What do you want people to know about you?”
The question was asked to a room full of 200-plus Richardson ISD high school students. Every ninth-through 12th-grader present had opted to participate in this equity summit. It was a big event for Angie Lee, who had only recently been named the school district’s director of equity, diversity and inclusion.
A white teenage boy stood to answer the question.
“People look at me and they assume that I have it all together,” he told the room. “So I feel like I have to play into that, I have to fulfill that for people.
“I want people to know that I go home and I’m dealing with a dysfunctional family, chaos in my home, every day. I come to school every day just as burdened as a lot of other kids. Don’t look at me and make the assumption that I have it all together — because I don’t.”
The boy sat down, and students sitting next to him put their arms around him.
Another white boy stood up.
“I’m here not because of the assumptions made about me,” he said, “but because I see things happening in class and assumptions made about other students — certain students — and I don’t know how to handle it. I don’t know what to say. So I don’t ever say anything.
“How do I respond to my friends when they make these comments and when other people are being belittled in class? I’m doing nothing, and that doesn’t make me feel good.”
Next, a black girl rose to her feet.
“People look at me and assume I’m poor,” she said. “My parents make six figures. I travel. I’ve been excluded from a conversation about trips to Paris, and I want to say, ‘I went to Spain this summer.’”
These kinds of exchanges — raw, uncomfortable, difficult — are music to Lee’s ears.
“Those kids blew us away that day,” she reflects months later, sitting at her desk.
The department of equity, diversity and inclusion that Lee oversees is new to RISD. Such a focus is becoming more common in school districts and cities across America — the result of centuries of racism, gender discrimination and religious persecution in this country that have yet to be reconciled and unraveled.
And as in so many other school districts, RISD’s initiative sprung out of a pivotal event.
In one, the Pearce logo obstructed the face of a slave driver beating a slave, whose face bore an RHS logo. In another were side by side photos of the late Michael Brown, shot and killed by former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson, their foreheads stamped with RHS (Brown) and Pearce (Wilson). Perhaps the most incendiary was an image of Ku Klux Klan members standing before a burning cross — the RHS logo engulfed in flames, and the J.J. Pearce logo flanking the men in white hoods.
It didn’t take long for every local television station and news outlet to broadcast the viral images. USA Today even picked up the story.
“This was quite a big deal, obviously,” Supt. Jeannie Stone told the seven-member board of trustees at a meeting three weeks later. She counted 11 meetings with individuals and community members since the images emerged, and “the topic of racism did surface in every single one of the conversations.”
Board members listened to Pearce principal Mike Evans tell them about conversations with his students in AVID, a program intended for those who might be the first in their families to attend college or need extra support to be college-ready. Though smart and motivated, these students, many of whom are minorities, told Evans they “just didn’t feel included” at Pearce. They were different and stood out, or were conversely “invisible” in Advanced Placement (AP) classes. At pep rallies, the pinnacle of school spirit, “that doesn’t look like me on the floor,” one student shared.
“It’s the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.”
Pep rallies were a focus for then-Lake Highlands principal Joshua Delich, too, who had added more groups to the line-up as an “opportunity to showcase the diversity we have,” he told the board. Lake Highlands High School is roughly one-third white, one-third Hispanic and one-third black, but that doesn’t mean classrooms are integrated.
“Why do we have one set of kids sitting here and one set of kids sitting here — and you have this beautiful room of diversity?” Delich would ask teachers. “It’s the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.”
Stone conveyed her plan to pursue an equity policy to create “a safe inclusive culture where racism would not be in any way, shape or form ignored, and certainly not accepted.” A new department of equity, diversity and inclusion would spearhead the effort, and a new position would be created to oversee it.
“If we have students in our classrooms who feel invisible, and feel like they don’t belong in an AP class — even though they’re more than qualified to be there,” board member and Lake Highlands resident Justin Bono said, “we clearly have some work to do.”
“There’s no blueprint” for the job that Lee stepped into roughly six months after that board conversation, she says. A 20-year RISD veteran, Lee spent two stints at Forest Meadow Junior High in Lake Highlands, one as an English teacher and one as a master teacher.
