When Forbes Magazine released its list of America's 100 Most Innovative leaders in September, it included only one female without even a photo. The resulting firestorm mostly centered around a lack of gender equality. A cursory look at the list also showed a lack of racial diversity.
Yes, Forbes "blew it" as its editor acknowledged on Twitter. It is important to understand such a flawed ranking in the context of who leads our American education systems. We as a society have evolved through legislation such as the 13th,14th, and 15th Amendments, as well as Title IX, to legally bind racist, biased and sexist practices in education. Yet, our school and system leaders do not reflect the majority of students. Leaders of color, and particularly women of color, are experiencing the repercussions of the corporate models even in the education space.
Our young people, the majority of whom are also of color, are essential to the reorganization of our education system that was built with racist policies and foundations. It's time for change.
Women of color in the 21st century still find not only a concrete reinforced ceiling but a systematic mindset that their roles are typecasted to a classroom teacher, principal and an allotted few in district and CMO positions. In fact, in the 2019 AASA The School Superintendents Association Salary and Benefits Study based on 1,433 respondents, 90 percent of superintendents were white and overwhelmingly male. Thus making women of color in education endangered, not only in the classroom but at the tables where decisions made can impact the next generation. Our young people, the majority of whom are also of color, are essential to the reorganization of our education system that was built with racist policies and foundations. It's time for change.
To better understand where we are now and the lengths to which we as women of color must go to ensure our voices are heard in this complex system, we must understand the historical role played by women of color in education centuries before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case came about. Shortly after the inception of public schools in the United States, white women outnumbered males in the teaching workforce. But even then, it was only because the women were seen as "cheaper." After slavery was outlawed, women of color, primarily Black women teaching in the segregated schools of the South, were meant to groom their students for a life of domestic servitude and limited opportunities post-graduation where Black codes that grew into Jim Crow laws confined Blacks to jobs with low wages. The decision of Brown v. Board of Education, while eradicating segregation of public schools on paper if not in total practice, also triggered the decline of educators of color. Decades following the Supreme Court case, 38,000 Black teachers and 2,000 Black principals lost their jobs. The more schools integrated, the less white-lead school boards and faculty hired educators of color as part of their staff. This is just one of many examples of institutional racism which is the systematic distribution of resources, power, and opportunity in our society and its legacy continues to regenerate at this moment.
Whether we realize it or not, we see our students and colleagues through racialized lenses, and if we aren't mindful about our actions, we can actually perpetuate these segregationist structures.
Today, our system still lacks inclusive representation. Only 20% of the teaching workforce is non-white compared to the 51% of non-white students we serve and we are collectively doing those students an injustice. Research shows that when a student of color has a teacher who shares their same race and ethnic background, their learning grows exponentially and they look beyond to their career aspirations. Yet when I became a new teacher, I was a part of only 6.7% of Black women, and when I became a principal in 2009, I counted as part of the 20% non-white principals in this country. The likelihood of us having colleagues with shared experiences is low and comes with its own implications such as unconsciously enacting internalized racism on students and peers who look just like us if we are not aware.
This lack of inclusive representation continues to permeate when nearly three-quarters of executives in a survey released by the Center for Talent Innovation in 2019 stated their protégés were the same race or gender as them. Leadership takes sponsorship, no matter the industry, private or public. Sponsorship needs to be more inclusive in order to bring more talents, skills and thinking into our systems.
The more schools integrated, the less white-lead school boards and faculty hired educators of color as part of their staff.
It is essential that we equip women of color in education, like my colleagues at UnboundEd, our partner organizations and those in our cohorts serving schools across the country with leadership tools to navigate the system. This system must also be modernized and re-built equitably. The original system was built to educate the most privileged of white male students. Almost 20 years into the 21st century, we strive to construct a system that educates ALL students with the rigor and equity to lead our country forward as our next professionals, voters, and civic leaders.
We declare that we are the system now and the system is for everyone, every leader, every student, every family. That's what equity brings.
So, what's our responsibility as women of color educators and where do we begin to dismantle a system that was designed to not include us at all? We start by acknowledging the need to do the intentional work of undoing years of internalized racism. We must be honest about our own journey as educators, one filled with assimilationist ideas and incentives that so often dilute the beauty of our true intellectual selves. Whether we realize it or not, we see our students and colleagues through racialized lenses, and if we aren't mindful about our actions, we can actually perpetuate these segregationist structures. We must reflect on how our daily behaviors create cycles of inequity in our schools and organizations.
We also become students again. We learn about our collective histories. We learn about ourselves. We learn about people who are different from us and how much we are alike inside. We learn to understand that race is a power construct that must be countered with anti-racist teaching, ideas and policies, as argued by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi in How to be an Antiracist. We must be bold in the face of complacency and the "that's not how we do things here" mindset. We grow in our learning and in our boldness to hold courageous conversations with our white and non-white peers. We must all see our students as creative, resourceful and whole no matter their race, ethnicity, zip code, language or other power constructs.
We model this learning for our students and advocate for changes in our systems. When American history's default is the white experience, we must demand inclusion. Why should the rich histories and American legacies of our students of color be remanded to elective selections? We should all experience the beauty of seeing ourselves as leaders, presidents, trailblazers, scientists, inventors, writers, and any other aspect encompassed in leadership.
All of this work takes work. It takes time. And, it will be worth it. What more of us will understand is that equity benefits us all. It is the true—if not originally intended—meaning of the words found in our Declaration of Independence that "All men are created equal." This has never been the case but it can be the future we--all genders and identities--co-design. We declare our independence of the old race construct that dis-serves and under-serves students and adults of color in our education system. We declare that we are the system now and the system is for everyone, every leader, every student, every family. That's what equity brings. It includes the participation and leadership of the marginalized so everyone contributes to the success of the whole. That's what America's schools can be about. Let's get to work. Let's move forward together.
This article was originally published October 11, 2019.
WRITTEN BYLacey Robinson