Equity Work Should Start From the Top

Two former leaders of one of the nation’s largest school districts encourage their fellow school and district leaders to work for equity in their schools and share their expertise and recommendations.
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Editor’s note: This article was written before the authors took different positions in education equity work. It reflects their valuable experience at the time of publication.

As the assistant superintendent and director of equity affairs for Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina, we are part of a small but dynamic team committed to disrupting inequities in one of the nation’s largest school systems. Too often, opportunity gaps for students have been tied to social and cultural identities—including race, family income and disability status—in our district and in districts across the country. As equity leaders, our work should be grounded in eliminating negative student outcomes too often based on these inequities. 

We believe that equity work is non-negotiable and must be part of the DNA of any school or district. It doesn’t matter whether we call it equity; diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI); or another title. As leaders, we must all commit to this work. We must face the reality that we are in an ongoing fight to disrupt inequity wherever it exists. 

In our district, we accomplish this by setting the conditions that encourage and inspire other educators to lead equity work: intentionally creating opportunities for new learning around equity challenges, changing attitudes and mindsets regarding equity challenges, and partnering with students and families who are closest to the gaps. 

Equity leadership is among the most challenging work educators can engage in. Years of experience, advanced degrees and professional affiliations don't prepare someone to dismantle inequities in our schools or society. In our district, we see equity leadership as “adaptive” in nature. There is no checklist, no managerial task that will bring about widespread equity change. 

Because there are segments of our community that oppose the district’s approach to addressing equity challenges, we must think deeply about some critical questions: What is equity leadership in the face of resistance? How do we constructively confront the naysayers? And how do we work to keep the district’s focus on achieving greater levels of DEI? 

We face our fair share of opposition, but we believe in the work we do. And while there is certainly no single path to navigating this work, we have found some key competencies that help us—and that we hope can help other leaders work for equity in their districts as well.


Build a coalition.

While some members of your organization will be excited and willing to talk about critical topics like race and privilege, others may not be. To build your coalition, start where people are ready to work. Allowing multiple entries to the work means that we meet our community where they are—just like we do with our students. People who may feel uncomfortable digging into race theory may be open to talking about LGBTQ+ issues, discipline disproportionality or class assignments. As we welcome them to the equity conversation through coaching and leadership, this work becomes more approachable and intentional. 


Seek out partners for the work. 

Look beyond yourself and your team to other departments, community alliances and nonprofit organizations. Find educators, community members and neighboring districts who are doing this work. Partnering with the community means that the people who are most affected by the inequities are involved in the conversation. These are the allies who will stand with you when times are hard. Equally as important, they are the people who will support your work in their own respective spaces. And if you ever need to stand up and defend your work, having allies means that you are not alone—and that is powerful. 


Build capacity.

Recognize that coaching and leadership are essential to setting the conditions for equity work to thrive, but you should also consider how you’ll ensure that the work isn’t dependent on any one person. Find support for building policy language and offering new learning opportunities for team members. Develop a “succession plan” of sorts to ensure that the equity work will continue as part of the system rather than dissolve when faced with leadership changes or budget problems. Build capacity across your team. School and district leaders can set up coaching structures either internally or with an external partner. Both approaches have benefits, but remember that coaching others allows for your own reflection and strategizing around equity work. 


Find the language and policies you need.

Identify your anchors, core beliefs, strategic plans, agreements or whatever name you and your district use. Large organizations and districts have usually done the work to identify what they are all about. Does the language match the equity work in your district? Are you backed up by the values and policies that will allow you to keep pushing? Teachers have standards to back their work; we need these backbones of our organization to anchor what we do. Each time we start a new initiative or meet resistance to our work, we know we have the backing of our organization to keep going. This reassurance gives us the freedom to keep moving forward. 


Focus on systems.  

Equity work is not a one-off professional development training or an office that works in isolation. This work requires embedded and systemic shifts. Diversity, equity and inclusion must be infused within the very fabric of your organization, school or district. The transportation department needs to be operating with an equity lens just as much as an academic department, and so on. While traditional leadership is top-down, equity leadership looks more like a lattice—everyone from families to support staff to educators all the way to the school board must be in. This is even more important if you have a district that is not rooted in core beliefs or values that reflect the equity work you are trying to do. Embedding the work in the system itself is a critical part of it being sustainable and evergreen. 

To lead diversity, equity and inclusion work, we must be strategic and focused on our pursuits of systemic change. Focusing on large-scale school and district inequities can be exhausting and stressful, but we have to keep this in mind: We are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work every day for all our students. 

Trice is the former assistant superintendent for equity affairs in the Wake County Public School System. Mascareñaz is the former director of equity affairs in the Wake County Public School System and the author of Evident Equity.