So, you want to hire—or become—an equity officer?

It’s important to have the confidence to give direct feedback when you witness or hear about a racist act
By: | February 17, 2021
Mary Rice Boothe, The Leadership Academy

Mary Rice Boothe, The Leadership Academy

When I became the first chief access and equity officer of my organization two years ago, our leadership team’s hope was that, in this role, I would be able to push the organization forward in its quest to become an equitable organization.

As I wrote in my new job description, my primary purpose was “to hold a mirror up to the organization.”

I thought I was ready for the role. I had sat on the organization’s equity leadership team for many years, helped design and deliver equity-focused training for staff, became certified by the Pacific Education Group in leading conversations about race, and had written my doctoral dissertation on the skills needed to effectively facilitate conversations on race. Earlier in my career, I had been a teacher, a principal, a coach and a curriculum developer.

But I quickly felt the challenges and pressures of trying to move an organization to be something no one had seen before. In addition, leading the internal equity work was not my only job. I also supported our clients—K-12 school and school system leaders —with their equity-focused work.

And as a Black woman, I was determined to get it all right.

I leveraged any resources I could find: the standards I had leaned on as a teacher and principal; the books and mentors I had accumulated over my career; and guidance released by the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, the only resource I could find at the time that spoke directly to my role.

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Perhaps most useful, I sought out diversity and equity officers in other organizations. Together we built a support system for working through our challenges—through our intersectional identities that had at times been oppressed by our organizations, and through our limited resources, all within a white dominant culture that was not built for our success.

Over time, we have created our own playbooks. As more organizations create equity officer roles—job ads for equity officers have more than doubled on the Glassdoor job site since the murder of George Floyd last May— we offer lessons for maximizing the success of the equity officer and their organization.

3 keys tips for equity officers

Say it and name it. To “hold-up the mirror to the organization,” it is critical to provide timely, actionable feedback.

It’s not always easy to be the one asking, “But have we thought about the impact on…?” or “What will this decision do to our culture?” or “Whose perspectives haven’t we heard from?” But it’s critical to ask the right questions, even if you don’t have all the answers.

It’s also important to have the confidence to give direct feedback when you witness or hear about a racist act. I try to use low-inference data, be succinct, and offer alternative actions, which I’ve found particularly helpful for colleagues who are early in their race and equity journey.

Benny Vasquez, the chief equity officer at KIPP Foundation, has spent a lot of time building relationships in his work to support the organization’s leaders to see the direct connection between equity and academics. When he needs to give feedback, he says, “I tend to interrupt, but I’m not in the business of calling people out unless they are admittedly being racist.”

If he hears a racist or otherwise offensive comment, he might say, “My request for you is to think about what you just said and why. We can reflect on it together if you want, but you need to know that what you said landed difficult for me.”

Create your coalition. Equity officers are often one-person departments tasked with working across an organization. To do the job well, I’ve found it essential to seek out peers and colleagues who will do the work alongside me.

Angela Ward has been doing cultural proficiency work in Austin ISD since 2010 and became the district’s race equity administrative supervisor in 2016. She began building her coalition with new teachers and principals by connecting with them during their induction classes.

She then launched a two-year cultural proficiency capacity building series that leads staff through learnings about history, themselves, how personal values and beliefs impact their work, and how to be coalition builders in their own schools. Over time, a critical mass of educators bought into the cultural proficiency work and advocated for it to make sure Ward had the support she needed to spread it across the district.

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 Jessica Boston Davis, director for equity and excellence for the Somerville Public Schools in Massachusetts, has also benefitted from her own coalitions. When she started in the role in 2018, she was eager to learn from and connect with others in similar roles. She did a Google search for equity officers in school districts in Massachusetts, did some outreach, and convened a group.

“I thought it was going to be a structured conversation with an agenda and protocol, but I realized that we all just needed a space to vent with people who understood us,” said Davis.

The group now meets every other Friday to exchange ideas on how to respond to different situations, share district materials like job descriptions, discuss books, and just connect.

Practice self-care. On any given day, equity officers can be pulled in multiple directions. An Asian, Black, Latinx, Indigenous or person of color in this role also must manage the inequities, microaggressions and other forms of oppression in our personal lives. Self-care is therefore critical.

Ward and Boston-Davis have created spaces for self-care for staff through healing circles and book clubs. They both use the text, My Grandmother’s Hands, by Resmaa Menakem, in their personal and professional lives, as it offers a variety of exercises for healing from the personal and/or historical racialized trauma our bodies have absorbed.

They also set personal parameters for themselves. When Ward is invited to join a committee or meeting, she asks about the purpose and intended outcomes and how many meetings are required.

Boston-Davis stays connected to things that affirm her identity like the local chapter of her sorority and her undergraduate community at Spelman College. For Vasquez, laughter is self-care.

“We can do this work in joy. I’m tired of struggling, it can be about thriving,” he said. I begin almost every day with a run. It is critical for me to connect with the outdoors, tap into my own thoughts and take a deep breath as the sun rises.

How to create the equity officer role

Before bringing an equity officer on board for the first time, there is important work that system leaders can do.

Talk with equity officers who are working in a variety of systems to hear about their successes and challenges. This learning can help leaders better understand the role and assess their system’s readiness for it.

Give the equity officer clear decision-making rights and power. When officers report directly to the superintendent and are part of the leadership cabinet, they help ensure that conversations about equity are always on the table and decisions are made through an equity lens. This helps the officer feel less like a consultant and more like a decision-maker.

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Provide the resources needed to do the job effectively. “Districts need to ask themselves, is this position just as supported as any other department?” said Boston Davis. If they are being used effectively, officers should sit on many committees and support initiatives across the district, ensuring that the works is spread across the district. “Don’t require them to be the lone voice,” said Ward.

Show the equity officer that they have your full support. Often the equity officer’s work can make some people feel uncomfortable and push difficult conversations. The officer needs to know that they have the freedom to push these difficult conversations without fear of risking their job security.

Equity officers are critical for ensuring equity is a part of every conversation, every decision, every policy and practice across an organization. But the work is complex, and that person will struggle to be effective if the system doesn’t create conditions that set them up for success.

As Vasquez advises, “Realize that you are walking into an organization that has years of white supremacy embedded in it, so you can’t fix everything. Practice self-liberation because the work can be hard and emotional. And be bold in what you need because it will give others permission to do the same and find moments of joy.”

Mary B. Rice-Boothe is the chief access & equity officer at the The Leadership Academy, a nonprofit that helps develop equity-minded school administrators.