Racial Equity – Act Now

Racial Equity – 7 Action Steps

Nationally, we are asking, Will this time be different?  Will we embrace the challenge to think differently, talk differently, do differently?  I hope so.  News media are reporting that now more than ever before well over half of all Americans believe change is needed to overcome institutional racism and injustice.

For decades, I have used my leadership voice to advocate for racial equity and concrete changes to eliminate opportunity gaps for students of color.  This cost me my job in Pasco for advocating for Hispanic students.  In Marysville, I learned to partner with Tulalip Tribes.  And during my four years in Seattle, I called for each school to set gap-closing goals for our African American students.

Still, my efforts have been too little to make the substantial institutional changes needed.  Talk is not enough.  Action is needed.  Here is what I think I have learned:

Radical listening

We can’t lead what we don’t know.  Thinking we know best perpetuates white privilege, colonialism, and institutional racism.  Until I meet with those who have been most impacted by institutional practices anything I do will be ineffective.  Early on in Seattle, I asked every school to set gap-closing goals for African American males.  Gradually, schools took on that challenge.  When I heard from a parent that her boys were not included because they marked ‘two or more races’ I got far more specific about our work.  Engage, listen, and learn.  Hear the stories first-hand.   Then, act on what you have heard.  In Ann Ishimaru’s new book, she urges us to do more than ask for input or engagement. Invite our communities of color in to do-design together with us.

Use your leadership voice

Many of us have engaged in undoing racism training and learned about white privilege.  We have prepared ourselves for courageous conversations.  Leaders however must do more. Far more.  Does your staff and community know where you stand, what you expect, and what you will not tolerate?  Yes, talking about race is dangerous and problematic.  Tulalip friends told me to leave my coat, tie and preconceived ideas behind when I came to the reservation.  Keep working at it.  Like any other skill, it takes time and practice, and the grace to admit our mistakes.  Let people see your heart.  Develop your teachable point of view and share your commitment to equity at EVERY opportunity.

Own the data

Be brutally honest about the gaps that exist and take responsibility.  Tension between where we are and where we want to be is what generates change.  When we feel the pressure, we get serious about finding solutions. The Oz Principle (Connors) says:  See it, Own it, Solve it, Do it.  Put the facts on the table.  Bring people together to find solutions.

Find a beachhead

Look for overlap between the greatest needs and the greatest opportunity.  This requires work with communities of color and communities of privilege.  Make the case.  Grow the district’s leadership voice.  Enlist your leadership team.  True change began in Seattle, when the board placed a moratorium on elementary suspensions.  So began an intense and intentional search for better ways.


The difference between a problem and an opportunity is the skill available.  Name the objective and then grow the capacity to meet that objective.  My intent in Seattle was that every student be known by name, strength, interests and need.  I asked that every student have an adult at school that cares about them – an advocate.  District, principal and union leadership partnered in district-wide PD.  Then, much to my surprise, some schools said, Let’s just ask each student who their advocate is. And if they don’t have one we’ll look for a good match.

Check for understanding

All of the above, I learned how to do – gradually, painfully, with mis-steps along the way.  What I didn’t do as much was check for understanding.  One of the PLC questions from Rick DuFours is, What do we do if the students are not learning?  That question is equally important for educators.  Do teachers and principals understand what is at stake?  Do they know what to do?  One of my coaching clients taught me much in this regard.  They simply went to teachers and asked them to self-assess:  To what extent are we applying these idea?  What evidence of implementation can we show.  They monitored and adjusted by meeting teacher needs, in support of the objective, reaching students.

Grow capacity

We asked principals in Seattle to set gap-closing goals.  They met monthly in network improvement teams to share progress with colleagues.  They could be transparent and push each other.  They shared their progress and heard from colleagues about challenges and challenges overcome.  They learned to lean into the work.  Racial equity teams and parent engagement teams did similar work: learning from each other, evaluating progress, getting better.

Start where you are.  Start now. 

This is the work of our time. 

Our students can’t wait.  Our nation can’t wait. 

For a list of recommended books on racial equity click here.

For a seven session PD packet for promoting racial equity district-wide email: larry@larrynyland.com.


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

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
Contact: Larry@Larrynyland.com | 425-418-4398 | LarryNyland.com