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A Historic Look: Creating Pathways to Becoming an Antiracist Multicultural Organization (Part II)

Part 2 of a 2-part series

By Melia LaCour

Executive Director, Equity in Education, Puget Sound Educational Service District  

Over a decade ago, the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD) launched a monumental mission to become an Antiracist Multicultural Organization (ARMCO). The early stages of this prolific journey, as captured in Part One of this article series (, paved the way for leaders to build staff capacity and organizational infrastructure required to actualize the agency’s End: “Success for Each Child and Eliminate the Opportunity Gap by Leading with Racial Equity.”    This article describes the multiple pathways the agency created on the quest to becoming an ARMCO in service of the End and describes the simultaneous and significant impact of this transformation on regional educational partners.

As mentioned previously, Dr. Monte Bridges originally launched the agency’s groundbreaking vision in 2008. Superintendent John Welch, hired in 2011, continued to advance and deepen the agency’s commitment to the mission. Under his leadership, the Board adopted the first Racial Equity Policy in the Fall of 2014.

At this point in the agency’s process, however, there was a growing recognition amongst staff that an even deeper shift was needed in order to achieve the mission. As consultants at Crossroads Antiracism and Organizing ( explained, any institution endeavoring to achieve this mission, must recognize and dismantle deeply entrenched patterns upholding white supremacy.  The term, “white supremacy” as defined by Sharon Matinas, describes the “historically based, institutionally based perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent; for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power and privilege” (Racial Equity Tools).  The impact of colonization in the United States has created a legacy of white supremacy that pervades every fabric of today’s society. Despite best intentions, systems continue to reflect these patterns unless consciously dismantled. Though the agency named its North Star, the path required far more than training, policy and “feel good” activities aimed at closing the opportunity gap.  Instead, consultants shared that ANY institution walking this path must commit to dismantling white supremacy by adopting and practicing transforming, anti-racist values, tools, behaviors, and commitments to move out of a symbolic stage of development and into the identity stage where the talk and the walk of equity are aligned.

Racial Equity Policy: Moving into the Identity Stage

Given the magnitude of this work, the agency required a new kind of team to guide and oversee the implementation of the racial equity policy.  In 2015, a line item was added to the agency budget to invest in the creation of the Transformation Team. This team built upon the strong foundation of the former Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee and was equipped to implement the policy with an eye towards dismantling white supremacy.

In 2015, the Transformation Team, comprised of agency staff, community-based organizations, parents, and executive leadership began to enact wide-scale change.  The team received extensive training from Crossroads while supporting the adoption of Crossroads’ Transforming Values to guide the agency’s antiracist work. These Transforming Institutional Values undergird the vision and serve as both a guide and an accountability tool for staying the course for dismantling white supremacy (Crossroads Anti-Racism Organizing and Training).

Additionally, the team collaborated with Cabinet to strengthen the agency’s End to include “leading for racial equity.” In 2017, the team launched an agency-wide evaluation where over 188 staff in 48 affinity groups (about half the staff) evaluated both their own and the agency’s capacity to implement ARMCO related practices in their work. The first of its kind, this evaluation process allowed staff to: 1) gain a deeper understanding of the ARMCO developmental process and the Transformation Team’s work and purpose; 2) share feedback in a confidential manner amongst peers within their own racial groups and; 3) give voice to recommendations required for deeper change

The study also included a brief survey asking participants to identify the agency’s stage of development on the ARMCO six-stage continuum.  Of the 96 staff who participated, about half were white staff (47%) while 33% were staff of color and another 19% who chose not to identify. Results demonstrated that most white staff and staff of color believed the PSESD resided in the “symbolic” stage of development of the ARMCO continuum, meaning that decision-making and staff behavior did not consistently reflect antiracist practices. However, both groups also agreed that parts of the agency resided in Stage 2, The Club Phase and Stage 4, the Identity Stage. In response to this feedback, the Transformation Team members designed a set of recommendations to integrate into the racial equity policy implementation plan.

