Transcript of the episode “Making antiracist change: A template for educational leaders”

Jon M: [00:00:15] Hi. I’m  Jon Moscow. 

Amy H-L: [00:00:16] And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guests today are Sarah Diem and Anjalé Welton. Dr. Diem is a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Missouri. And Dr. Welton is a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Today, we’ll be discussing the book they coauthored last year, “Antiracist Educational Leadership and Policy: Addressing Racism in Public Education.” Welcome, Sarah and AJ.

Sarah D: [00:00:48] Thank you for having us.

AJ W: [00:00:49] Yes. Thank you.

Jon M: [00:00:51] You talk about educational policies as framed by neo-liberalism. What do you mean?

Sarah D: [00:00:57] Yeah. So that’s a great first question. So when we think of neo-liberalism in education, we really think of market driven policies that are really about self-interest, individualism, that, this idea, that if it’s open to everyone, the market will work itself out and it’ll be equitable to everyone. So an example of that that’s really popular in education right now are school choice policies. So this idea that everyone has a choice under school choice policies in a neoliberal framework, when we know from copious amounts of research, that that’s actually not the case and not everyone is able to choose. And moreover, and what we’re going to talk about today in terms of equity, particularly racial equity, is a lot of these policies, when they aren’t regulated, they don’t result in racial equity in their schools.

AJ W: [00:01:52] And neo-liberalism is also, you know, private entering the public domain, right. So private entities trying to enter the public school domain. And the issue with that is when it is private entering the public domain, you can choose to exclude certain groups because it’s private, it’s privatization, and that’s where racial inequities unfold.

Sarah D: [00:02:18] And another great example are charter schools, private charter schools, those that aren’t associated with the school district. So charter management organizations that operate more like a business rather than serving the public good, which is what public education is about. 

Amy H-L: [00:02:38] You contrast and compare the statewide educational policy approaches in Texas, California, and Minnesota. What are the differences, and how do they influence districts and schools?

AJ W: [00:02:52] Well, the difference is between those three specific contexts that we use as an example in our book, and it comes from a previous study that we did actually, when we were doctoral students, where we had the opportunity to look at how suburban school districts were addressing demographic changes, so how they were responding to the increasing diversity in their school districts. And we realized through that research that, based on the larger policy context, I don’t think educators often realize, the school leaders and teachers who are implementing policies on the front lines, I don’t think that they often realize that they’re influenced by those larger policy context. And so we realized that within each policy context, the ways in which states were taking up different policy issues and how the states themselves were addressing issues of equity, racial equity, also impacted how school districts on the ground were thinking about issues of equity. And we found that states that approached addressing racial inequality through a more race neutral, color evasive lens, that didn’t directly talk about race and address race head-on, then school leaders and teachers then themselves implemented school reforms in a race neutral manner that that weren’t culturally responsive or often more deficit-oriented. And so for example, Minnesota, They operated a statewide desegregation policy. And so part of that deseg policy is that the districts were supposed to implement professional development on cultural responsiveness for teachers. And so in that regard, we saw in that study and that particular site that they were more racially aware and more ready to take up issues of race. Sarah, you can continue to talk about Texas.

Sarah D: [00:05:00] Yeah, in Minnesota, too, I’ll just add a little more to that, had a school desegregation policy, but you know, fast forward now, just a few years ago, there was a lawsuit that was brought in the state where people were arguing that the schools were segregated. So after they had the statewide enforced desegregation policy, what happened after that?

And you know, the other examples of Texas and California, Texas has been, it’s the place where high stakes testing really started, right. So the creation of NCLB has its roots in Texas. When Bush was the governor at the time and AJ and I being from Texas, we can tell you our experience taking tests and, and how that evolved over time into NCLB to now what is ESSA. And that state really does nested context and that, that high stakes accountability really had an impact on what was happening more at the local level in terms of school districts and English learners. And then in California of course Proposition 209 and Proposition 227, then had an impact on the ways in which school districts could be race conscious in their local level policies.

Amy H-L: [00:06:20] We often hear the term color blindness, but you use the term color evasive. Could you talk about that a bit?

