Exposing inequities in your school system isn’t an easy job, but a necessary one in order to enact change, says Irvin Scott, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School who has been working with school districts on challenges in leadership.
“These inequities come from years and years of people not recognizing the systemic and structural barriers that so many children are subjected to. If you are going to change it, you have to become like a detective,” Scott says. “You have to go after inequity and investigate it.”
Much like any detective, an equity detective actively sets out to look for structural and systemic inequities in the system they work within. But the work goes beyond just setting out to break down the systems, structures, and processes that have long kept students from realizing their full potential. As Scott says, educators who want to be equity detectives should also:
1. Resist complicity. Being an equity detective is about doing something and taking action. “They refuse to be complicit, knowing that lives are at stake,” Scott says. For example, when Scott was working with a district leader who discovered that students of color and students of disability didn’t have as much access to advanced placement courses and achievement options, he couldn’t just ignore it. He exposed the problem — without playing a blame game — and began having necessary conversations within the district (with principals, teachers, students, parents) on how to improve.
2. Team up to find solutions. Systemic inequity does not happen because of one actor or action, so it cannot be undone by one actor or action, Scott says. Those closest to the work play a critical role in identifying inequities and the systems, processes, and structures that enable them. School and system level leaders can help create the conditions that enable change.
3. “Get in good trouble.” In the words of the late United States Representative John Lewis, Scott says equity detectives should be ready to muster the courage to “get in good trouble” and be willing to ruffle some feathers along the way.
4. Respond to the “beneficiaries of inequity.” Once system inequities get exposed, know there will be people who were benefiting from these structures who may get upset. Scott insists that you listen with compassion and remind them that this is about systems and structures — not placing blame on people — and explain why change must happen. Also, recognize how you might benefit from these inequities, too.
5. Use data to make inequities less personal. Data can be a critical tool for the equity detective when he or she looks closely to see who is benefiting and who is not. Scott says data can also be useful in neutralizing people’s personal feelings by focusing on what is actually happening in the district.