Making Equity Progress

Start anywhere but start now:
An Equity Review Process:

10-minute read

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

Core Thesis:  Good Equity Work Can Be Done

Over the last five years, I have read every book on district-wide equity, tracked equity success stories from more than a dozen districts, and worked with three networks dedicated to improving equity. Here are a dozen ideas on advancing equity work, offered in roughly sequential order. Each idea includes a self-reflection question for your district.  

Caveat: Start anywhere but start now

No one has all the answers. We learn by doing the work. Stumbling. Picking ourselves up and working smarter. The sooner we get started, the wiser we become. This is NOT an audit. This is a reflection on finding the best places to begin.  

Co-Creation is essential

Equity work is WAY TOO BIG for any one person. Successful outcomes depend on a guiding coalition that learns from what works and doesn’t. A team that will stay the course and keeps learning, advocating, and figuring it out. Give your team a list like this and ask them where to start. Start where you have the most energy—Post-hole the work. Show you are serious by achieving success in one area. Keep listening and fixing problems. Eventually, the moments begin to create momentum and then movement.  

Procrastination perpetuates evil

Slavery was insidious because it taught, reinforced, and punished to cement the idea that enslaved people were “less than” and needed to be kept in “their place.” In the 150 years since emancipation, we continually repeat a familiar pattern. A backlash follows small gains in equality. Jim Crow followed reconstruction. We continue to see the undoing of the Civil Rights Voting Rights Act of 1965. We recently had a national outcry over George Floyd’s death and commitments to do better. Now, we see pushback over CRT, books to be banned, and the censoring of history. Once again, we confront a movement to put equity “in its place.”  

The Problem:

Seventeen states have passed laws telling teachers not to discuss racial equity.  

  • 32% of teachers say, I never discuss ethnicity/race with my students.  


  • My students are too young (23%). 
  • I am concerned about legal consequences (17%).  
  • I am concerned about how my supervisors would react (10%).  
  • My supervisor warned me not to (5%). 
    • Ed Week, “Educators are Deeply Conflicted on Teaching Heated Cultural Issues, Survey Finds” (Nov 2, 2022).

Serving Well Every Student in Our Care

Washington State requires equity policies in every district. Creating equitable systems are imperative to serve well every student in our care, including the fifty-plus percent who are of color. It is also an economic imperative; we need each and every student/citizen to fulfill their potential to keep America strong.  

Start Where You Have the Most Traction

Our communities, like our elections, come in Red, Blue, and Purple. Read through this list and ask your team: Where can we best promote greater traction for reaching each and every student? How does a busy superintendent keep the doors open, the wheels on and continue to advance equity for each and every child?

Start with yourself

Take the time to learn the background of racism in America. The book, Caste is an excellent place to start. Find colleagues of color and ask to hear their stories. Avoid platitudes, policies, or declarations that are empty promises.

  I have a plan to grow my knowledge and awareness of racial equity issues.  

Look at your data

Often we either ignore the data or succumb to endless analysis. Disaggregate the data and resolve to take action. This template urges us to act now on what we already know.  

What are the five greatest equity needs of our organization?What are the five most vulnerable populations?What are the five events that impact our students of color most?What are the five best strategies to begin to meet some of these needs?What are the five most basic resources we need to address these needs?

Then look for the red threads that link some of these needs together with strategies. One day with your data will be a good start. Use these five questions. Use the date to frame the challenge, not blame the student.

I have looked at our disaggregated data and can comment knowledgeably without blaming students.


Listen to students and parents. Personal stories go a long way to explain the need. Stories break through our mental and emotional barriers to help us hear the message. The AWSL (Association of Washington Student Leaders) website includes lots of information from students and processes on how to engage students.  

I have asked students and parents what we can do to love them and support their learning.

Grow a coalition

It might be your leadership team or an equity team. You might work with a community organization. Frame an adaptive leadership question to direct your work. How can we best communicate the importance of our equity work? Read together. Look at data and interview students together. Debate and discuss the options: Google other districts’ equity statements and frameworks. Aim to under-promise and over-deliver. 

We have a guiding coalition with a working knowledge of our equity work.

Core Values

Work with your guiding coalition to identify the core values you want to stand on. In my journey, I have evolved from engagement to respect, from gaps to opportunities. Then from known and seen to belonging and welcomed. Students told us they wanted to be proud and happy. The Kent school board advocates for agency and actualization. Spokane Public Schools says:  Every student has a dream, access, and opportunity for a happy and successful future.  

