Leaders Must Go First: Infusing Anti-Racism Into Leadership Practice

In this time of pandemic and racial unrest, leaders have a duty to ensure their every word nurtures a learning community that affirms students of their intrinsic value and worth.
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Hal Harris

As a school leader, I faced this challenge when describing the historical forces that shaped my adopted city of Little Rock. In 1985, Little Rock completed construction of Interstate 630 to give speedy access from the city’s downtown to its burgeoning western suburbs. Civic leaders threw around many vainglorious words to describe the impact I-630 would have on the city. Progress. Efficiency. Innovation.

To build the interstate, city officials purchased intruding parcels that contained the homes and workplaces of the city’s Black population. Black citizens also had words to describe the impact I-630 would have on their lives. Racism. Segregation. Displacement.

I-630 now serves as the geographic segregator of Little Rock. The land south of I-630 is where the bulk of the city’s Black population lives – in poverty, with underserved and systematically under-resourced schools. The debate about what words to choose to describe the interstate’s impact continues today.

The field of critical theory refers to the language of power as a “grammar.” The words and phrases we unconsciously use to describe our environment shape our responses and solutions to problems that arise. If you see, for example, I-630 as “progress,” as simply a convenient conveyance, then you release yourself from the obligation of solving the problems of segregation the highway has created. If you say, however, that I-630 created “segregation” that traps the city’s Black population in a cage of unemployment and lowered education opportunity, then the grammar leads you to moral outrage, to justice, and to pondering and demanding solutions.

Thus, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, school leaders must develop a strong fluency in the grammar of anti-racism to ameliorate the educational impact of a plague that has disproportionately impacted the most vulnerable populations of America – our Black students, our Latinx students, and our students living in poverty without access to internet, technology, health care, and too many other essential resources and supports. To change the grammar we use to describe the lack of educational equity in the communities we serve, school leaders must serve as a primary voice for the words their learning community uses. Leaders must go first.

As our most vulnerable communities are crying out for racial justice, leaders must thoroughly educate themselves to counter the dominant grammar of white supremacy. Our society presides over an educational system where Black and brown students do not demonstrate grade-level progress. Their disciplinary data shows that schools also punish them more harshly for their developmentally appropriate outbursts and growing pains. School leaders can do their part to lead their learning communities by actively replacing the language that promotes such outcomes with a grammar rooted in equity and rigor.

The New Leaders Transformational Leadership Framework (TLF) 2020 is a tool to promote the mindsets of effective, equity-based leadership. As a writer dedicated to combating the language of white supremacy, I would like to offer advice on how to infuse our practices with the vocabulary of anti-racism. Here are three ways leaders can use the TLF 2020 to foster a grammar rooted in anti-racism:

1. Know the History of your Community. Leaders must learn and fluently speak the grammar of the parents and students they serve. Teju Cole, author of Every Day is for the Thief, wrote “what if everything that is to happen has already happened, and only the consequences are playing themselves out?” For my city, I-630 is the thing that happened; the resulting consequences is the grammar your school chooses to describe it. Leaders who are fluent in the experience of the community they serve are better able to foster equity-based learning environments.  Does your school’s curriculum, rooted in your vision for Learning and Teaching, prioritize the history and enduring legacy of segregation, urban renewal, and the anti-racist language your population uses to describe it? Does it also celebrate the joys and victories of the community?

2. Recognize the Current Context. I-630 demarcates the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Little Rock and its schools. In this current context, where the city’s health and educational outcomes are going in separate directions on either side of the interstate, leaders must choose the words that describe their current context carefully. What grammar does your learning community use to describe how they expect you to respond to COVID-19? Does the language in your learning community communicate acknowledgement of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake and how their fates reverberate in your students’ and parents’ lives? Leaders who ponder these questions with their learning community will lead to deeper student investment in School Culture and the tactical Planning and Operations that will allow educators to reach their most vulnerable students, regardless if learning is happening in-person, virtual, or a hybrid model. Choosing a grammar that is anti-racist will lead to higher attendance and stronger engagement from students, regardless of whether learning is in-person or virtual, and will ensure that all students have equal access to grade-level content.

3. Foster Behaviors within the Learning Community. I-630 was a dramatic change for Little Rock that had an impact on separating the city along racial lines. School leaders who adopt an anti-racist grammar can avoid replicating this effect within their learning communties by ensuring such vocabulary infuses their Talent Management and Personal Leadership. Are you using this opportunity to recruit staff from your student’s community? How are you adapting your leadership behavior and uniting your school community toward a shared vision of equity, even when things get hard and staff get tired and sick?

Shifting the language we use to describe and prompt grade-level achievement for our Black and brown and vulnerable students is a current and urgent area of opportunity for school leaders. Leaders must go first. They must educate themselves to lead by example. In the approaching society that comes after this pandemic, school leaders must push a grammar of equity for the communities they serve.

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Hal H. Harris

Hal H. Harris

Hal H. Harris is the Senior Director of Program Implementation and Adjunct Trainer Corps at New Leaders. He has over 13 years of classroom and leadership experience. Prior to joining New Leaders, Harris served as the Charter Principal of Little Rock Preparatory Academy where he coached principals within the district and developed academic infrastructure.

Hal H. Harris

Hal H. Harris

Hal H. Harris

Hal H. Harris

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