(Part I of a two-part series)
By Melia LaCour
Executive Director, Equity in Education, Puget Sound Educational Service District
Educational Service Agencies (ESAs) are uniquely positioned to provide catalytic leadership for widespread, socially just, educational transformation. By building their own capacity to dismantle the institutional racism entrenched in our educational system, ESAs, in collaboration with their local districts, communities and other partners, can improve both academic and life outcomes for hundreds if not thousands of black and brown students. How can an ESA begin to build the capacity to achieve this goal?
In 2008, the leadership at Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), in Renton, Washington, answered this call. Initiated by former Superintendent, Dr. Monte Bridges and Deputy Superintendent, Janice Watson, agency leadership set the course in motion by establishing two critical goals. The first was to reimagine and redesign the role and function of the PSESD. Leaders engaged in this endeavor by reflecting on two fundamental questions: Are we a “shopping mall” where districts can access affordable, quality services to assist them in attaining academic excellence? Or, are we a regional organizer and galvanizer with a vision and plan to end egregious opportunity gaps across our thirty-five school districts?
An audacious goal
The answer to this question was clear for many reasons. Influenced by the book Good to Great, by James C. Collins, agency leadership opted to shift from the shopping mall approach to create a “Big, Hairy Audacious Goal” that could unify the agency in a new way. According to Collins, such a “bold mission” is like a “moon mission” for “it’s clear and compelling and serves as the unifying focal point of effort – often creating immense team spirit.” (Collins and Porras, 2018) Agency leaders further expounded by explaining that such a significant goal literally requires a whole agency or institution to reorganize itself to reach the goal. If the agency was to play an influencing role in closing regional opportunity gaps, then the model would need to change.
Secondly, leadership understood that such a move could have a significant and far-reaching impact. One of nine Educational Service Districts (ESDs) in the state, the PSESD is by far the largest. The agency serves 35 school districts which accounts for 40% of the students in the state. By reorganizing the agency to better meet the evolving needs of the districts, students, families, and communities served, the PSESD could create the most effective structure to carry out this formidable and socially just mission.
After much discussion with the PSESD Board and staff, this audacious goal was established and reflected in a new agency End or vision, “Success for Each Child and Eliminate the Opportunity Gap by 2020.” For the first time in its history, the PSESD adopted a centralized goal to re-organize its work.
With this new vision, a second goal emerged. As agency staff members began to unpack the meaning of this new direction and the implications for their work, many felt strongly that the agency prioritize closing opportunity gaps for students of color. National, regional, and state data demonstrated myriad of ways the educational system was failing black and brown students. In 2008, state tests, measured by the Washington State Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), revealed dismal outcomes for students of color across almost every grade level in the state and PSESD region. For example, less than half the Latino and African American third graders met the standard in math while nearly 80% of their white counterparts met or exceeded standards.
These gaps, along with many others, prompted Dr. Bridges to create the agency’s first Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee (E & I). The committee, led at the time by Equity in Education Manager, Melia LaCour, and Janice Watson, was comprised of staff representing several departments. Once in motion, the committee swiftly drafted the agency’s second goal to become an “Antiracist Multicultural Organization.” This goal, based on the work of Crossroads Anti-Racism Organizing and Training, describes a six-stage developmental process in which institutions can work to “dismantle systemic racism” and other forms of oppression (crossroadsantiracim.org) to become an antiracist multicultural organization where racial and cultural differences are seen as assets instead of deficits or aspects of identity to be tolerated. The process requires the organization to adopt an explicit antiracist mission and to develop and implement policies, practices, goals and values that support the institution’s capacity to undergo this radical transformation.
Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee
Over the next six years, E & I’s mission was to support the agency’s vision to eliminate opportunity gaps by building agency capacity to become an Antiracist Multicultural Organization. Consequently, their work centered on four charges:
1) Design and create a training program and delivery system for all staff members in issues related to equity and inclusion, with a focus on race;
2) Create ongoing professional development that includes both formal and informal opportunities for training and conversations about race within the agency, in work with clients and in the broader community;
3) Implement recommendations related to strengthening the commitment to hiring and retaining a diverse staff, providing extended professional development opportunities for staff members, including specific program staff of specific departments, and pursuing projects/grants related to equity and inclusion as part of the stated mission as an agency; and
4) Continue work in this area by developing the formal structures – committees, work groups, etc. – that might best support the work.
Building knowledge and skills
The initial stages of the committee’s work included hiring local consultants, Lonnie Lusardo and LueRachelle Brim-Atkins of the Diversity Collaborative, to provide two full days of required training for all 400-plus employees. E & I members collaborated with the consultants to identify integral training components: definitions of race and racism, the history of racism in the United States, understanding white privilege, skills for noticing and interrupting racial microaggressions, and facilitating connections and applications to employees’ individual work. Once this was completed in the Spring of 2010, staff continued to receive ongoing, supplemental sessions focused on building knowledge and skill for undoing institutional racism. Committee members served as training facilitators and taught content including:
- Investigating white privilege;
- Intercultural dialogue;
- Understanding and responding to racial microaggressions;
- Inclusive community outreach; and
- How to use a racial equity analysis tool.
Impact was evident
As agency staff engaged in collective learning, the impact was evident on multiple levels. On one hand, many expressed an “it’s about time” sentiment and shared excitement about the agency’s willingness to dedicate resources to elevate and prioritize conversations about race. “I just think we need to weave this discussion into everything we do in the agency,” shared one staff member. “I thought our society was so much farther along with this topic. So much to learn and absorb! Sigh.” shared another. “Keep these workshops coming as they help us all individually and collectively to work toward matching our behaviors with our philosophy.”