AJ W: [00:06:30] Yes. We actually wanted to use this as an opportunity to demonstrate how we as scholars can be learners, right. We have used the term color blindness in our previous work and we, you know, we had been hearing from research in the disability studies scholarly community, that the term colorblindness was actually deficit oriented towards people with disabilities, because it assumes that they cannot recognize race and understand issues of racism. And so based on the work of Ruth Frankenberg, we decided to learn and change, right. That’s activism, right. Where you’re, where you’re learning and based on that learning, you yourself are trying to change how you do things. We decided to, with this book and moving forward with our work model, use the term color evasiveness. And, like color blindness, it’s ways in which practitioners through policies, structures, through programs through practices, try to ignore it and evade talking about race, addressing race, and oftentimes used other proxies to try to get around addressing race, like using poverty, you know, social class.

Sarah D: [00:08:00] And I even think just the word evade is so much more powerful, because that’s what people are doing, right. They’re evading talking about race and racism and I think it, it really gets. to the heart of what we’re talking about, maybe much more than race neutral or, and then what AJ was saying about what can be problematic with the term colorblindness. So not only is it a better term, a more inclusive term to use, but I also think it’s a much more powerful way of really pointing out that you are not taking race and racism into account when you’re talking about neo liberal policies. Market-driven policies are methods for which policy makers and leaders and practitioners are not taking race into account. They’re evading race by using market driven policies, market driven strategies, to address equity issues.

Jon M: [00:09:03] In your chapter on school discipline, you discuss popular programs, including response to intervention, RTI, and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, PBIS, which are designed to be alternatives to punitive discipline. These programs define what’s acceptable student behavior, which is often based on white norms. Would you speak about this?

AJ W: [00:09:27] Yes. So those interventions, I mean, they could be promising, right. We’re trying to, I think now it’s across the board, across the U S, trying to remove zero tolerance policies, right, trying to remove, put an end, to disciplinary policies that are punitive and actually remove students from the classroom, remove students from learning opportunities. And as the research shows, pushes them into the school to prison pipeline. And so now there’s a trend of statewide policies, policy changes, and shifts that are trying to push districts to adopt more restorative justice practices. You know, where students get second chances and we’re focusing on mental health, bringing in social workers to address other underlying issues that may explain why students are, you know, behaving in particular ways in schools, maybe because things that are happening in their communities or maybe the ways in which teachers are viewing students and the deficit ways in which teachers are viewing Black and Brown students of color. So really trying to push these restorative practices. The issue is with practices like Response To Intervention or PBIS, that aim to be alternatives to exclusionary zero tolerance policy practices, is that what happens is educators implement these interventions without changing the ways in which they view students of color. Like if I still implement these interventions in a way where I still view students of color through a deficit lens, those interventions aren’t going to make a difference.

Amy H-L: [00:11:27] You’ve  developed an antiracist policy decision-making protocol to help school and district leaders to make fundamental changes. It begins with a comprehensive equity audit, which a number of districts now do, but it goes further. Your protocol centers examination of systemic racist and transformation to antiracist policies and practices. What are the key steps in your protocol?

Sarah D: [00:11:58] Yeah, so that’s really, that’s our last chapter in our book and what we’re hoping that school leaders use to understand how policies that they are tasked with implementing are racist and racialized and what they can do to push back at them. So we have six steps in the protocol and the first step is assembling the appropriate team. So school leaders can’t do this work alone, right. And they need to gather colleagues, community members, whomever they feel are best suited to be able to audit this policy that they’re looking at in an inappropriate manner, right. So we asked questions in our book about, do you have enough team members with the knowledge about the policy issue? Because we think that that’s really important. And also, do you have diverse representation in this group of people that are able to give you different perspectives on the policy and the impact that the policy is having? And then figuring out, okay of this team, which member’s going to be responsible for what? So that’s our first step.

Our second step is setting expectations for the team. And, you know, we really need the people that are involved to kind of have this foundation of what we’re going to do in terms of going about analyzing this policies. So. Making sure we all understand what is the goal of the process, what’s the reason for conducting the policy analysis. Do we have agreed upon rules and norms for our time together doing this work together? Thinking about how we’re making sure that the meeting that we’re having with our team is providing a space where we all feel like we’re part of this conversation and valued. So that’s our third step, our second step, rather.

