Raising Power Issues in Schools: Leadership and the Challenges of Equity

Inequities of race and ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, or position in the social structure of schools have much to do with whether every child is learning well, most Essential School educators acknowledge. Do school leaders have a responsibility to raise such power issues as part of school change? And should they take precedence over other pressing issues that face a school? Nancy Mohr, the former principal of University Heights High School in the Bronx, posed those questions to an ongoing study group that includes Essential school leaders from schools around the country, and from very different cultural milieus. The answers are complex, they agreed; but together they came up with these suggestions for advancing the conversation about what are typically loaded issues in school communities:

See diversity as an opportunity and as something to be accessed, not managed; don’t form a “multicultural committee,” but rather be an actively multicultural community.

Try to see every aspect of the life of the school in terms of equity, instead of bringing the issue out on special days or in special months. Conversation about power inequities does not belong above and beyond the life of the school.

Frame the conversation through academic entry points, including curriculum, assessment, and instructional strategies.

Relate power to community issues like behavior, governance, hiring, selection of students.

Advocate for keeping everyone’s eyes on the “big picture,” despite multiple distractions.

Come together before there is a problem, not afterwards. Anticipate fragility, and work to build relationships.

Think of these conversations as ongoing, not one-shot deals.

Use outside facilitation to learn how to address these topics, or to create the feeling of safety needed for uncomfortable conversations.

Acknowledge that these are uncomfortable conversations and make clear that the discomfort is all right, even necessary.

Start by socializing together before you have the heavy conversations.

Use text-based dialogues in order to depersonalize issues when starting to talk to each other.

Use ground rules for these conversations in order to create a community which is safe enough for its members to be uncomfortable. For example:

Agree to begin speaking in the first person about your own experience. Don’t assume you can get inside somebody else’s experience.


Agree to disagree.

Don’t let the conversation get cut off. Commit to following through no matter how long, and how many sessions, it takes.

Contributors to this conversation included Deborah Harris of University Heights High School in the Bronx; Paul Schwarz of Central Park East Secondary School in Manhattan; Jackie Simmons, formerly of Robeson High School in Chicago; Mary Burke of Whitfield School in St. Louis, Missouri; Edwina Branch of the School for Arts and Sciences in the Bronx; Lennie Hay, on leave from the Brown School in Louisville, Kentucky; and Louis Delgado of Vanguard High School in Manhattan.