionally exhaustive…. They shouldn’t feel like they are doing it alone.”
5. Build community support. In certain parts of the country, equity can be a triggering word that requires buy-in from the entire school community. “Many people view the work of equity as a zero-sum game. That in order to provide access and resources to one group, you must take them from another. This could not be furthest from the truth. When all of our students are valued, affirmed and supported, our system will succeed,” Baker-Jones says. She recommends using a framework for racial equity that she developed called Define Narrate Act (DNA):
- Define the terms you’ll be using such as how you define equity, antiracism, or belonging. What do those terms mean in your district? Make sure everyone has an understanding of what you really mean.
- Narrate why you are doing this work, what the data says, and why you want buy in from the community.
- Act (affirm, counter, and transform) is about taking the steps needed to affirm equity in your community, counter any resistance that you might be working against, and determine how to transform the mindsets of people in opposition to the work.
Work with your school’s communications team to outline terms and to figure out your district’s equity concerns. Baker-Jones says the community sometimes needs to be reminded that equity is not about taking from one group and giving to another, but it’s about an opportunity for all students to have what they need to be successful.