And then our third step is understanding the socio-political and racial context for the district and community. And a lot of the work that AJ and I have done, really the context and the importance of context, because it matters in everything that we do, whether it’s the social context, political context, geographic context, racial context. So it’s really having this team that you’ve assembled understanding the demographic makeup of your community, how has it changed over time? What impact has this had on the school and the school community? What’s the political context of the community? Do you have support for this policy? Are there some people in the community that are pushing back against racial equity, and how can you bring in people that are going to help, work with you and advocate for this policy that you’re looking at? I don’t know, AJ, if you wanted to talk about the other three.

AJ W: [00:15:07] So step four is conduct a critical policy review. And this podcast is all about ethics, and so that step is really the team questioning whether or not the policy is ethical. Will implementing this policy place harm toward certain student groups and families? Who benefits from this policy? Who doesn’t? What does this policy aim to accomplish? What are the policy intentions? What does the policy look like on the ground in our day-to-day practice? Because as we talk about throughout the book, school leaders and teachers are tasked. These neoliberal policies are, for the most part, coming from the top down, right, on high, and so they need to not have, you know, taken for granted assumptions about these policies. And they really need to question these policies and what they will look like when implemented in the classroom and the day to day. And whose voice who had a voice in creating the policy, who is at the table in terms of developing the policy in terms of specific racial groups and identities, were they involved in designing the policy or not? So those are some of the key questions that should be asked for step four.

Step five is conducting a critical leadership review. And this is literally asking who is at the table when going through this protocol process. We really encourage engaging in democracy driven decision-making. We pulled that term from some colleagues of ours, Sonya Horsford, Janelle T. Scott, and Gary Anderson. Their book, Democracy Driven Decision Making. [The Politics of Educational Policy in an Era of Inequality: Possibilities for Democratic Schooling]. Is making sure that at this stage, is the decision-making committee- centric, right? Is there a shared power in the decision-making process? 

Then step six is summarize, reassess, and take action. And so that’s kind of where you’re taking stock of what you’ve learned from engaging in this inquiry process. You are making a list of recommendations and deciding what are the best solutions moving forward. And then antiracism   is not a one and done, right. Doing anti-racist work is a continuous process. We’re we’re continuously learning. So you repeat this cycle all over again, right. You’re constantly reassessing problems. And constantly reassessing the policy. So just because done this with a policy, you know, you’re not done, you have to keep going back to it to see how it’s actually playing out in your school district. And so that’s why we have this reassess as the sixth step, because you have to.

Sarah D: [00:18:04] It’s a continuous cycle. And as AJ was saying, anti-racist work, it doesn’t end. It’s not something that you can check off a box that you’ve completed it and moved on. It’s a constant engagement of pushing back against racism.

Amy H-L: [00:18:20] Well, to me, this sounds very Deweyan. It’s this whole idea of John Dewey’s is that we should go back and revisit our habits and our customs and make sure that they still align with our values, that we’re still making the right choices.

AJ W: [00:18:38] Exactly. And it’s, if history shows us, we must do this because the same things keep coming up over and over again, they take different shapes and forms. But we’re still dealing with so many issues that happened decades ago. And I think where we get into problematic situations is that we’re not engaging in that critical self-reflection, doing that reassessment and looking if things are working or not. And how are we going to change things as we move forward, if we really want equitable educational opportunities for all of our students, That reflection is really important because as educators, as leaders, as we get immersed in the muck of the daily, doing the work of schools. Things become habitual, right. And we get comfortable. And so we need to constantly be reflective and reassess, re-examine, and make sure again, back to what I mentioned, with the behavioral interventions that can be seen as more equitable. But we could in practice be implementing them in a way that is harmful. So we need to be constantly reassessing ourselves and making sure that the strategies that we think are the solutions to be more equitable, that we actually are implementing them in an equitable manner.

Jon M: [00:20:13] So, as you pointed out, many districts are segregated. What would implementation of the protocol look like in a low-income district that  is overwhelmingly Latin and Black? 

