Confronting Racism Together
March 01, 2021
Appears in March 2021: School Administrator.
A professional network of white superintendents leading largely white schools challenge themselves and their colleagues on racial equity
Veteran superintendent Roy Seitsinger was consulting with fellow superintendents on one district leader’s plans to promote social justice in her mostly white New England school district. The turning point in their discussion came about 15 minutes into their session.
A superintendent for about 10 years in her district, she told of receiving unanimous support from her board of education for moving forward with the initiative but now was facing vocal pushback from a small group in the community. (The superintendent is not being identified here because of the sensitivity of the issues involved.)
“The hardest part of this is looking inside,” Seitsinger advised his colleague. “The community is experiencing it the same way. … I’m telling you: The racism issue is a problem and there has to be a change. But part of that change is taking a piece of your personality and [tearing it right out].”
Tools for Supporting Superintendents in Disrupting Racism
The Superintendent Network for Personal and Professional Work on Race, Racism and Equity drew heavily on the Adaptive Leadership model developed by Ronald Heifetz at the Harvard Kennedy School, which has been used for years by Massachusetts superintendents. (See “Changing Peer Support for Superintendents” and “Connecting to the Messy Reality” in the June 2009 issue of School Administrator magazine.)
It also drew on six years of work my colleagues and I have done, helping more than 60 schools and districts address deep challenges around race and equity through the Reimagining Integration: Diverse and Equitable Schools project I founded at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (rides.gse.harvard.edu). RIDES recognizes how essential personal work about race and racism (e.g., examination of one’s own biases, privilege, skill in relating to people across differences) is to any effective professional action, either as an individual or as part of an equity team. (See the RIDES Equity Improvement Cycle for resources and tools.)
To customize this network, we asked the superintendents to anonymously write what they needed to make it work for them. In the public eye most of their days, they wanted a place they could be learners, where it would be “safe to present inchoate, unsophisticated thoughts, ideas and questions. Safe to be a novice,” as one participant put it.
They wanted to develop solidarity in struggling with their challenges so they could “stand together in our learning and share with others” and be able to “openly engage in difficult conversations about race without judgment.”
They already individually had done considerable reading about race, racism and whiteness. They wanted to be able to apply those readings in their leadership practice, to gain tools, knowledge and language, and build their confidence in using them.
To meet these needs, we used these design elements:
We called the network “personal, professional and practical” and opened our first session by asking each superintendent to give a five-minute “racial autobiography” — where they grew up, when and where they encountered people of color, challenges they faced in recognizing racism and its benefits for them and the hard parts about leading equity work. Sharing the stories built an enormous amount of trust and laid the basis for pushing each other personally, even as we explored the professional and practical.
We asked superintendents to share the articles and readings about race and racism that were of particular value to them and added readings from The Practice of Adaptive Leadership to provide common framing that would help bring the readings into practice.
We used the Adaptive Leadership consultation protocol to anchor our work to real practice and to create a culture where deep diagnosis and thoughtful recommendations replace cheerleading and quick facile suggestions.
Finally, we built in periods of reflective writing to help superintendents apply everything we did to their own personal learning and used collective reflection to help us get better at how we worked as a network.
Lee Teitel suggests these informational resources for taking up a campaign to address race, racism and equity through K-12 school leadership.
Books for Doing Personal Work:
- White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
- My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem
- How to be an Anti-Racist and Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram Kendi
Articles and Handouts for Professional Work and Workshops: