Leading Racial Literacy

Leading Racial Literacy … a Thought Paper

Guest blog by Dr. Kyle Kinoshita

Racial equity

Educational justice is much on the hearts and minds of educators right now. And they are confronted with two key questions: Where do we start? and What are key aspects of district leadership that result in systemic equity transformation over time?

Lessons Learned

I have had the opportunity to partner with Dr. Larry Nyland and observe his leadership in racial equity as superintendent in Marysville and then in Seattle. Here is what I have observed:


First a recap of several key accomplishments connected with Dr. Nyland’s superintendencies:

  • In 2010, in Marysville, in the midst of one of the worst financial situations a district could face, the Tulalip Tribes provided an unsolicited gift of $4M to help sustain learning improvement. Later, in 2013, the District and Tulalip Tribes partnered in a Memorandum of Understanding regarding collaboration in school programs.
  • During Larry’s time in Seattle, the Seattle School Board:
    • Unanimously declared a moratorium on elementary suspensions;
    • Resolved that Indigenous Peoples’ Day would replace Columbus Day in its calendar and curriculum;
    • Unanimously approved a resolution mandating the development of ethnic studies;
    • Resolved to commemorate Black Lives Matter, long before the idea spread nationwide;
    • And, just months after he retired, approved a new five-year strategic plan with an explicit focus on racial equity, a goal long espoused by Dr. Nyland as “the issue of our time.”
  • During Dr. Nyland’s tenure, Seattle’s equity policy 0030 was translated into actions and results:
    • Every Board motion must contain an extensive equity analysis.
    • An annual report on the work done related to the policy is now routine.
    • Graduation gaps were closed by 50%; exclusionary suspensions were reduced by 40%.
    • District-wide professional development featured explicitly anti-racist themes.
    • Seattle was listed #3 in the U.S. for student academic growth in grades 3 through 8;
      largely due to the growth of non-dominant student achievement.

Sense of Urgency

These accomplishments would have been much less likely without constant development of a sense of urgency and action around race, racism, and equity. Developing this sense of urgency is one of the ways in which a system leader interacts with local variables to influence actions towards racial justice.

Racial Literacy

Further, without a persistent, protracted focus to increase racial literacy in all parts of the district system, it would be much less likely that these accomplishments would have carried the day nor been implemented.

Dr. Nyland’s work parallels the findings of Dr. Sonya Douglass Horsford (2014) who holds that educational leaders must work at “racial literacy” for themselves and for those they lead. Let’s look at how Dr. Nyland’s work on race and equity follows Dr. Horsford’s model.  

Journey toward Racial Equality

Horsford presents a multistep progression toward racial equality in education. Her abridged quotes are shown in italics below and throughout this case study:

  • It begins with racial literacy, or understanding what race is, how it works, and its relationship to inequality; racial literacy—is essential to the work of educational leaders
  • followed by racial realism, which acknowledges the history, regularity, and reproduction of racism in educational institutions like schools.
  • The next stage is racial reconstruction, a process whereby individuals and institutions move from deficit-laden thinking and stereotypes and ascribe new meanings to race; which is
  • followed by racial reconciliation, the aspirational goal of healing and reaching common ground (not necessarily agreement) concerning matters of race and racial equality. (Horsford, p. 125, see Table 1).

Deepen Understanding of Racial Bias and Its Impact:

Dr. Nyland wove together a focus on racial literacy with steps for change in both Seattle and Marysville.

He consistently and courageously called out the need for leaders in both districts to explicitly deepen their understanding of race and racism.

The desire for educational leaders … to avoid issues of race is both pragmatic and problematic.

… failure to acknowledge and consider race in school … erects … barriers that commonly result from colorblind approaches

Such colorblindness inhibits an education leader’s ability to shape and sustain a school culture that draws strength from diverse backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, and concerns …

At their worst, colorblind discourses in schools constrain constructive talk about race and racial equity and serve to justify efforts to avoid race-conscious conversations, policies, and practices altogether.

Thus, race remains “the undiscussable” when, in fact, “aggressive, color-conscious efforts” are needed to dismantle the reproduction of racial inequality and inequity in schools. (Horsford, p. 124)

Racial justice for the Native American tribal population was a recurring theme in his messaging to leaders and the public in Marysville, and an even greater central theme in Seattle in his communications with the entire district, especially the leadership. In Seattle, Dr. Nyland continually focused on the 50-point differential in reading and math between Black and White students. As well, he declared the failure of school systems to serve Black-African American students the “issue of our time.” Dr. Nyland’s messaging clearly reflects John Kotter’s strategies of creating a sense of urgency and forming a strategic vision and initiatives as critical to successful change. He did this intentionally within the organization and the community. The work provided the political context and “cover” for other leaders to promote the same messaging, including Seattle’s Department of Racial Equity and heads of other departments.

Engage in Deep Learning of Racial Equity + Listening to Non-Dominant Families.

Dr. Nyland also practiced active learning about not only an understanding of race and racism, but how it manifests itself in schools.

In its simplest terms, racial literacy in education is “the ability to understand what race is, why it is, and how it is used to reproduce inequality and oppression”

… much of the educational inequality that exists … is a result of both public policy and private actions that make privilege and success seemingly natural for some groups and oppression and failure the norm for others.

 To dismantle this type of deficit thinking … educational leaders must become well-grounded in the knowledge base concerning the historical relationship between race and education in the United States …

Thus, this first step of racial literacy suggests that educational leaders become knowledgeable about the longstanding … history of discrimination toward students solely because of race.

Prior to … engaging faculty in antiracist training, it is important to be aware of this history and able to engage in racially literate analyses of their implications for student learning and inclusive education in the 21st century.  (Horsford, p. 125_)

In Marysville, Dr. Nyland publicly modeled deep listening to Tulalip tribal members and leaders. He avidly learned from them the history of the tribal community and the decades of educational neglect and traumatic experiences of Native students in district schools. He also personally explored promising learning approaches, such as a Native American-focused approach to math learning, prior to sponsoring it in Marysville. This visible dedication over a period of six years is credited for the highly generous contributions of funds and other support by the Tulalip Tribes, especially for the unsolicited $4 million gift provided to the district. Deep listening to BIPOC communities was also a part of his initial engagement with Seattle, which is spoken to by Horsford:

Acknowledging the racialized power differentials that exist in schools is central to racial realism for educational leaders.

… educational leaders must remember that, sadly, racism is real and continues to interact with class and geography in ways that dominant institutions control to privilege certain groups over others….

… counterstorytelling … provides a useful tool for informing and guiding conversations about how race continues to unfairly disadvantage students, educators, and parents who represent historically marginalized groups….

… educational leaders and their staffs can benefit greatly from learning the counterstories of a veteran Black schoolteacher in their community, a first-generation Asian American mother, a fifth-generation Latina college student, or a Native American school principal to better understand how they see the world, and how race plays a role in their daily lived experiences …(Horsford, p. 127)

The power of these “counterstories,” says Horsford, “lies in the ‘explanatory power’ of marginalized, not mainstream, perspectives as a way to reveal the ongoing and oppressive consequences of racism.”

Issue Calls to Action.

In Marysville, Dr. Nyland declared an “emergency” in student learning as assessment results faltered, spurring action that ended up having impact over several years. In Seattle, Dr. Nyland advocated for approaches that explicitly called out the need to address racial equity, and regularly reported on it to the Seattle School Board and leadership.

“Once educational leaders have begun developing a more nuanced understanding of what race is, why it is, and how it functions in schools, it is important to acknowledge that race and the practice of racism. This acknowledgment is central to racial realism, the second stage of the progression from racial literacy to racial reconciliation. (Horsford, p.126-127_)

In Seattle, Dr. Nyland called out the broken relationships between educators and the Black-African American community and the need for work to bridge the gap. And although Board decisions often continued to skew in the direction of reinforcing the privilege of the predominantly White North End, during Dr. Nyland’s tenure more and more community voices began to counter and call out this institutional bias. A good example occurred soon after Dr. Nyland’s retirement: despite many qualms, in 2019, the Seattle School Board approved the new strategic plan prioritizing a focus on the achievement of African American males.

Build a Critical Mass.

Dr. Nyland empowered those with knowledge and expertise through sponsorship and fostering connection with the rest of the system.  The Department of Race and Equity, as well as knowledgeable staff members in other departments, were provided an audience among school leaders and teachers. In the case of ethnic studies, I (Kyle), as leader of the curriculum department who possessed an ethnic studies degree, was given the latitude to work with highly oppositional and contentious community members and teacher activists who had advanced the demand to incorporate ethnic studies into the curriculum. That work eventually resulted in shared involvement in development of curriculum.

After racial literacy and racial realism comes … racial reconstruction … arguably the most transformational stage on the journey to racial reconciliation ….

When educational leaders … acknowledge that race and racism are … very real tools that continue to reproduce present-day educational inequalities, these leaders can … begin to disrupt the historic patterns of deficit thinking, segregation, and racial stereotypes …

… racial reconstruction … is “the process of ascribing new meaning to race in order to transform the ways we think about and subsequently, act on, our racial assumptions, attitudes, and biases”

This is where the inward journey and difficult antiracist work begins and requires educational leaders to change—or reconstruct— both their thinking and actions concerning race…

Educational leaders committed to improving the life chances of children through high expectations, rigorous instruction and curricula, and high-quality inclusive learning environments are no strangers to big and bold ideas. Success in identifying and implementing racially literate practices that translate dialogue into action prove to be difficult and will almost always face resistance but is worth the fight. (Horsford, p. 128)

Leading Change.

Kotter’s eight-step process, one of the world’s leading models for successful change, focuses on creating a sense of urgency, building a guiding coalition, and celebrating small wins as key leadership strategies for leading change. Dr. Nyland used a “sense of urgency” to keep the focus on racial equity. He also built a “guiding coalition” to advocate and advance the work to develop more equitable systems.  And in his monthly communications, he frequently centered on the initial advances of the work that began to take root in the schools, reminiscent of Kotter’s advice to secure and celebrate “small wins.

How does this narrative help you consider what you can do next to address racial equity in your schools?

  • Kyle Kinoshita is a career educator and student and teacher of educational leadership. He is currently a consultant and an affiliate faculty member in the University of Washington-Bothell principal preparation program.  Contact: kinosk@uw.edu

Learn More:

  • Horsford, S.D. (2014) When race enters the room: Improving leadership and learning through racial literacy. Theory into practice 53:123-130. The Ohio State University.
  • Kotter, J. (2008). A sense of urgency. Boston:  Harvard Business Press
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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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