Tag Archives: Leadership

Let’s Talk About Race: An Uncomfortable Necessity for Education Leaders

Dialogue by Pedro Paricio

Dialogue by Pedro Paricio via Halcyon Gallery

When I’m in a professional setting and I see a conversation about race materializing, my heart beats faster and I become acutely tuned into the room’s social dynamics. My whiteness is top of mind. I interrogate my observations and comments before sharing them. I load my statements and questions with qualifiers the way you might pack a fragile vase to be shipped cross-country by freight.

And I shipped truckloads of freight on Tuesday night.

Education Pioneers (EP) hosted an alumni event called Black Lives Matter to the Education Community, where I joined about 20 education leaders representing EP’s diverse network to reflect independently and engage in small- and large-group “courageous conversations about race” prompted by the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

It’s my understanding that the event was first-come-first-served, so the demographics were largely a function of chance. Even so, the room was fairly racially diverse, although there were fewer black attendees than I would have expected considering the topic.

The Education Pioneers’ program team is full of expert facilitators so it wasn’t surprising to see a thoughtful agenda that began with introductions and brief check-ins on everyone’s feelings and expectations for the evening. “Eager,” “vulnerable,” “nervous,” and “open” were common sentiments.

But even with the best facilitation and when everyone’s part of a trusted and familiar professional network, there’s always a fair bit of hesitation to dive into a discussion about race with semi-strangers. Raising issues about race in a professional setting can be fraught with risks including personal discomfort, poorly received messages, and marginalization. As a result, public dialogue tends to be academic in nature and disassociated from lived experiences and feelings. In general, this was the tenor of the conversation on Tuesday too, but there were moments when people left their comfort zone to share their perspectives. In those moments, the room seemed quieter and participants were more reverent, sensing that something uncommon was happening.

“How incredible would it be,” I thought, “if these moments were the rule instead of the exception.”

I’ve recently vowed to be more proactive and vocal around issues of race and class in my work and am always looking for patterns, barriers, and opportunities to improve myself, my colleagues, Bellwether, and our clients. So here are my three big takeaways from the night:

Continue reading

Open Letter to 2015 Grad School Graduates: Be a Big Fish in a Small Pond.

Dear Soon-To-Be Masters in Education, Business, Policy, and Law:

While the education world is all atwitter about a potential reauthorization of ESEA, you are likely preoccupied with the question of where to begin your career as a system-level education leader. Having coached hundreds of graduate students through career transitions, I can tell you that most of your classmates will plant their flags in preeminent cities like New York, LA, Boston, or Chicago. But I encourage you to consider smaller cities that might be just off your radar which may be more beneficial as you look to put a new degree to work.

Being a big fish in a small pond can accelerate your career while adding vital skills and knowledge to a city’s education brain trust.

As a San Franciscan, I understand the pull toward top-tier cities. World-class food, entertainment, sports teams, and cultural attractions create an unending array of opportunities. The rich racial, ethnic, linguistic, and political diversity that one can witness on a cross town bus ride is at once humbling and stimulating. And a robust ecosystem of companies, government institutions, and nonprofit organizations provides an abundance of career advancement opportunities.

Not surprisingly, smaller cities struggle to attract people like you. Often perceived as isolated, less ambitious, or short on professional opportunity, they can be hastily canceled out from career equations. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Cincinnati area, for instance, is home to more Fortune 500 company headquarters per capita than New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago making for an economically vibrant region with a generous philanthropic community. Nashville is a hotbed for live music, home to two professional sports teams, and was ranked one of Outside Magazine’s Greatest Places to Live in the US in 2014.

On the education front, many smaller cities are undertaking ambitious efforts to dramatically increase the number of high-quality schools within their limits. The Cleveland Plan (part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District — a current Bellwether client), for example, is deliberately pursuing a city-wide portfolio model that aims to increase the number of high-quality district and charter schools, close down underperforming schools, transfer authority and resources to schools, phase in high-leverage system supports, and create an entity to uphold quality and accountability. Few plans like it exist in the country, even among big cities.

As I work with leaders and organizations in smaller cities around the country, I’m starting to think that lasting reform may have more potential in urban areas where the need for gap-closing schools is just as great but the distance between an idea and impact is shorter.

Continue reading

Where There’s a Will There’s a Why: A look at a New Report from Education Pioneers and Koya Leadership Partners

If you haven’t seen it yet, Education Pioneers and Koya Leadership Partners released a report last week, From Intention to Action: Building Diverse, Inclusive Teams in Education to Deepen Impact.

This is an important piece for the field and definitely worth the read. The report calls out the gap between the widely held imperative to have racially diverse leadership in education nonprofits and the dearth of action that they’re taking to get there.

Intention to Action Infographic

Via Education Pioneers (Click for full infographic)

To close this gap, they propose five best practices:

  1. Customize your vision and strategy
  2. Focus on impacts and metrics
  3. Focus on recruiting and selection practices
  4. Invest in leadership development to retain high performers
  5. Ensure ongoing discussion

The report’s main finding is notable and squares with our experiences working with education nonprofits of all stripes across the country. The recommendations and audit at the back of the report are solid for organizations ready to take action.

But in-between pledging commitment and implementing policies and practices, there’s a critical middle step that the report doesn’t address: diagnosing why organizations are failing to implement these best practices. Is it a lack of capacity? Lack of knowledge? Lack of leadership? Institutional barriers? Personal and procedural biases?

The answers will be different for every organization and tracking them down is no easy feat. We’ve been involved in diversity initiatives in the private and public sector, within education organizations and others, and have learned that achieving diversity goals requires much more than instituting policies and metrics.

It is a heavy lift and it is messy.

Achieving true diversity and inclusion requires a structured change management process and a deep understanding of the social constructs and systemic issues that have led to majority-led institutions. It requires leaders to be highly self-aware and prepared to initiate courageous conversations. It often also involves relinquishment of power – whether in leadership roles or dominant cultural practices and norms.  While it is important to take actionable steps to improve diversity, in order to build organizations where a diverse group of individuals can thrive and sustain themselves to drive impact, organizations must engage in a continuous learning and reflection process.

Clearly we think a lot about this stuff here at Bellwether as we work with clients through our Talent practice. But building a diverse and inclusive education organization is also a priority for us internally and engaging in the process has  heightened our appreciation for how difficult the work really is. From Intention to Action has pushed our conversations forward in a positive way.

We consider ourselves critical friends to both EP and Koya based on the belief that we do our best work when pushed by people who care deeply about the same issues. In a post slated for next week, we bundle ten reactions to the report that include praise, methodological quibbles, and questions for future work to keep the conversation going.