Even while state legislatures across the United States work to prohibit educators from engaging truthfully about structural racism and white supremacy in this country, other states seek to incorporate inclusive curriculum and diversity, equity and inclusion work. This work is necessary and ongoing. But for too long, Black and Brown people have been expected to lead DEI work—with the emotional weight that it carries—for free.
All school communities need to reckon with policies that have created inequities. Administrators and educators also need to begin the extensive work of reflection and growth to address how they have upheld supremacist structures or allowed implicit bias to harm students. But schools need innovative approaches, not the usual “solutions” that perpetuate oppressive dynamics. Schools need strategies that actively transform the system for all students, educators and families.
When the “Solution” Is Part of the Problem
Many districts have been trying to reform educational inequities. In 2015, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) began an initiative called Equity and Excellence for All. The goal of this agenda was to support diversity and inclusion in NYC public schools and better serve school communities. The DOE wanted to create a state of equity in schools, instilling the support, resources and instructional expectations to provide all students the access and opportunities they need.
This initiative prompted individual school districts to instruct their schools to create “equity teams” or “equity committees” composed of staff and administrators to assess how their school communities address equity and diversity and to begin the work of promoting inclusion. Equity teams assess a school’s understanding of implicit bias and how that may affect teachers’ instructional practices. Equity teams also review school policies and curriculum to investigate adherence to culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy.
What emerges in this reckoning process, however, is a popular yet problematic solution. Many schools employ volunteer-based DEI groups. Initiatives like this create troubling dynamics because equity teams often call upon BIPOC and other marginalized teachers to drive change. School leaders—who research shows are predominately white—may see this as an opportunity to allow the people long denied participation to have a voice in making change and establishing an open dialogue among staff. Volunteer-based school equity committees, though, are problematic because they exist based on the notion of free labor from the same people who are most in need of equity.
While often well intended, this practice can be harmful to Black and Brown staff. A small minority of teachers in the U.S. public education system are teachers of color. So, when a school has a few Black and Brown teachers, usually women, they call upon these educators to volunteer to join DEI initiatives on a school or district level. This increasingly common practice does not promote equity.
Instead, it upholds the normalization of the unpaid mental and emotional labor of BIPOC people, particularly women, that is evident throughout the history of social activist movements. For so long in our country’s history—the mobilization of Black women in Georgia during the 2020 presidential election is a recent example—BIPOC women, especially Black women, have worked for social progress and equity for free. Asking BIPOC women to do even more work, like leading school DEI initiatives, communicates that it’s acceptable to use unpaid Black and Brown labor to promote equity. Yet, equity and unpaid labor cannot co-exist.
Get Serious About Equity
Ad hoc measures to address long-standing issues like racism and inequality are not sustainable. If school districts are serious about promoting equity, they need to give teachers the appropriate time, support and resources to make that happen. If we want to address DEI in schools in an actual, equitable manner, schools need to hire Black and Brown staff instead of asking them to do the work for free.
Special roles should be created and funded to give expert and knowledgeable educators the opportunity to create sustainable change in their school communities. Instead of temporary teams, schools need to focus their efforts on actual school-level departments with staff who can fully focus on doing the immense and crucial work needed.
We also need to address the fact that leading DEI work while already being marginalized is emotionally taxing and even traumatizing for Black, Brown and other marginalized educators. Educators of color should not be expected to sacrifice their time, effort and personal well-being to do equity work in schools. An additional part of being properly supported and compensated, then, is also receiving the proper mental health support to sustain this work.
If we want to create equitable schools and classrooms, we need to be equitable in the practices that get us there. Relying on the free labor and time of the oppressed to teach those who are most privileged just perpetuates the very inequities schools are trying to eradicate. Black and Brown educators leading the change in transforming schools deserve not only to have their perspectives recognized—but to do so on their own terms with full support and compensation.