Strategies for Leading for Equity
To address the challenges in our schools, we took intentional steps to act on the inequities we found. These steps can be replicated in every organization.
» Build social capital.
As a superintendent, you cannot do this work alone and should not be arrogant enough to think so. My team and I started by building a coalition of influencers, people in Newburgh with social capital who were courageous and ready to act. They sat on the school board, parent associations and community-based organizations. They were respected teachers and local philanthropists.
The people we brought on board early helped us build collective will, shape language around equity and craft a districtwide equity policy and new initiatives.
» Activate agency.
For many community members, the data about inequities are not news. Many residents have lived this journey every day for far too long. As one Newburgh resident told me bluntly, “There is too much talking.” The courageous leader needs to move from rhetoric to action, to say, “Let’s face these truths and collectively do something about them. Our children only get one shot at a P-12 education. We can no longer wait.”
We offered solutions and gave people something to grab onto by celebrating milestones and quick wins.
» Create safe and healing spaces for these conversations.
Inequalities hurt. Talking about them in public is uncomfortable and can be hurtful to children and communities. It’s important to create an environment in which people feel safe speaking openly about their biases and the inequities they see in schools. Ask questions with empathy and without judgment and listen attentively to the answers.
This work is not about calling people out but calling people in. We all need to face the harsh reality of our history and our biases. In Newburgh, we found that creating a shared language codified in a district equity policy was a vital step toward creating a safe environment for talking about equity.
» Lean into your fears and take risks.
As a leader, I had to accept that this work wasn’t going to be easy and that I didn’t have all the answers. Equity work might anger those in the system who have benefited from the status quo, who are comfortable with how things are, who, consciously or not, are perpetuating certain inequities.
As the first Latino superintendent in Newburgh, I worried that community members would not be ready for my progressive ideas and the immediacy of my proposals. But the needs of our young people propelled me forward. You cannot change what you are willing to tolerate.
» Listen to all stakeholders.
Equity must be a community conversation. Too often, leaders forget to listen to their most important constituent: the students. Create a safe space for students to honestly share their insights and experiences and then use that information to determine what changes need to be made in your schools.
District leaders make a lot of decisions that impact kids every day, but we don’t have all the answers. In Newburgh, through interviews with district staff and student advisory councils, students are helping shape the new initiatives we are creating for their schools.
» Identify access points and drivers.
Be mindful that equity work is complex. No single driver in a school ecosystem will serve as the tipping point. Courageous leaders need to activate agency and develop concentric circles of effective strategies. This will allow people to “lean in” to calibrate the work. This cannot be scripted, but rather co-constructed with the people who have the lived experiences in your culture. Advancing equity is an intentional struggle.
» Stop the leadership churn.
There is constant change at the top in urban districts, resulting in a start-stop cycle. Advancing equity cannot take root if leadership is always changing. You need to be committed to the long game and learn along the way. Struggle and win together.
— ROBERTO PADILLA