AJ W: [00:20:25] Well, we use Chicago as an example in our book on school closures and urban districts for various reasons are predominantly of color doesn’t mean that they aren’t being influenced by whiteness and white supremacy and white norms. In fact, I would say that the way in which their districts are situated and, and the racial problems, the racism that urban districts face across the country, are very much so because of white supremacy and because of these policies. I mean urban districts across the country are being inundated with punitive, very punitive, neoliberal reforms, whether it be high stakes testing and standardization, whether it be school choice and selective enrollment policies that are ways in which they’re trying to encourage white affluent families to come back into the district. You know, all of these reforms that are being heavy- handedly implemented in urban school districts specifically, which is in itself is a form of neoliberal racism, I think is one reason this protocol definitely should be implemented because the questions that we’re asking like, How are these policies that we are being pushed and forced to implement are placing harm on Black and Brown students that make up the majority of our student population, especially because, you know, the policies are urban districts again, as I said, are being encouraged to take up our policies that heavily cater to whiteness for financial reasons, trying to bring white families back into the district, et cetera. So I think in Chicago school choice has exacerbated racial segregation and in terms of what schools get resources and opportunities versus what schools don’t. So I think the urban education landscape and what US educational policy has done to the urban education landscape is very much a reason why district leaders and principals should use our protocol to question the policies that urban districts are being tasked with taking up. 

Sarah D: [00:22:58] And to question. Why do all the reforms, why are they always placed on our school districts? Our school districts, it’s almost that urban school districts are test cases for these policies, when that in and of itself speaks to white supremacy and whiteness. Are these policies being tested in school districts that are predominantly white? No. So I think everything that AJ just said lends itself to why this protocol is so important and that will hopefully bring people together as a collective to then be able to push back at this and say, Stop using us to test these policies that are so harmful to students in our school communities.

Amy H-L: [00:23:52] Under what circumstances are schools and district the most willing to undertake these critical kinds of policy reviews?

Sarah D: [00:24:04] So I think we’re seeing more school districts be open to it. We have some colleagues that are doing some new research on racial equity plans that are being implemented across school districts in the country. Terrance Green,  Decoteau Irby, and Ann Ishimaru, and they’ve just started this. So, you know, I know their research findings are to come, but I can give you an example. Jefferson County public schools in Louisville, Kentucky, they implemented a racial equity plan in 2018. And just to give you some context, the school district has a long history of school desegregation, and it’s often pointed to as one of the success stories when it comes to school to school desegregation. It was actually one of the school districts involved in the most recent Supreme Court decision on school desegregation, which was in 2007, so quite a long time ago at this point, where the court took a color- evasive approach and said that school districts cannot use race as a single factor when assigning students to schools, which was what was very common in desegregation policies. If you’re trying to achieve racial equity, using race as a factor is very important. So Jefferson County public schools, in 2018, the school board passed a racial equity plan, which part of the plan they’re looking at diversity in curriculum, culture and climate, programmatic access, staff and classroom diversity and central office commitment to racial educational equity. And we’re seeing some more of these plans pop up in different school districts across the country. But when I was reading about Jefferson County’s plan, they’re really trying to, again, much like our protocol, take this collective approach, they’re gonna have, um, you know, get the community’s input into the plan. They’ll have regular progress checks, updates about the plan as they’re doing it. And I was reading even today, an article that was saying how important this plan is, moving forward, everything that’s happened with COVID this last year, how that’s even revealed, even more important, right, that we need to be having a racial equity plan because COVID has revealed all these racial inequities that we knew were there.

But I think now going back to your question and hoping that school districts, now that they’ve been able to see this, that maybe it’s been more in the forefront over this past year, that there’ll be more serious and committing to this kind of work.

Amy H-L: [00:26:57] So what kind of obstacles have they run into and how are they dealing with them in Jefferson County?

AJ W: [00:27:07] So I can’t really speak to that as much. I think they’re still in the early stages of this and COVID kind of put things on hold. I know Jefferson County, they’re just going back to in-person classes, I believe this week. So I think it’s, it’s more to come. We’ll have to keep our eye out to see how they’re doing in terms of this work.