The companion blog this month provides dozens of examples. Avoid the two extremes of copying others and endless analysis. Choose thoughtfully and start now. When you know more, circle back and do better. 

We have evidence demonstrating our commitment to equity for our staff and community.

Frame the Issues

In “Advancing an Anti-Racist Agenda,” the FrameWorks organization suggests that school leaders work to: a) assure parents that schools are being fair and truthful in preparing students for a multicultural society and b) facilitate conversations that create a more equitable society. To do so, FrameWorks suggests that we:

  • Stay visible without going silent
  • Stay positive without shaming or blaming others
  • Stay on message, saying what we are doing   
  • Stay on the side of the kids and their future 
  • Stay away from loaded or political terms
  • Stay focused on the broader audience rather than the loudest voices

We have intentionally focused our critical messages to be heard in our community.


Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. The leader’s role is to chart a course that will lead the community toward greater equity and justice for all. This is a radical middle approach. Not top-down. Not bottom up. They are instead framing the question, holding the focus, and listening deeply.

Elma School District used a profile of a graduate process to listen to parents representing every part of their community and diversity. Ultimately, they came together to agree that every aspect of their community wanted similar outcomes for their students.

Lake Washington used a two-year listening process to engage 15 interest groups across their community, some wanting more equity and others wanting less. They held an open space where it was safe for all to be heard and understood. Those ideas were reflected back to the board and community, processed by the steering committee, and used to shape and reshape the equity policy.  

We have ways to engage in two-way communication with the various diversities in our community.  

Grow the message

Use every opportunity to share the message. One acronym, COPE, urges us to ‘Create Once, Post Everywhere.” Every PD. Every agenda. Instructional memos. Keep the vision fresh and alive. One principal who was way out front leading this work in his building once told me, “You gave me cover to advocate for equity.” Research suggests we must hear messages dozens of times before they begin to soak in.  

All parts of our community have heard our key messages.

Grow the messengers

Teach the core values. One district used an accordion process to share ‘state of the district’ messages with principals—three times. Each time they took questions and feedback and made adjustments. In the end, the message was really “their” message, and principals were far more comfortable sharing what the district was doing and why.

The “Story of Self, Us, and Now” is a great teaching tool. Give principals a safe space to rehearse and share before going live in front of their staff. One district then asked each principal to post their “This I believe” statement on their school’s web page.  

We have intentionally provided opportunities for our leaders to understand, own, develop and share equity priorities.

Ask for Feedback

Monroe School District provided, with formal board approval, Courageous Conversations PD for their entire staff. A great way to communicate district commitment. 85% of staff said the PD was great. And they wanted to know what to do next to implement the training. They also found outliers on both ends of the spectrum. Some whites were uncomfortable with equity and communicated resistance in words and body language. And some staff of color felt triggered or called out and blamed for the equity training. That opened the door to deeper conversations—many one-on-one—using the courageous conversations protocol:  What are you thinking, feeling, believing, doing?

We have established ways to assess where staff is and where they are stuck.

Take action

After doing much of the above, one superintendent got positive feedback from his community of color: “Thank you for listening.” Then there was an incident of racial slurs on the playground and a subsequent fight. As he reflected, he realized it came down to whether a racial slur was a major or minor offense. Always before, it had been a minor offense. Now he decided he needed to make a change. He announced that racial slurs would be a major offense and treated as such. He shared that decision with principals and staff, and the community.  

We can point to visible actions demonstrating our commitment to moving forward regarding equity.

Putting it all together

Walla Walla learned from graduating seniors of color that they had “never” had a teacher of color or used texts by an author of color. As a result, they did not feel they belonged. Walla Walla launched a multi-pronged We all Belong initiative. Posters in schools. And action. The board removed pay-to-play fees and launched a community fund-raiser to pay for any incidental fees students needed to participate. They committed that every grade level, 6-12, would feature one author of color and invited community-wide conversations with students, teachers, and the community to offer suggestions. As a result of this “everyone at the table” approach, students of color now say they have a sense of belonging in WW.   

We have developed an intentional plan for moving forward regarding equity. 

The time is always right to do what is right. – Martin Luther King Jr. 

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

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