Fighting the virus of racism in education requires courageous leadership

By Carlos Mariani Rosa and Nanette Yurecko

As schools reopened this year with hybrid and distance learning plans, there is no doubt that these are unprecedented times. We are in the middle of two virus pandemics. One is a new arrival and the other has been here for hundreds of years. Their official names are “Covid-19” and “racial inequality.” Both of their infections are invisible in the early stages. And like all viruses, both of them need host cells to survive.

As in our human bodies with Covid-19, our school systems have served as host cells for the pandemic of racism. Instead of attacking the respiratory system, this virus invades the minds, the bodies, and the spirits of our children through racial inequities in student assessments; their access to rigorous coursework; being identified for special education; and discipline disparities and having their home language dismissed.

Fighting this virus and becoming infection-free requires courageous leadership.

Courageous leadership sees infinite possibilities

There is a direct correlation between leadership and positive and equitable outcomes for students. As pharmaceutical companies are working to create a product that will help build our immunity and protect us from Covid-19, courageous leadership for racial equity must work to produce the antidote to racism in in our public schools.

Racism is oppression backed by institutional power. Education is a social institution where school boards, superintendents, district administrators, principals and teachers inherit power with their roles. With that power comes great promise and responsibility.

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Leadership has the power to listen, to unite, to inspire, to heal, and to create. Courageous leadership goes even deeper and becomes the moral compass of the institution. Instead of merely seeking to become asymptomatic by trying to reform the current system, courageous leaders work to transform it.

Leaders exercise their power by leading and empowering their communities to build school systems with foundations of dignity and respect that are upheld by pillars of anti-racist policies and practices.

The active goal is to build vibrant public schools to make sure all learners thrive, where students see themselves racially and culturally reflected in the staff and the curriculum, where they learn about our country’s true history, where multiple perspectives and different ways of being and learning are valued, and where they have healthy, caring and supportive relationships.

Racism poses a complex social problem without prescribed solutions. Courageous leadership sees infinite possibilities for students to find solutions for how racism challenges their lives. Rather than searching for technical responses, like a new reading program or a social emotional curriculum, courageous leaders find new ways to engage their communities in problem solving.

These courageous leaders are not distracted by the latest fads and quick fixes. Instead, their focus is on inclusive engagement that brings forth absent narratives, that elevates the voices of Black, indigenous and persons of color and empowers the collective to redesign a system that will serve every student with excellence.

Courageous leadership for our schools means asking tough questions to get to the root cause of the virus, and a willingness to examine everything we do, why we do it, and how we do it.

Courageous leadership puts humanity before self-preservation, working diligently to dismantle the beliefs and the actions that prevent us from achieving anti-racist academic and social goals. And most importantly, it does not waiver and continues the work even when it is uncomfortable and when it brings opposition —as anti-racism work aways will.

Eliminating a virus with such deep roots and longevity will involve unlearning and relearning, so courageous leaders must be prepared to endure criticism when change is said to be too fast, and again when new ways of problem solving are deemed too time consuming. Courageous leaders persevere through dissenting noise by grounding themselves in awareness, compassion, and trust. Courageous leaders understand that conflict is evidence of growth and change.

We need courageous leadership now

“Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part.”

~ John Lewis

Brain research confirms that 95 percent of our daily actions and decision making is driven by our unconscious mind. Inaction is an action itself. Courageous leadership is essential to ensure that we are intentional in our efforts to stop hosting this virus. Just as our history has shaped previous generations, the actions or inactions we take today will impact multiple generations.

Collectively, right now there is a higher state of racial consciousness because a horrific eight-minute video of police killing a Black man opened hearts and minds to the pandemic of racism. But as with other crises, such as hurricanes, fires, or hunger, when the headlines and the publicity fades, so does the support.

There is a tendency to forget that we were moved by an event, and then over time a gradual numbing sets in and we return to being undisturbed. Our ancestral survival modes based on fear and scarcity also get activated unconsciously during long periods of uncertainty.

Courageous leadership can interrupt that innate response with strategic moves of hope, optimism, and rebuilding. Together, we can use this opportunity to turn awareness into action.

And we must act now if we’re going to aspire to stopping racial injustice in our schools, rather than just trying to slow the spread.

Resources for Courageous Leadership:

Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening and Creating New Realities by Adam Kahane

Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading by Ronald A. Heifetz & Marty Linsky


Carlos Mariani Rosa is the Executive Director of MnEEP.

Nanette Yureko is a former school administrator who serves as a leadership consultant with MnEEP’s Superintendents Leadership Network

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