In response to your question though, just in general. I think one common obstacle that we see, and we talk a little bit about it in our book and in our protocol and how school leaders can prepare for it is white resistance and stakeholder pushback, or just in general pushback from privileged groups who perhaps see the more racially equitable policy change as perhaps taking away from their opportunities or resources. And so through that protocol, suggesting that school leaders anticipate that pushback and think about what kinds of risks they’re willing to take, what types of coalitions can they build to help support them in challenging that pushback. And this is why it’s really important to see who your allies are, to use that community- centric approach and draw upon your community-based allies who can speak on your behalf at a board meeting and can challenge some of those naysayers and say, Hey, this is why we think this policy change is important.

A colleague of ours, whom we coauthored a chapter with on another book that we have coming out, is an associate superintendent at a suburban school district here in the Chicagoland area, who for a while now has been trying to implement a district-wide detracking policy and used a similar process as our protocol to form a team, do research on why detracking is a more racially equitable approach, did community forums to reach out to the community. And communicate why it’s a more racially equitable approach. And then also, again, reaching out to allies in the community that can speak on their behalf in certain spaces to help challenge that resistant voice, to help gain community support and allyship and moving the controversial policy change forward. 

Jon M: [00:29:43] It’s interesting that, as I was reading the book, that it really struck me that what you’re really doing is you’re essentially taking the kind of movement that we’ve seen, for example, with the Movement for Black Lives around policing, and you’re talking about people being willing to take risks, even personal risks, in terms of jobs and so forth to really on a day-to-day level struggle with structural racism in schools and school systems. And that what your protocol is doing is giving a set of tools that if somebody is, or a group of people are, willing to do this, these are the things that you can do that will help ensure success, will help protect yourself. Those kinds of things. 

AJ W: [00:30:42] Yeah. There is a planned way of going about it. Like taking an antiracist stance is risky, right. Because you are challenging groups of people used to having these privileges, and you are challenging those long standing privileges. And so you are going to get pushback when you’re taking risks to go up against that status, so you need support, right, and you need to map out and plan that support. And formulating that team and engaging in that protocol as a school leader is not doing this work alone. Long gone are, you know, the ideas of this lone principal who’s tackling all the issues of racial inequality on their own. You’re working as a collective. You’re working collaboratively, the idea of distributed leadership, right. That is truly a democratic approach of leadership. And you’re, you’re getting support and doing this work because it is risky and you will need buffer because we don’t want our anti-racist principals who are committed to doing this work. We don’t want them to, we need them, we don’t want them to lose their jobs over this. And so using this protocol to plan, to map out the strategic, that’s what organizational change is all about, you know, no matter what issue you’re facing, you’re trying to do whole systems change. You’re building capacity and thinking about who are the people that can work with me, who have the skills to make that change happen. And that is exactly what we see. Antiracism really as this whole systems change approach. And so, yes, I think that our protocol really is a way to help leaders. It’s a tool to help leaders think about this systems-wide, district-wide, whatever that system is, change your approach, but not do it alone and be strategic about it. 

Sarah D: [00:32:45] Building off that, as a school leader, who are the assets, what are the assets that are already there in the community that you can rely on and partner with and collaborate with because people, particularly people of color, communities of color have been doing activist work. For a very long time. So as a school leader, how are you connecting with other educational leaders in your community?

They may not be a principal, but AJ and I really are trying to push back at this definition of what it means to be a leader in a school community. It doesn’t just mean the principal, right? It’s the teachers, it’s the students, it’s the staff. All of us have leadership traits, so how are we using those assets that we have in the community, that we bring them together, that we can then work towards anti-racism in our schools.

Amy H-L: [00:33:46] Thank you so much, Dr. Sarah Diem of University of Missouri and Dr. Angelé Welton of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Jon M: [00:33:55] Thank you, listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and give us a rating or review. This helps other people to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles, and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. And we work with consultants to offer customized social emotional learning programs, with a focus on ethics, for schools and youth programs in the New York City and San Francisco Bay areas. Contact us at hosts@ We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Until next week.

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