We Spent 8 Months Talking About Race in Boston. Here’s What Happened.

For those of us who work in education, we see inequity too frequently—too many students of color and students from underserved communities who don’t have access to the high quality education that they deserve. For a lot of us, ending that inequity is exactly why we do this work.

So when EP released a report last December (in partnership with Koya Leadership Partners) about building more diverse, inclusive, and powerful teams to deepen our impact in education, I wasn’t surprised to see it light a fire under our Boston Alumni Board.

After talking to other EP alumni and reflecting on their values and what was happening across the country, the 2015 Boston Alumni Board (a group of our Pioneers who volunteer to create and lead professional development and engagement opportunities for other local alumni for a year) decided to focus their tenure on helping the Boston alumni network delve deeply into conversations about race, diversity, equity, inclusion, and taking meaningful action around these items.

In reading the report, the board members shared that they felt that there’s an important piece of our work that we’re not getting right as education leaders: our intentions to bring all voices to the table are falling flat, especially the critical voices and perspectives of leaders who reflect the racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse communities where we work.

So in Boston, the Board put a plan in place to help others get started in building more powerful, diverse teams. I want to share the Board’s experience in the hope that it helps you and your network get started talking about race, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and pushes us all toward meaningful action.

Planning to Talk

From Intention to Action: Building Diverse, Inclusive Teams in Education to Deepen Impact talks about the importance of conversation, and how best practice organizations talk regularly and meaningfully about diversity and inclusion—from one-on-one conversations to company-wide discussions.

Locally, our Board’s goal was to support our alumni to grow in their knowledge of and comfort in talking about race so that they could do the same for their teams, colleagues, friends, and families.

Where they landed was to create a three-part series of events, structured from the biggest forum (a panel discussion) to the most intimate (small group dinners at people’s homes), to support people’s different comfort levels and help guide them to meaningful action.

Part I – A Panel Discussion

To start, we hosted a panel discussion to talk about the report, diversity, and inclusion. There was clear interest in the discussion—nearly 50 members of our EP network and their guests attended.

Our panel members talked about what they’ve done in their organizations to build more racially diverse teams, like increasing staff knowledge about diversity, building a culture of moving past mistakes, and holding themselves accountable to goals and metrics around diversity. They were also transparent about challenges they’d had—like their referral networks enforcing a lack of diversity in their hiring practices, unconscious bias during interviews, and not tracking data on staff retention.

We got a lot of positive feedback after the event, as well as some critique. On the whole, people were grateful for the opportunity to talk, but some attendees felt that we didn’t offer enough value or new insights.

We appreciated that feedback tremendously—it pushed our Board to keep striving to do better. In both the positive feedback and the critique, we heard a deep desire from our leaders for concrete action.

Part II – “Agents of Change:” A Group Dinner

After the panel discussion the board hosted what we at EP call an “Agents of Change” dinner. We host these dinners annually for our alumni to meet and talk with local education leaders about their work, discuss key issues in the field, and broaden their professional networks. This year, we talked specifically about diversity and inclusion.

Nearly 40 people attended our Agents of Change dinner, and half of our attendees were people of color. Together, we shared some great Chinese food, and our local leaders talked about their work to build more racially diverse teams in their organizations. Some topics we covered included:

  • What does it mean to say that you want a “diverse” team? What are the underlying assumptions there?
  • How can organizations commit to retaining people of color (e.g. mentoring, coaching, and opportunities for growth and learning)?
  • How can we embed diversity work into everything we’re doing, not have it be something separate?

Talking about these questions yielded a lot of important conversation. Even better, we saw these conversations spur action by our alumni.

For example, one of our local leaders from a charter school said that when she interviews people for a role, she looks at every resume and finds something that she and the interviewee have in common. She does this purposefully to put the interviewee at ease and avoid privileging the same group of people.

As a result of her sharing her experience at our dinner, attendees made commitments to take this and similar actions at their organizations.

Part III – Home-Hosted Dinners

The final part of our plan was to convene small groups of seven to 10 people in a host’s home to talk even more intimately, in-depth, and authentically about diversity and inclusion. We gave each host a recommended agenda, facilitation guide, and recommendations for setting ground rules, making time for personal reflection, and having participants share their thoughts in pairs.

I had the privilege of attending one of the dinners.  We had a vulnerable and authentic conversation, and we heard feedback that many of the other groups felt similarly about their experiences.

In debriefing about the event, the Board noted some interesting points. We found that the groups that were assigned pre-reading (based on the host’s preference) had higher attendance rates, and stronger calls for even more events and engagement, which suggests that asking people to commit to the conversation by doing pre-work was important. Similarly, location of the event—and its convenience to people’s workplaces—played a role in getting people in the room.

Some steps for action that came from our dinners included:

We also agreed on some things we will not do—for example, we agreed to not support or attend events or panel discussions that do not convene a racially/ethnically diverse group of leaders.

Reflection on Lessons Learned and Next Steps

On the whole, our participants gave feedback that the Board’s events were powerful; and provided the opportunity to ask questions, to think about diversity and inclusion work in new or different ways, or to gain ideas for conversations or actionable recommendations to bring back to their organizations.

We also got important feedback that we need to do more. As much as we want to pat ourselves on the back for successfully launching and completing a three-part event series on diversity and inclusion, much of it was talk. Our alumni gave us feedback that it felt mostly like just having conversations—and we agreed.

How can we do more? How do we sustain our diversity and inclusion work over the long term, and turn talk into true action? We don’t have the answers yet, but we are eager to find them together; it’s work that’s long overdue.

So let’s keep talking, but more importantly, let’s keep pushing ourselves and each other to action.

 

Jacqueline Bennett Jacqueline Bennett (2010 Graduate School Fellow) is the Director, Greater Boston and Connecticut for Education Pioneers. In this role she oversees partnership and fellowship services for the Greater Boston area. An EP Alumna, Jacqueline came to education and EP because she believes that all children are capable of success, and ensuring the right people and the right supports are in place will allow this success to happen.

 

Comments

I enjoyed the feedback and think it is a first step. A lot of the solution is not one faceted. For all students to get a good education involves even the way schools are being funded, and the limitation of students' choice of school, based on their residential location, thus relegating the low income students to low income and lowly equipped schools with no library, no gifted classes, no honors classes, no teachers for core subjects such as science, calculus, just to mention a few. So we need to go beyond the discussion level, to pushing for a change in the way schools are funded. Schools should be funded equally by spreading a state tax to all public schools or, if we can not, then we could have a 'state government school in every city. The school is to be well equipped and thus, all students regardless of race, color, or gender, get equal opportunity to excel. I know that sounds herculean, but it can be achieved. That way all schools and all students, regardless of where they live, get a chance to a good education. We never know where the next 'Diamond in the rocks' will come from and who that is. Our role is to facilitate equal opportunity for all.

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