Using Leadership ‘voice’ to advance racial equity

Equity Memo: 7 tips for sharing our leadership ‘voice’

You are incredible.  Thank you for your work in sharing our equity voice and vision with staff.  Six weeks ago, I asked district leaders to begin sharing our racial equity commitment – at every opportunity.  We worked on our leadership voice: the heart (feeling); the head (thinking) and; the hands (actions that we want to encourage).  Thank you for embracing the challenge.  We learn by doing … taking risks … getting feedback … and getting better.

Here are seven tips and two examples of what we learned from our work together:

  • Clarity

My initial memo wasn’t clear about implementation.  I needed to be clearer about what I was asking you to do.  Asking for “fresh eyes” to review my memo before sending it – always a good idea – might have caught my mistake.

  • Modeling

Most of us use structural templates when we begin something new.  My “model” included “one” way to communicate heart.  You suggested so many other great ways to communicate. My model was not nearly rich enough to give you a broad menu of examples to choose from.

  • Feedback

Actually seeing your work, helps me get better.  Your feedback shows where I was clear and where I missed the mark. And your collective responses provide a much richer menu of styles and approaches.

  • Heart

Those who had personal experiences drew on those (as did my example).  AND you went far beyond to show other ways we can demonstrate ‘heart.’

    • Story: some drew on your interviews with those we most want to reach. Those stories of the heart were compelling.
    • Core Values: you connected our equity work to district commitments and core values … Reminding staff that “we all agreed to …” is powerful.
    • Declarative statements worked well. Statements like … I am convinced … I worry most about … You will see my commitment … and My top priority is …
  • Head

Again, you showed great variety in your approaches:

    • Some were analytical; saying why equity is important.
    • Many used creative tension; showing the gap between where we are (data) and where we want to be (aspiration).
    • Celebrating staff for the work underway resonated with me.  You showed your confidence in your team’s ability to do the work.
    • And some made it abundantly clear what culturally responsive instruction is and what it looks like.  You painted the expectations with clarity and purpose.
  • Hands

Acknowledging that the work is hard, requires risk and may take time seemed like a great entry point.  Collectively, you outlined a great list of culturally responsive aspirations:

    • Safe, inclusive, caring and respectful environment
    • Every student welcomed, honored, valued and belonging
    • Positive relationships based on high interest and listening to student voice
    • Strengths based focus on high expectations and supports.
  • Implementation

Three parts to the implementation phase: a) where and when will you share your equity “voice;” b) what explicit action steps do you expect; and c) how will you gather data to improve? The two examples below each include great implementation

Two Examples

Ebony and Jose did a great job of asking for specific actions, supporting the work, and following up to monitor progress.  My highlights below don’t do them justice.  They each have a “red thread” that runs so compellingly through their memos.

  • Jose

Jose started with a story – modeling how he wanted staff to respect parents and learn about their culture.  He used clear declarative sentences to explain what understanding cultures looks like and why it is important.  Then he asked teachers, very specifically to welcome parents to student-led conferences with: introductions, a few Spanish phrases, and a tone of respect.  And said he would be checking in with students and parents to see how they felt.  Great alignment of modeling, rationale, specifics and follow up.

  • Ebony

Ebony started with the district commitment and explained why it mattered to her and our students.  She followed with her story:  When teachers heard my voice, I felt valued.  Then she asked leaders to advance student voice through an “Every Student Seen and Heard” initiative.  Specifically, she asked teachers to develop three questions per month for student interviews.  And then use what they learned to make students feel valued and respected.  She thanked teachers for their commitment and made time for teachers to reflect and record what they learned about each student.


We get better with deliberate practice.  Take every opportunity – in person and in print – to share the urgency of our equity work.  Work on your leadership voice. Clarify what one action step is most important and why.  Check for understanding and ask for feedback.  Collect evidence to help you and your staff keep getting better.  Together we can and will learn how to grow student voice and student greatness for each and every student we serve.

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’ – Margaret Mead

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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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