Five Strategic Direction Action Teams

Another critical component of the team’s work was to create five Strategic Direction Action Teams (SDATs) to implement the policy at the ground level.  Launched during the winter of 2018, these teams engage over 70 members which include staff, all Cabinet members, community-based organizations, parents, and district leaders. Each SDAT is co-led by two Transformation Team members and holds responsibility for implementing the strategies corresponding to each of the five components of the racial equity policy:

Strategic Direction One: PSESD will assure the cultural proficiency and antiracist leadership skills of all staff.  We will strive to deepen the understanding of every staff member of the root causes of achievement and opportunity gaps and provide professional development to strengthen employees’ knowledge and skills for eliminating racial disparities in achievement.

Strategic Direction Two: PSESD will eliminate barriers in recruitment, hiring, retention and internal processes that will allow PSESD to serve as the model of a diverse and Antiracist Multicultural Organization that its partners may strive to emulate.

Strategic Direction Three: PSESD will use evidence-based, high leverage best practices in gap-closure in all of the services provided to our partners. Where a research base does not exist, we will employ promising practices that we believe have great potential for sustained gap closure.

Strategic Direction Four: PSESD will provide catalytic leadership for educational and community partners that respectfully but firmly and persistently accelerate their adoption of gap closing policies and practices.

Strategic Direction Five: The PSESD Board of Directors will hold the Superintendent and Leadership Cabinet accountable for assessing a baseline, developing action plans and reporting measurable progress in meeting each of these goals, annually. Action plans and reports should specify staff leads responsible for key elements of the work and include how the work will be distributed throughout the agency, as well as any staffing and budgetary adjustments necessary.

Key Outcomes

Several key outcomes have resulted from the early stages of policy implementation. SDAT 2, in partnership with the Human Resources and Organizational Development Department, leads the way as they prepare to launch a Leadership Development and Evaluation Framework aligned with the agency End and the commitment to becoming an ARMCO.  This strategy builds upon foundational work initiated by the Equity and Inclusion Committee and will roll out the agency’s inaugural competency-based framework in the fall of 2018. This framework is comprised of agency-wide competencies that every employee should embody as it is critical in fulfilling the central functions of their jobs.   These competencies include Cultural Proficiency, Racial Equity Advocate, Racial Equity Mindset and Transformational Values. SDAT 1 will be responsible for assuring all staff develop culturally proficient and antiracist leadership skills and will provide the professional development to support this roll-out by designing curriculum and preparing agency staff to train their colleagues.

Another key outcome has been the re-drafting of the racial equity policy language defining SDAT 4’s work on community partnerships. Initially, key community and family partners from across the PSESD region firmly challenged the approach and vision.  The group felt strongly that the policy would center institutional practices and mindsets maintaining the status quo instead of engaging in authentic partnerships that demonstrate a commitment to “walking our racial equity talk.” As a result, community stakeholders collaborated with agency staff to draft a new vision, soon to be officially incorporated into the new policy: “We, the staff of PSESD, acknowledge power imbalances that perpetuate inequities. We are committed to addressing this by centering power within students, families, and communities. All PSESD relationships and partnerships are rooted in anti-racism practices.” For the first time, the agency will have a clearer vision and pathway to authentic community partnerships.

Leadership Development

To support the racial equity policy implementation, agency leaders received ongoing professional development through the Puget Sound Leadership Academy (PSLA). This long-running initiative serves as the primary venue for supervisors and emerging leaders to develop new skills to lead with racial equity.  Beginning in 2015, however, the PSLA Planning Committee decided to adopt a different approach to support leaders in deepening their skills.  Members believed that framing the ARMCO work as an adaptive challenge would strengthen leaders’ capacity to lead with racial equity.  The goal to become an ARMCO, by its very nature, is an adaptive challenge. According to Heifetz, adaptive challenges are evident when solutions are elusive and/or unknown, resolution requires innovation, and authority and expertise cannot solve the problem.  Therefore, the practice of adaptive leadership provides a useful set of skills leaders can employ as a collective.  Heifetz defines such leadership as “the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive” (Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky, 2009).

