The coach, Christine Moses of Buffalo Cloud Consulting in Oregon, is one of hundreds of equity coaches working to create inclusive educational institutions across the United States. School districts and principals hire consultants to help staff, teachers and sometimes students navigate conversations about implicit bias, White privilege and microaggressions. According to Michelle Molitor, executive director of the Equity Lab in D.C., “this is a complete cultural paradigm shift that has to happen.”
Moses, a Black biracial woman, delivered her workshop over four days. I sat in and saw that the students, half of whom were kids of color, were alert and engaged, eager to understand how racism and bias have played a part in their lives. One 14-year-old White boy, known for his quirky brilliance, summed up what he’d learned in this way: “It’s scary to see how racism permeates every aspect of society. It’s like confronting a giant monster in Dungeons & Dragons, but we have to do it.”
Moses believes parents are the key to creating an inclusive environment. “If a teacher can be in [an] authentic relationship with parents of BIPOC students, neurodiverse students, with parents who experience low income and parents whose students have differing levels of ability, you can have a more equitable classroom,” she says. “The teacher is in service to them and not in service to test scores.”
Being in an authentic relationship, she says, gives the teacher permission to be curious and vulnerable — to abandon the role of “sage on the stage” and ask for help. “Then, they can approach parents by saying, ‘Please help me center your students’ culture in my classroom,’ and with questions like, ‘How can I center Muslim holidays within my classroom [in ways] that are not cultural appropriation?’ ” Moses says.
Molitor says schools need to involve families of color “in meaningful and thoughtful ways. Too often, schools set the parameters for engagement and tell parents: ‘This is what we want you here for, and for everything else, please be hands-off.' ”
Equity coaches may advise schools to create diversity, equity and inclusion committees whose members are people of color, LGBTQ+ or disabled. They may suggest a curriculum overhaul or regular meetings between parents and staff with the goal of dismantling systemic racism.
The Equity Lab sponsors fellowships and long-term partnerships focused on creating racially and ethnically equitable organizations. “For cultures to change, we need an intense investment of time and resources,” Molitor says of its year-long partnerships, which include coaching and four weeks of training.
Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, head of school at Van Ness Elementary in D.C., hired Molitor to lead a workshop for her faculty and staff at the beginning of the 2020 school year. Among other things, they learned about the history of housing discrimination in their area and how it has affected students. “Our community is economically and racially diverse,” Robinson-Rivers says. “Looking at race and equity through a housing lens is important, and we had a rich discussion about one another’s experiences.”
Van Ness teachers and staff have implemented numerous strategies to foster an inclusive school environment. They conduct a home visit with each student over the summer and reach out to parents with positive information about their children through texts, newsletters and phone calls. Teachers greet each child individually every morning at the classroom door. New students receive a peer mentor at orientation.
“Teachers assign purposeful partnering activities for community building, with the aim of creating a sense of belonging for all students,” Robinson-Rivers says.
Virginia educator Rodney Robinson is the 2019 National Teacher of the Year. Much of his work has focused on disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline and encouraging Black men to become teachers. He believes some schools hire equity coaches as a way to check off a box. “You can have the greatest equity coach ever,” he says, “but if your team isn’t willing to change their practices, pedagogy and policies while examining their biases, then the equity coach isn’t going to be effective.”
He believes universities must require teachers-in-training to define their own race and study how it affects everything they do in the classroom. “For example, if you’re starting Black history with the year 1619, when enslaved African Americans were brought to the colonies, you’re starting history with a deficit mind-set for students of color,” Robinson says. “You’re getting rid of thousands of years of history in Africa.”
In classrooms with an equity mind-set and curriculum that reflects all children’s experiences, students learn so much more about themselves and the United States, he says. “They’re willing to have open conversations when they get older, because they haven’t been fed a one-sided Eurocentric curriculum.”
Moses has found that being invited into the classroom is a way to help facilitate those conversations. It’s a collaborative learning process for all, she notes, especially if race and racism haven’t been discussed previously. “When an equity-focused school board policy backs up an administration that supports the teachers who are teaching [an] anti-bias, anti-racist curriculum, you see systemic change,” Moses says. She cites the Community Roots public charter school in Silverton, Ore., as an example. Their educational equity statement — developed with parents, guardians, teachers, assistants, administrators and board members — asks that all decisions, from the hiring of faculty and staff to the choosing of textbooks, be viewed through an equity-focused lens.
Inspired by the workshop, my teen’s teacher launched a weekly class on social justice designed around Tiffany Jewell’s “This Book is Anti-Racist.” On the class’s end-of-school camping trip, the results were palpable. Long into the night, the students lounged around a table in their bunkhouse playing cards, laughing and talking, finding ways to draw the quieter kids into the circle. Honestly, it felt magical.
“Teachers don’t have to have all the answers,” Moses says. “Parents don’t have to have all the answers. If we could step out of the box of perfection and embrace innovation, we’d be able to create the place we want to be in.”
It’s a place she has helped to create. “I’m so grateful we get to change the world together,” she said to the eighth-graders at the end of her workshop. “We get to wake up tomorrow and do better.”
Melissa Hart is the author, most recently, of “Better With Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens.”