From the Executive Director: Reflections on equity and how the Rennie Center can do better
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others have led me to reflect on my role in our dominant white culture. I have asked myself how the organization I lead can better address the inequities that plague our society and, as righteous anger and protest erupted, why I haven't done more. As a white man, I want to be a strong ally. I am not sure how.
I do believe the Rennie Center can help play a role in breaking down the barriers that lead to inequity. I also worry that sharing my perspective and reflections from the last few months will come off as self-indulgent or opportunistic – taking advantage of a moment when so many are standing up to racial oppression and violence to focus on myself and my organization. But to be an ally, I know I need to start by examining my own understanding of systems of oppression and how I may be complicit in them.
As someone who grew up immersed in dominant white culture, I quickly internalized that talking about race was wrong. To discuss race was to be racist. We were trying to build a colorblind society – a melting pot – where treating everyone equally meant refusing to acknowledge any differences. It never occurred to me that “we” was not an inclusive term in an overwhelmingly white suburban community.
I have been the Executive Director of the Rennie Center for almost nine years. Over the last two, I had the privilege of co-facilitating the work of a national design team to examine how school improvement efforts can more directly address racial equity. I learned a lot. I learned how to listen. I discovered how evidence and understanding of “what works” comes from many sources, including personal stories, experiences, and cultural histories. And, I became more comfortable talking about race.
I remember my first meeting with the design team, where I pushed for us to stay on task and follow our agenda. I also remember the reactions from others, questioning my need to adhere to a set of predetermined steps drawn from my own experience. My motivation was simple: I wanted us all to be successful. I thought I had a plan for achieving this goal. My resistance to allowing our work plan to evolve, however, was also an unintentional enforcement of my own norms and expectations – dominant white norms. This was something I couldn’t see. It’s not easy to separate yourself from your own cultural understandings and worldview. I needed others to show me. I am beginning to understand that serving as a white ally does not mean presenting people of color with solutions, it means involving yourself in tearing down racist barriers that prevent others from owning and leading the work they want to do.
The Rennie Center has long been focused on addressing gaps in opportunities and outcomes among white and Black and Latino students. We have worked to advance many reform strategies aimed at addressing racial inequities, from changing student discipline policies to building inclusive school communities to creating career pathways for disconnected and marginalized youth. But, we have always been and remain a predominately white organization. And, I believe, this limits our knowledge and perspective and has the potential to “whitewash” our findings. Too often, I worry, our work has been aimed at identifying and sharing reform strategies designed to ensure the success of all students without fully confronting the deep and systemic racism that led to inequitable results in the first place. It’s a question of promoting strategies for navigating an inherently inequitable system versus transforming that system itself.
I am embarrassed that it has taken the events of the past few months, and more time to reflect and articulate my feelings, for the Rennie Center to take steps to ensure our staffing, structure, and behaviors match our ideals. This work will take time. It will extend well beyond the next few months, require outside assistance and expertise, and involve missteps and mistakes. But, in the meantime I think there are some places where we can take immediate action.
First, words matter. It is important to use terms like anti-racism, implicit bias, privilege, and white supremacy when working to improve our public education system. It is important to educate ourselves and others about the meaning of these words, while gaining comfort in using them. And, it is important to directly acknowledge and confront the ugly and pernicious inequities that these social ills create.
Too often, the Rennie Center has worked to identify and remedy disparities in learning outcomes without naming their underlying causes. For example, each year the state’s accountability system identifies low-performing and failing schools clustered in under-resourced communities disproportionately serving students of color. We then set to work crafting strategies to make these schools better. Such work matters. We shouldn’t force any child to sit in a classroom where they are not provided with the opportunity and tools to learn. Yet, seeking to turn around underperforming schools cannot distract from the more damning point that all the “worst” schools in our state happen to be in all our most disadvantaged communities. We are not actually measuring school quality. We are measuring our collective failure to address the segregation of opportunity within our system.
What our education system continues to document is, in fact, a history of discrimination that continues to oppress our most marginalized citizens. Two of the most reliable paths toward upward mobility in the United States are home ownership and a college education. For generations, racist practices such as redlining have denied families of color, especially Black families, the opportunity to purchase a home or start a business. Centerpieces of the twentieth century, like the GI Bill, were denied to $1.2 million Black W.W.II veterans, closing doors in growing suburban neighborhoods and college registration offices. The legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and the continued bigotry that infiltrates all aspects of our society with far greater anonymity, have led to differences in wealth among white and black families that cannot be remedied by raising math scores 22 percentage points. According to the Federal Reserve of Boston, in the Greater Boston region:
- White households’ median wealth is $247,500 compared to $8 for black households.
- 80% of white households own a home compared to less than one-third of black households.
- Nearly all white households (93%) have a checking or savings account, while one-quarter of black households do not.
These vast differences undergird an education system that still relies on where students live and how wealthy their families are to determine the quality of education provided. This includes not only using local property taxes to set (or top-off) school budgets, but an increasing reliance on individual family wealth to provide essential services, enrichment, and out-of-school activities to help guarantee students’ long-term success. It is not surprising that not much has changed. Frankly, it’s remarkable that we’ve consistently fooled ourselves into thinking we can fix public education without addressing these underlying issues.
This brings me to my second point: actions matter more than words. At the Rennie Center, we are starting with our own organization. At our June Board meeting, we passed a formal resolution to increase the diversity of our Board of Directors by January 2021. Achieving this aim will ensure our board is more than one-third people or color, and we aspire to grow beyond this minimum threshold. We have initiated an internal review process devoted to enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion within our organization. We are currently developing goals to guide this work, which will involve us taking a critical and reflective look at how we work, both internally as a team and externally with the field. We have also launched the Future Education Leaders Network (FELN), designed to help young professionals (particularly young professionals of color) build social capital and promote access to opportunity and retention within the education field, while creating new channels for organizations to connect with potential job candidates. It is important to note that FELN was initiated and led by the vision and hard work of the Rennie Center’s younger staff who spoke adamantly about ensuring that internships and part-time and temporary positions, often more readily available to young people of color, lead to permanent positions and professional opportunities. In this manner, the Rennie Center is investing to create pipelines and pathways to diversify our organization and the education field.
We aim to have an impact beyond our own organization, of course, and take on work that directly address the underlying causes of systemic inequities in our education system. For this reason, we feel privileged that we were asked to serve as the backbone organization for Open Opportunity – Massachusetts (OOMA), a coalition of more than 40 grasstops and grassroots organizations committed to placing community experience and expertise at the center of education reform. OOMA will work to create space to connect and align existing local improvement efforts, while building capacities to address gaps in service and need. The coalition will also act with urgency. By 2021, OOMA will invest in multiple urban centers across the Commonwealth to serve as demonstration sites for developing innovative, racially equitable, and community-wide approaches to preparing all students for life success. Read more about OOMA on our blog.
This is a big experiment made possible by the generous support of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation for the first phase of our work, and the passion and dedication of OOMA members. Our goal is not small – we aim to fundamentally transform our education system to ensure all students, especially those who have been historically marginalized, are able to lead meaningful and prosperous lives. We will make mistakes. We will get better. And, we hope others will join us and bring forward their own perspectives, expertise, and resources to help sustain the work and achieve success.
To support this and other work, the Rennie Center will get better as well. We will continue to work toward being a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization, a strong ally and partner, and place where new perspectives and voices can emerge and lead. We will make mistakes. We will fail. And, we will continue to make progress by continuously striving to do better.