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As a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioner, it is my responsibility to examine the systems, structures, behaviors, and postures of my educational institution year over year. “The work,” as we call it, is about leaving no stone unturned, no dark hallway unlit, and no closet unopened. Schools need to search consistently for answers to the most urgent questions in service of the people they are designed to represent and serve.
As school leaders and key decision-makers in our institutions, we also must accept that there is no defined destination in the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our articulation of this fact as we continue to lead and advise our communities can help stakeholders in our school manage their expectations. They can pace themselves for a marathon, rather than shortsightedly prepare for an all-out sprint to nowhere with little to no time to recover between efforts and initiatives.
There is not a single destination we seek, friends. There is only a journey full of twists, turns, and unknowns that continues as we learn and evolve. Where does that leave us amid a continued health pandemic and social pandemic, all while fighting to keep our schools healthy and emotionally safe places for the communities we serve? I hope that you have slowed down during this time to recalibrate and find a speed you can maintain.
It’s a fine time to take stock and inventory of where you’ve been, where you are, and what’s next in your journey of deepening your understanding of equity work as it lives in your institution. This time can help you make positively impactful decisions that are mission-aligned, values-centered, and sustainable.
Whether your school has adopted a DEI-focused strategic plan or has been solely creating space for crucial conversations around DEI-related topics, the work of equity as it relates to deepening our awareness of every individual’s life in our communities will continue to call us to the table. So, how can we examine the concept of more meaningful community engagement through the lens of equity? I’d say by honoring every life each day.
Equity is when every individual in a community is uniquely offered the tools, resources, and opportunities that they need based on their identity to be successful; to thrive. Equality, when everyone receives the same tools, resources, opportunities, etc., is different. The two mustn’t be conflated as we create goals, define key performance indicators, and measure our organizational growth.
Doing equity work in our schools looks like honoring every life each day: acquiring the resources people have identified a need for, amplifying those marginalized voices, and finding tangible ways to demonstrate allyship to one another. We cannot speak of the authentic equity work we hope to see happening across our school communities without speaking about what must be our fierce commitment to more meaningful community engagement practices across our institutions.
Community engagement is characterized by the involvement and participation of stakeholder groups in an organization for the benefit and overall health of a community. Meaningful community engagement work flows abundantly in communities where people experience feeling genuinely seen, heard, valued, and cared for in their holistic identities (i.e., a true sense of belonging), in the fullness of who they feel they are. Only when we see our community members in their totality can we accurately assess their needs. We know that when people feel seen, heard, known, and valued, their contributions are richer, more plentiful, and effortless. This is true of both the children we serve and the adults we trust in carrying the business of our schools forward each day. Every person across a community has the things they require to experience success. How is your community positioned to examine equity as it relates to your identity as an organization?
For me, meaningful community engagement work at its best invites people across differences to come to the table ready to share perspectives, actively listen, honestly share, and show up prepared to be changed. When was the last time you remember entering a dialogue with a colleague, a friend, a parent, or a student, with the space in your heart and mind to be truly changed by their story, their lived experience, and their truth?
Our schools will continue to evolve in a way that uplifts equity work if we focus on community engagement efforts that are: 1) intended to replace the narratives that no longer serve us with the stories we haven’t felt ready to tell, 2) created to trade the comfortable for the uncomfortable so we might pursue the remarkable, and 3) designed to acknowledge the dynamic ways that community members can be different from one another.
As school leaders and key decision-makers, we must be brave enough to ask the difficult questions and sit with the healthy tension that conversations around equity can bring about. This includes people not feeling confidently positioned, adequately supported, or safeguarded by their institutions. The work of these conversations isn’t free from hardship, but it’s crucial to the overall growth of our institutions.
The journey continues as we live the stories of our institutions. How does your community honor every life each day so that community engagement practices and your equity work have no light between them? What has the last year demonstrated to you about the identity of your institution and your current posture toward equity work? What happens next?