Where to Begin?
School Administrator, March 2021
PHOTO COURTESY OF ODIE DOUGLAS
“You can’t mandate what is really heart work.”
That’s how veteran district leader Odie Douglas advises leaders seeking to advance racial equity work. From the time he began as associate superintendent in Elk Grove, Calif., in 1996 until he left the district nine years later, Douglas led an anti-racism, anti-bias approach that grew from 25 faculty to nearly 2,000 educators and community members. His approach provides a useful example of the ways district leaders can begin to shift mindsets.
Elk Grove Unified School District is the fifth largest district in California, encompassing 320 square miles including urban, suburban and rural communities. With 64 schools serving more than 60,000 students, Douglas knew he could not be the sole champion of anti-racism work in the district.
Douglas adopted a long-term, strategic approach that included data analysis as well as changing practices and beliefs. He knew the work needed to be led by teachers, so when a teacher expressed enthusiasm for leading her peers in SEED seminars — monthly, structured discussions and experiences to understand racism and other forms of discrimination — he seized the opportunity.
In the first year, one trained teacher led a SEED seminar with 25 colleagues. Interest spread, and Douglas and teacher leaders recruited more facilitators. Nine years later, there were SEED seminars at 37 of the district’s schools and programs. More than 100 teacher leaders had received training to facilitate the work with nearly 2,000 of their peers.
In addition to sponsoring their training, Douglas established an advisory board of teacher leaders to support and build the capacity of facilitators. The board established monthly facilitator meetings designed to sustain teachers who were leading this challenging work.
Douglas knew that as anti-racism/anti-bias work spread across the district, it could make people uncomfortable, so he sought to head off concerns proactively. For example, he took the superintendent’s cabinet to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. He sponsored community members to get trained to lead SEED seminars with community representatives. This had an impact. When a far-right national organization targeted the school-based seminars for including LGBTQ perspectives, members of the local community spoke up about the value of the work.
Outside evaluators from the University of Southern Maine found an impact in classrooms and schools. Teachers changed their reading lists for the first time in decades and included voices from a range of perspectives. Schools included more students of color in AP and honors classes. High schools established Gay-Straight Alliances, Teens for Tolerance clubs, and the Historically Black College Tour. At a yearly event, students of all racial backgrounds spoke to teachers about the ways racism and white privilege played out in their classes.
Above all, teachers made changes in their day-to-day practice. One teacher said, “As a result [of attending the seminars], I have taken a more active role in confronting issues of race and prejudice in my classroom. I think differently as a result of my involvement in SEED and also now have the vocabulary to deal effectively with difficult issues.”
— GAIL CRUISE-ROBERSON AND SARAH FIARMAN