Nourishing the Four Roots of Anti-racist Leadership: Part One

This is the first of a 2-part series. In exploring the roots of anti-racist leadership, the author uses the fictional Plainview High School as an example to illustrate how this work looks in a high school.

Ms. Robertson closed the door to her office. She was finishing out another day as principal of Plainview High School, which she has led for the past four years. She was tired from all the obligations of her day, but was invigorated by the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) meeting she just left. The team was planning their project to engage Black male students, and they selected a new change idea they were going to try. The SLT members are the leaders of various teams in the building– the Instructional Leadership Team, the Postsecondary Leadership Team, the Grade-Level Leads Team, and the Climate Team. These team members had been working together for the past two years, and all of them were invested in developing their collective anti-racist leadership.
Anti-racist leadership is the practice of centering the needs, assets, and worth of each human being and community in your leadership beliefs and systems. We must situate the practice of anti-racist leadership in several key leadership moves, which we describe below as the Network for College Success Roots of Anti-racist Leadership. We must ground this leadership in our own moral stances. At the same time, anti-racist leadership must be held as a collective practice, never an individual acting alone. We grow anti-racist leadership by engaging in learning in the context of a community, rather than in isolation. In a school, anti-racist leadership moves must occur at multiple levels — in adults’ relationships with other adults as well as in adults’ relationships with students — all in service of creating connected, worthwhile, holistic learning experiences for young people.
To speak about anti-racist leadership, we must first establish a common understanding of antiracism. In his book, How to Be an Antiracist, scholar Ibram X. Kendi defines an antiracist as “one who is expressing the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing, and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequity.” Kendi also states that an antiracist “endorses the idea of… racial equality,” “locates the roots of problems in power and policies,” and “confronts racial inequities”. Author Mica Pollack defines “everyday antiracism” as “acts educators can take daily in schools and classrooms to counteract racial inequality of opportunity and outcome, and to counteract racist ideas about ‘types of people.’”
Anti-racist leadership names people’s identities as a method for identifying what they have and what they need. All of us share certain needs based on our common humanity — our need for food, shelter, and safety, for example. Within identity groups, many people share similar needs, such as the need for men to acknowledge how they have been both privileged by patriarchal attitudes in our society and how those same attitudes have damaged them by constraining their emotional expression. And some of our needs are based on our individual personalities and biologies, such as one person’s need for quiet reflection and another’s need for lively conversation. An anti-racist leader addresses each person’s needs and honors each person’s assets as they exist in the community. An anti-racist leader supports the community to knit itself together out of those diverse individuals and their assets and needs. An anti-racist leader centers themself in their beliefs, honors the beliefs others bring to the community, invites action based on those beliefs, and discusses the impacts of actions and beliefs on individuals and the community. An antiracist leader creates the conditions for all of this work to happen with both adults and young people in schools.
This concept of antiracist leadership also draws on Zaretta Hammond’s work on culturally responsive teaching, which she calls the Ready for Rigor Framework. Her framework inspired the Network for College Success Roots of Anti-racist Leadership: (1) developing and holding an equity stance, (2) designing and catalyzing distributive leadership, (3) centering asset framing, and (4) seeking and giving feedback on practice. These four roots ground the tree of anti-racist leadership, providing the foundation for the growth of communities that truly value every member and that allow for the flourishing and flowering of culturally responsive teaching practices, anti-racist school culture, and students who know their worth.

Root One: Developing and Holding an Equity Stance

When Ms. Robertson first formed her Senior Leadership Team (SLT), she identified school staff who already embedded strong anti-racist practices in their daily work and had the potential to lead teams to engage in that same kind of work. But, she knew that it was not enough to select these leaders and rely on their preexisting practices and beliefs — she had to support them to form team and individual equity stances. At the SLT’s first meeting, Ms. Robertson asked team members to speak about their own identity markers and how their identities affect how they show up as educators. Each leader also wrote and spoke about their priorities, non-negotiables, and core beliefs. Over time, each leader codified all of these into individual equity stances — the moral and ethical ground on which they stand when making leadership decisions.
Anti-racist leaders ground their leadership in their equity stance. This stance functions as a stable platform from which the leader can act towards justice and react towards injustice. Leaders nourish this root through the examination of “the skin they are in” — their prominent identity markers, their relationship to their identity, and the relationship between others’ identities and their own. Leaders must also reflect on the formative experiences that have shaped their conceptions of race and other identities, and then determine their non-negotiables. A non-negotiable might be that a leader needs to see the experiences of their school’s students reflected in the school’s curriculum, or that they always include every student racial group when they reach out to hear student opinions. (This process is adapted from our partner organization, SF-CESS.) This stance work generates a strong understanding of the leader’s own identity, the connections between themselves and others, and what they must stand for as leadership challenges arise in their context. Anti-racist leaders also work with those they lead to support them in cultivating their own equity stances. This is especially important for those who work in and with schools, because how teachers, school staff members, and leaders show up has an enormous impact on the daily experiences of young people.

Root Two: Designing and Catalyzing Distributive Leadership

A Senior Leadership Team (SLT), like any team in a school working toward anti-racism, must take up collective anti-racist action. As the Plainview High School SLT members developed their individual stances, they needed to determine what systems at Plainview were most in need of change. They started by performing a collective investigation of how they currently support Black male students in their school. They engaged Black male students in focus groups, administered surveys to teachers and students, and observed students in classes, the counselors’ offices, and the climate office. They uncovered that many adults in the school didn’t know how to connect with their students as a whole and engage them in learning, and that this issue was especially strong with their Black male students. The leaders on the SLT decided that in each of their teams, they would invite a group of Black male students to give their team deep feedback on one aspect of their work. And each SLT member agreed to bring the results of those conversations back to the SLT so that the group could learn more together.
When an antiracist leader has cultivated their own stance and that of their team members, they can foster distributed leadership within that team. Nourishing this root means that the entire team takes responsibility for creating anti-racist changes in their school. The team must investigate the systems that exist in their school to understand the racist impact of those systems on students, design an anti-racist aim that will improve students’ experiences and outcomes, and try out a small change idea to move towards the antiracist aim they have selected. The team must assess whether these small change ideas are shifting the racist impact of systems, then adapt or adopt these change ideas into their regular work. And this cycle of creating and testing change ideas continues over time. This work is grounded in the team members’ individual stances and the team’s collective stance. This is dream work — none of us has lived in a truly anti-racist society or institution, so we must dream that type of school into existence. This dreaming happens collectively, as we envision what relationships and systems will help students to thrive. And because students and staff exist in community, student thriving is also linked to staff thriving. They happen in concert, so anti-racist leadership teams must keep an eye on both of those and how they are connected.
Click here to read the second part of this series, focused on Roots Three and Four of Anti-Racist Leadership.