On the other hand, equal amounts of staff shared anger, sadness and/or fear as they attended these required training. Many experienced the cognitive dissonance that often accompanies conversations about race. Some also expressed that race should not be the primary focus or that discussing white privilege was divisive and would not serve the greater good. “White does not necessarily equal privilege,” shared one staff member. “I feel like we have too much training on this topic, no matter how important it is,” shared another. “This does not feel like a ‘safe’ environment to share personal experiences or opinions. I’m not sure how that can be changed.”
At a systemic level, the decision to set such an audacious goal suddenly illuminated all the ways in which the agency was NOT an Antiracist Multicultural Organization. Consequently, leadership decisions, processes for hiring and promotion, community engagement practices (or lack thereof), agency communication and many other aspects of the system suddenly fell under a new kind of racial equity microscope for scrutiny: how were these aspects of the system moving us towards becoming an Antiracist Multicultural Organization? In most cases, the answer was hard-hitting; few if any of these systems were designed to lead us to our agency goals.
As employees’ racial consciousness expanded and tension rose, the need to cultivate a culture of support and accountability to lead for racial equity also grew. In the Spring of 2012, the committee launched the Diversity Coaching Program. This program was comprised of staff members selected by their peers to support employees in mediating race and other oppression-based conflicts. Employees met with coaches confidentially to deepen communication skills and to receive support via new tools and skills to engage in difficult conversations. The coach’s goal was to assist the staff member in resolving issues with supervisors, colleagues, community members, and even family members. Today, there are 14 coaches who serve their peers on a continuing basis.
Additionally, in the Fall of 2012, committee members initiated race-based caucuses to provide space for white staff and staff of color to meet separately and together to identify organizational patterns and remove barriers that contribute to disparate outcomes in the agency. Response to caucusing was mixed as staff members grappled with the notion that white staff members and staff members of color must separate to explore the ways in which their racial identities have been misshaped by systemic racism. Though this tension existed, the caucusing program continued. By 2016, the program was redesigned to support staff in identifying the variety of ways that internalized racial superiority for white staff members and internalized racial oppression for staff members of color, function to maintain institutionalized racism. Recently, the program has expanded to include 16 staff Caucus facilitators offering monthly meetings across four agency sites.
The committee’s work also included a strong focus on increasing racial diversity at all levels of the organization. In 2013, data revealed that out of 395 staff members, 38.95% were people of color and a significant majority held positions in the lowest paying positions in the agency. While this percentage roughly reflected the percentage of students of color served in the region, the lack of staff of color in leadership positions with access to higher pay scales remained a significant issue.
Workforce equity initiative
These statistics, fueled by a strong sense of urgency, prompted the committee to create a “workforce equity” initiative. As part of their work, committee members learned how to use a racial equity analysis tool to revise and create new Human Resource policies and practices to reduce barriers to recruitment, hiring, promotion and retention of staff members of color. As a result of this work, the PSESD Hiring Guide was revised to include a more racially inclusive approach to engaging in employee outreach, interview, and selection processes.
Over the past several years, the agency has seen an increase in the number of people of color at all levels of the organization. For example, in 2008 the agency’s Cabinet leadership consisted of only one person of color, few women and mostly men. By 2017, however, half of the Cabinet leadership were people of color and the number of women doubled. This growth is consistent with the number of PSESD staff members of color which reached 45% during this same year. The percentage also roughly matches the number of students of color served in the region.
Although this increase reflects a significant change, the agency still has much work to do. When reviewing the numbers of staff members at the executive and director level leadership, there remains a significant gap between white staff and staff of color. Today, the workforce equity initiative has expanded to include many new policies, procedures, training, and structures aligned with the goal to become an Antiracist Multicultural Organization to increase diversity at all levels.
Today, the Board, agency leadership and staff have taken many steps forward to deepen the work to become an Antiracist Multicultural Organization. The E & I Committee successfully implemented the four charges by 2015 and ended its leadership in 2016. Members believed that to deepen the work by “driving it into the bones of the agency,” (a term frequently used by the Deputy Superintendent), a new kind of team would be necessary. Thus, in the Spring of 2016, a Transformation Team was created to implement the agency’s racial equity policy. Adopted by the PSESD Board in 2014, the policy serves to increase collective accountability across the agency to lead for racial equity and to further define measurable outcomes. In 2017, this new team collaborated with the Board and Cabinet to revise the agency’s End to more explicitly match the agency’s internal goal of Becoming an Antiracist Multicultural Organization. As a result, the new End became“Success for Each Child & Eliminate the Opportunity Gap by Leading with Racial Equity.” The path to this new End, along with an exploration of how agency capacity-building has impacted regional districts served, marks the next chapter of a deeper and even more expansive approach to the work that will be shared in part two of this article.
The road to becoming an Antiracist Multicultural Organization in service of eliminating district opportunity gaps is a long, challenging, and rewarding journey. As ESAs engage in this work, leaders must view the journey as a marathon and not a sprint. The process is multigenerational, complex, and requires creating and anchoring in a strong “why” with regards to racial equity while clearly defining and executing the “what” and the “how” in compelling ways. The children and families which ESAs serve not only deserve this commitment and action, they should expect it.
Melia LaCour, Executive Director, Equity in Education, Puget Sound Educational Service District
She can be reached by phone at 425-917-7848 and by email firstname.lastname@example.org
Collins, J & Porras, J (2018). BHAG-Big Hairy Audacious Goal, retrieved from www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/BHAG.html#articletop