Schusterman Portfolio Spotlight: Equity by Design

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Last week, we sat down with Cheryl Thompson, a director on the Schusterman Foundation’s Education Grantmaking team. Cheryl is leading a new portfolio of work called Equity by Design. The goal of this work to make progress on two fronts: increase the retention rates of teachers of color in traditional and charter school systems and champion policies and practices that make the systems in which they work more equitable.  

Cheryl and the Education Grantmaking team launched the Equity by Design portfolio in 2018 and in January of 2019, established a Community of Practice in which five school systems already committed to working toward equity joined together in pioneering programs and policies intended to strengthen their efforts. We asked Cheryl a few questions about her approach to equity and what’s next for the Community of Practice.

Studies show that teachers of color have a significant impact on students of all backgrounds. How do you plan to help teachers of color get the support they need and bring the vision of Equity by Design to life?
We believe that the best place to start is where we already see progress. The five school systems that have committed to pioneering this work have already proven that they care about and are committed to equity. And so, for the past 18 months, we supported leaders from these five school systems with funding and by facilitating an equitable redesign process focused on leadership development and change management led by education, diversity, equity and inclusion experts. Moreover, the school systems have had the chance to get to know and collaborate with one another. By design (no pun intended), this Community of Practice has become a community of friends, supporters and allies in the effort to strengthen their equity initiatives.

What is the best way to make progress on something as important as equity?
I view this work like caring for a fish in the ocean. We have to inoculate the fish living in “polluted” water and make sure it has everything it needs to thrive. Simultaneously, we also have to care for the fish’s environment and ensure that it has clean water in which to swim.

“Cleaning the water” means removing the policies and practices that create structural inequities within a school system. We have to get to the root causes of implicit bias that ultimately prevent students from succeeding. Likewise, “caring for the fish” means providing educators of color with more accessible and compelling pathways to leadership, and supporting those already in positions of leadership with the tools and resources they need to transform the systems around them.

I am energized and inspired to do this work because I believe it is time to question and reassess and flip the status quo. Discriminatory systems have been allowed to run unchecked for too long. As education professionals, we have an opportunity to help schools across the country bring fresh thinking to bear—and that is exactly what we hope to continue to do with Equity by Design and the Community of Practice.

What are your guiding principles in this work?
Our team abides by three principles when it comes to equity work: see, be seen and foresee. Caroline Hill, founder of the 228 Accelerator, which fuels the scaling of radical and transformative ideas in schools, organizations, and communities, breaks it down like this:

  • SEE: Consider historical context. The past is present in people, things and systems of oppression. The past was designed, and the present is being designed. We are all designers.

In our Community of Practice, educators and administrators examine the history of school policies in their region. They learn how and why things have been done in the past so they can make changes for the future.

  • BE SEEN: Practice radical inclusion. The problems of equity work—racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, etc.—are rooted in our distance and our habits of exclusion. Radical inclusion is the intentional act of interrupting inequity where it lives—our separations. Recognizing the multiplicity of stories, truths, their proximities, their intersections and the people who own the stories are requisites of equity design work. This is radical inclusion.

In other words, the more stories we seek out and the more we recognize where our experiences overlap and diverge, the stronger our outcomes will be.

  • FORESEE: Treat process as product. Equity is a verb. It is the process, not an end point. When designing, both the ends and the means matter. We can’t model the future on the past; we need to live the future we want today.

Working toward equity starts by practicing equity. An inequitable process will not lead to an equitable outcome. Only by including all voices can we design a future that is inclusive of all people.

Tell us more about the “design” part of Equity by Design.
I am really inspired by the idea that we are all designers. We are architects of equity and the time to build is now. Of course, when it comes to putting together any kind of cohesive and beautiful design, we will be more successful if we work collaboratively and intentionally toward our common goals. To that end, I try to keep the following five points—also from Caroline Hill—in mind when engaging in equity work:

1. Design at the margins: We should start by designing at the edge of society; solutions at the margins work for all. Innovations based in equity diffuse inward from the bleeding edge.

For instance, superintendents might sit down with students and conduct “empathy interviews.” These conversations allow students who have been on the receiving end of a disciplinary policy to share their experience and how that policy impacted them, as well as offer their ideas for how to change the policy for the better. This is just one way to consider who is most impacted, or most marginalized, by school policies and then invite them into the center of the design process.

2. Start with yourself: Our identities (race, gender, upbringing, social status, home language, etc.) create our lens for the world and how we make sense of it. We have to be aware of this lens, and the biases it brings with it, as we design.

Often, bias is something we only attribute to others. The truth is, we all have bias. It is part of our wiring as humans, but the more awareness we have of it, the more we can sidestep its pitfalls.

3. Cede power: Everyone has power. There is often dissonance between who we are, who we aspire to be and how we behave. This reconciliation is both uncomfortable and discomfiting. This dissonance and discomfort reveal what power needs to be ceded.

In the case of “empathy interviews,” teachers would be ceding some of their power to students and then using the voices of the most marginalized to rethink and redesign the system. Importantly, this exercise would need to be more than a gesture. It would be an opportunity for educators to really listen, to step into someone else’s shoes and then embrace and implement their feedback.

4. Make the invisible visible: Implicit biases, power dynamics and invisible structures all govern relationships with people in our organizations, schools and governments. By making them visible, we can assess the impact on people and create a space for reflection and repair.

It is okay to identify, out loud, which power dynamics exist and how they might be playing a role in school policy. Much like bias, simply being aware and open about power dynamics will do a lot to diffuse their influence.

5. Speak the future, design the future: There is insidious power in language and discourse to influence and control ideas, beliefs, actions and ultimately culture. In order to write a different story, we have to use different language. We need to replace our current hegemonic discourse.

One thing I like to keep in mind is what our school systems could look like—the ideal outcomes—and then work backwards from there. It is easy to get caught up in starting with the problems we face. Instead, we encourage those in our Community of Practice to start with a clear and positive vision and build on the assets and successes already in our midst.

What’s next for the Equity by Design portfolio?
After the inaugural Community of Practice wraps up in May, we plan to follow three of the school systems over the next three years. Our goal is to assess the long-term impact of their interventions and how they affect the professional journeys of educators of color. We look forward to keeping the education community updated and sharing emerging best practices along the way.


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