In partnership with Whitty Services, PSLA planners designed six sessions focused on the principles of Adaptive Leadership with a racial equity lens. Reactions from staff were extremely positive in that many felt the adaptive leadership lens provided several more helpful tools to be able to lead the work.

As staff continued to sharpen their skills, the PSESD Board members also engaged in professional growth and development.  In 2017, they attended a full day session on systemic racism to deepen their own understanding of what it means to lead in alignment with the agency End. This summer, the Board also participated in a session with Crossroads to explore how to align their Policy Governance model with the goal of becoming an ARMCO. The question they will continue to collectively address is: “How can we use Policy Governance to help us dismantle racist governance systems and structures and help us become an ARMCO and eliminate opportunity gaps?”

District Impact

As internal alignment to the mission continued to deepen, the positive impact to external educational partners began to expand. While there are several programs within the agency that have positively impacted district partners as a result of internal capacity-building, this section will focus on the work of the Equity in Education program.

In 2008, then Equity in Education Manager Melia LaCour and Director, Jane Robb-Linse, co-founded the Equity in Education program. Housed within the Learning, Teaching & Family Support (LTFS) Department, the program offered a few trainings and consultation services to local districts interested in understanding the impact of systemic racism in education.   However, by 2013 the program expanded to include additional staff and a widened scope of services to include professional development, leadership coaching, technical assistance, data coaching, and district equity team development. The program also launched PSESD’s Regional Equity Network. This network was comprised of equity leaders from across two counties who were seeking support, guidance, and resources to lead for racial equity within their districts. Today, the PSESD hosts over 20 leaders from across the PSESD region on a monthly basis.

As the district work expanded, the Equity in Education program drew the attention of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  In 2014, the funders approached the program to apply for a half-million-dollar grant to build capacity for racial equity in seven local districts. This grant came on the heels of the $40 million Race to the Top grant, for which the ESD had become the fiscal agent.  This investment aimed to improve outcomes in underperforming schools within the collective impact initiative known as the Road Map Project, in one of the most economically and racially diverse regions in the state.

Over the next four years, the Equity in Education program received two grant awards from the Gates Foundation to accomplish several goals. However, the most prominent goal was to establish racial equity policies in districts across the region. The Equity Consortium, a group comprised of equity leaders from each of the Road Map districts, set a primary goal to adopt and implement racial equity policies in each of their respective districts.

At this time, only Seattle Public Schools had adopted such a policy. The Consortium partnered with the Washington State School Directors’ Association, a state agency responsible for creating district Board policy, and began holding a series of policy convenings entitled, “Achieving Educational Racial Equity through Policy and Beyond.” These convenings (six total) brought together nearly 200 educators arranged in district teams of superintendents, central office leaders, board members, teachers, community-based organizations and students to come together to learn about the policy adoption and implementation process.  They also learned about the necessity of leading with racial equity.

By 2018, five out of the seven Road Map districts and four additional districts within the PSESD service area had adopted racial equity policies, with several more districts in development. This growing swell of policy work marked a significant turning point in the region. For the first time, a regional identity focused on racial equity emerged.

The Road Map Superintendents were integral collaborators in this second Gates grant project. At the close of the Race to the Top grant, as they planned for sustainability, the superintendents collectively agreed to lead with racial equity. In partnership with the Equity in Education program, they created the Regional Racial Equity Implementation Plan. The purpose of this plan was to increase the alignment and sustainability of racial equity efforts in the Road Map Region and to eliminate the opportunity gap for students of color.

The plan included four goals: 1) Eliminate disproportionality in discipline through creating a restorative justice fidelity tool; 2)  Increase the retention of teachers of color through the establishment the Educators of Color Leadership Community (ECLC), 3) Implementing Racial Equity Policies and 4) Cultivate a safe and inclusive school climate through the development of antiracist curriculum. Of the four goal areas, the ECLC gained the most momentum and praise. The model, led by Equity in Education Manager Eileen Yoshina, was designed in collaboration with teachers of color to surface the conditions necessary for districts to retain teachers of color. The initiative was so well-received that the program will expand to include additional teachers and administrators of color over the next three years.

