To address racism, we must start with authentic conversations.
Words have great power. It’s something I’ve known since my earliest days as a high school English teacher. Now, in my fourth year as superintendent of the Richardson Independent School District, I’ve witnessed firsthand how the words I choose can inspire, enrage, injure and uplift in equal measure. Sometimes it all happens in response to the same phrase.
In 2017, our district made national news for a terrible reason: a spate of abhorrent, racist memes ahead of a rivalry football game. We moved quickly to investigate and address the incident, but what went unexamined at the time was how the legacy of segregation in our district created the conditions in which students from a largely white school could feel comfortable disparaging students of another school within their own district largely comprised of students of color.
I know because I didn’t want to examine it; I wanted to make it all go away. I sent out a letter but didn’t call the images “racist” because that was a word I didn’t feel I could say. It contained too much power. I went with “racial insensitivity.”
But by prioritizing political correctness, I was in fact the one being insensitive. To not name racism in this instance was to deny the experience of the Black members of my community. Fortunately for me, these staff members and parents trusted me enough to let me know how my words hurt them, and they afforded me grace that I did not deserve in order to learn and grow from the experience.
So, using models from Fort Worth and Dallas, I went to my board and we created the district’s Department of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Then we worked with the community to draft an Equity Policy that spells out the new path we want to traverse in our district. We developed an entire segment of our 2018 strategic plan that was devoted to equity. But not racial equity. I wasn’t sure we were ready for that yet.
Still, I tried to foster authentic conversations with school community members. Through our Say Something initiative, I learned that too many of our educators of color feel they cannot bring their whole selves to work. Through our district’s work in the first cohort of Dallas Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (talk about powerful words) I learned about how historic patterns and societal norms, not merely personal prejudice, create structural oppression. Through our work with Young Leaders, Strong City we created a safe space for students to share about the inequities in their schools.
There’s something about hearing painful words from students that makes everything real. This was a turning point for me.
In February, those conversations finally compelled me to say the words: Systemic racism exists in our school district. We have a white learning culture. I feel that this is a barrier to fully embracing employees and students of color. This is also a barrier for many students of color to reaching their academic potential.
These words were met with gratitude from many staff members, but a lot of white people were offended, and I can’t say I was surprised. I knew what I was saying was true, but I also knew that, three years ago, I would not have understood how in the world somebody would have felt comfortable saying what I was now compelled to say.
And I still had more to learn. In June, in the wake of our national reckoning with racism, I was approached by a group of former and current students who presented me a list of demands for the district.
Demands: another highly charged word. I instinctively drew on my experience as a high school principal: “Students can’t make demands!” But as I listened for three hours to example after example of lowered expectations, opportunities and neglectful treatment of students of color, it became clear that “demand” was in fact the perfect word, because they had every right to demand change.
In the 2015-2016 school year, just before I became superintendent, white RISD students were 2.6 times as likely to be enrolled in at least one Advanced Placement class as Hispanic students. Black RISD students were, on average, 2.9 grades behind white students academically. Black students were 5.6 times as likely to be suspended as white students and the third-grade reading achievement gap, just like the one that exists across our state and nation, continued to grow wider. You see, I believe that talent is distributed evenly at birth, and the consistent inequities in our data make obvious that opportunity is not.
This is clear evidence of a systemwide failure to provide academic and social-emotional support to students of color. It is evidence of, in a word, racism. I don’t say this to make white staff or community members feel uncomfortable or guilty. I say this because to ignore it would be a dereliction of my duty, as the superintendent of the fourth-most-diverse district in Texas, to serve every student who comes through our doors.
The day after those students gave me their demands, I printed the list on posters and attached them to my office door. They will stay on my door until they no longer need to be there. I anticipate it will take awhile.
Last month at the first meeting of our new Racial Equity Committee, I told over 100 community and staff members that we would turn our words into action. Because while words are powerful, actions prove what someone is really made of. Only actions will transform us into an anti-racist district that closes the student achievement gap in a way no one ever has. I am still learning, but the most important thing I have learned is that “action” is the most powerful word of all.
November 7, 2020