As a child, I always watered the leaves of plants. I poured water onto blooming orchid buds and even submerged individual chilis on our pequin pepper plant in cups of water, whispering to them drink up. My mother would frequently redirect me, sharing her position that plants drank water from the roots and that my attempts to feed the flora through other methods were at best ineffective and at worst injurious for delicate petals and siblings surprised by slippery floors.
Generating that vision, though, presents unique challenges.
During a recent consultation with a large educational non-profit, I interviewed over twenty team members and asked the question, “How do you define equity?” A sampling of those responses illustrates that while everyone may validate the value of equity, significant nuance separates what equity means to different individuals.
“A set of shared values that are upheld by every team member.” – Director of Human Resources
“Eliminating the academic opportunity and access gap that students in historically marginalized communities experience. That includes heightening awareness and then working to eliminate the white supremacy culture that is at the core of our country’s systems and policies leaving many people exposed.” – Vice President of Operations
The sentiments expressed in these responses undoubtedly feel inspirational. Yet I remember sitting with tightness in my chest after gathering varying perspectives, wondering how to facilitate dialogue for achieving consensus when individual viewpoints spanned such a wide spectrum.
Navigating Toward a Shared Vision
The inner turmoil I felt propelled me to synthesize strategies for generating a shared vision of equity. Here are my top three takeaways:
Research-based definitions act as springboards for deeper discussion. Personal lived experience will ultimately inform a vision of equity. However, research-based definitions serve as a grounding tool for connecting conversations to the historical context and meaning of equity. Reliable definitions can be found atThe Center For Public Education ,The National Equity Project, and The Glossary of Education Reform. In drafting a vision for equity, it is helpful to begin with these definitions and then modify according to individualized context.
Emphasize and celebrate lines of difference as a means of strengthening dialogue. In my own practice, I have found dialogue flows more readily once difference of perspective is named. This requires us to climb down from our ladders of inference by combining statements of “I notice…” with the inquiry of “I wonder…” For instance, during our first equity team meeting a leader asserted, “I noticed you named elements of equality. I wonder what you think the relationship is between equality and equity. Can you tell me more?” Instead of shying away from dissenting opinion, this leader chose to engage in dialogue directly related to difference. In this regard,protocols act as useful tools for structuring and facilitating dialogue around diversity of perspective (I tend to incorporate the focusing four protocol to generate a shared vision of equity).
Focus on the specific and granular to align desired scope of impact. Instead of saying, “we want all kids to have access to an excellent education,” a team member might propose, “we are failing our black and brown kids with our school’s disproportionate suspension rates. Equity, for us, signifies a need to more effectively cultivate the unique gifts, talents, and interests of our students.” Shifting from vague to specific allows team members to envision outcomes that will more directly impact students. To this end,storytelling can be a powerful tool for bringing and sharing experiences around diversity and equity in your setting. A simple prompt, such as, “tell about a time when equity was absent in your school or classroom setting,” can be the key to surfacing challenges that may require extra attention. By answering this prompt and sharing stories of practice, common themes often emerge that help zero in on the building blocks that can be manipulated to create a strong equity culture
With this in hand, they initiated a 60-minute group dialogue with the guiding question, “How would you modify this definition to more closely align with our organizational vision?” Team members shared opinions based in lived experience and celebrated lines of difference throughout the conversation. By sharing stories of practice, they shifted the wording of the original research-based definition to more closely align with specific organizational equity gaps.
Their vision of equity emerged as a guiding compass for informing data collection, diagnosis of needs, and production of initiatives. With quality communication feeding into a consensus, the organization succeeded in creating a more equitable outcome for students, staff and community members.
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