The Equity in Education program provides a wide array of supports to districts aiming to achieve racial equity.  Led by Executive Director, Melia LaCour and Director, Dr. Nikum Pon, in addition to the grant project, the program offers fee for service support to nearly 18 school districts in the region, two ESDs in the state, the State Board of Education, the Washington State Charter School Commission, charter schools, early learning providers, and multiple colleges.

The program also includes two additional leaders who are creating innovative, systemic change. Community and Family Partnerships Director Matthew Gulbranson is leading the way in guiding both the PSESD and local districts in developing community and family partnerships with a racial equity lens. Equity in Education Manager Heather Kawamoto provides expert training to early learning staff and centers within the region. Leaders across the state look to the team for expertise and guidance.

Next Steps

In addition to the Equity in Education Program, the agency continues to take steps toward becoming an ARMCO and achieving the agency End.  Currently, the Strategy, Evaluation and Learning Department, led by Executive Director Sarita Siqueiros-Thornburg, is working with each PSESD department to create an agency Pathway to Change. This Pathway to Change will articulate how the PSESD’s collective work will move them closer to the agency End while demonstrating how the agency is making progress. It also supports mutual accountability and transparency among staff and communities.  The Pathway to Change will also guide the agency in adopting measures of progress that are directly influenced by the agency at the district level. These measures will be developed in collaboration with staff, community members, and the Strategic Direction Action Teams.

Lessons Learned

As the ESD continues to progress along the journey, there are several emergent, key lessons which may benefit other ESAs. It is also important to note that the PSESD continues to grapple with the application of these lessons.

First, the journey is not a sprint, but a marathon demanding patterns of white supremacy be uprooted so that race is no longer a predictor of students’ academic and life outcomes. The legacy of white supremacy is deeply rooted in policies, practices, values, and behaviors and must be actively dismantled. This process not only takes time but dogged practice as well as the courage to call out decisions and behaviors that are not aligned with the overall ARMCO mission.

Second, the work requires an investment of time and financial resources to ensure transformational systems and capacity-building measures can be put into place. Structures and support should be implemented for staff members across the organization to learn about systemic racism and how to apply a racial equity analysis to their departmental work on a consistent basis.       Third, ESAs should ensure the “why” with regards to leading for racial equity is clearly articulated in the agency mission and subsequent decisions, actions, values, and staff behaviors across the organization are aligned. Perhaps the most difficult challenge is to close the gap between espoused values and lived values.  Racial equity is a way of being, not a strategy.

Fourth, in order for systemic change to be successful, individuals must commit to personal transformational change.  As mentioned in the previous article, white staff and staff of color must commit to identify and transform the ways in which they have been negatively shaped by racism by exploring the internalization process.  At PSESD, this healing work takes place in agency caucusing.

Fifth, the work requires ESAs to authentically collaborate with parents, students, and community-based organizations using a racial equity lens in order to enact true systemic transformation.

Sixth, racial equity is everyone’s work.  Achieving the End requires staff engagement at every level of the organization.  The work cannot be relegated solely to equity leaders inside the organization.

Seventh, ESA leaders must be anchored in their personal “why” and ensure it aligns with the organizational mission.  Those who understand why they are committed to racial equity will be prepared to weather the inevitable resistance and work with great determination to change intractable systems.

Finally, ESAs must center students. In an Antiracist Multicultural Organization, student well-being and capacity to thrive should be at the heart of every decision. Not only should ESAs work to establish clear through-lines between agency practice and student outcomes, and great care should also be taken to ensure the practices used are humanizing, healing and serve to disrupt white supremacy.

The state of education serves as a constant and vicious reminder that students of color continue to be marginalized by the current systems.   ESAs possess great power and influence to transform these systems when they intentionally strive to become an Antiracist Multicultural Organization.

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


Racial Equity Tools

Crossroads Anti-Racism Organizing and Training

Heifetz, R. A., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business Press.


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