“I feel like it’s the work that I’ve done for so long anyway,” Lee says of her role as equity, diversity and inclusion director. “These issues of inequity, they’re not new. I feel like I’m always talking to a parent about something that falls in line with this position.
“It’s really my heart’s work. It’s the stuff that keeps me up at night.”
Race is not explicitly named in her or her department’s titles, and that’s because “we’re not just talking black, white, Hispanic,” Lee says. “We’re also talking about gender, religion.”
She gives the example of paired elective courses, in which students sign up to take two “complementary” courses in consecutive semesters, such as a culinary class in the fall and fashion design in the spring.
“You might have boys who would like to take culinary but may not be interested in fashion design,” Lee says. “I have a teacher who says boys are devastated because they want to take her culinary class.”
Another example is animation one semester paired with manufacturing and construction the next, “but why is that?” Lee asks. “We have girls who are interested in animation but they may not be interested in manufacturing.”
“Why are we still sending these messages about gender roles? The girls are going to cook and sew the clothes, and boys are going to do the STEM careers.”
Lee once was in charge of creating class schedules, and she imagines such course pairings were intended to make scheduling easier. “But we did that without taking into consideration the message we’re sending,” she says.
“It’s not intentional, always,” she says, but as unintended consequences emerge, it’s now her job to address those inequities.
“You start with teachers,” Lee says of equity work, because they interact with students every day. As soon as she was named to the position, administrators and teachers started reaching out.
“It’s almost like they’ve been waiting for someone to talk to about things they have seen,” she says.
Lee says she’s encouraged by the ones who tell her, “I don’t get it. I don’t understand.”
“I’ve had people who come and sit and say, ‘Here’s my block: I’m white. I grew up poor and often hungry — so why does the world feel like I have white privilege?’ I don’t see that as combative and anti-equity,” she says.
“Thousands of teachers are coming to work, and they’re bringing their background and their personal experiences with them.”
Lee told that teacher what she tells so many: “It’s not that we’re saying what you believe is wrong, but how does what you believe impact the job you’ve been called to do? We know you’re here because you love kids, so is this value or this belief blocking you in some way?”
“Just like with any corporation,” Lee says, “there are going to be issues. Thousands of teachers are coming to work, and they’re bringing their background and their personal experiences with them. How I can say to a teacher, ‘Your discipline is disproportionate; you’re only sending African-American males to the office,’ but then what are we giving the teacher in order to help the teacher really understand that?”
One of her first major successes is that the equity policy, which the board unanimously approved this past May, requires a portion of all teachers’ annual professional development to focus on equity training. The policy reflects a year of work by Lee and the newly formed equity council, comprised of staff, students and community members.
The policy will “chip away at issues in the community to make it better,” says Vicki Taylor, a longtime Lake Highlands parent who serves on the council.
“I’ll admit — these were very hard conversations to have, but we had a great leader” in Lee, Taylor says. “All those things that are stabbing at you, that you have experienced or that are not happening in the schools, she makes you feel so free to address those things that are bothering you.”
A new black history course is being taught at Berkner High School this year, thanks to questions raised by students at the equity summit a year and a half ago: “Why haven’t we learned this in school?”
One girl told Lee, “I actually took world history thinking that I would get black history or African history at some point and it turned out to be two days, and I was so disappointed. I asked my teacher, ‘Why did we just spend two days? Why are we moving on?’”
The teacher’s answer: “Well, that’s all the curriculum allows.”
The new course is so popular that two sections filled up last spring. Richardson ISD plans to launch a Mexican American history course in 2021.
Several Lake Highlands principals have reached out to Lee saying they have so much student interest in magnet schools, yet so many families don’t have access to transportation to attend events like the magnet showcase.
“They feel it’s not a level playing field. They didn’t get the information firsthand,” Lee says. “If we really spend some time working through it, these are things we can figure out. These are things that do not have to block access.”
Expanded curriculum and increased transportation are just two examples of how the new equity policy will “drive a rewriting of some of the processes RISD has in place,” Lee says.
“We’re always going back to the question: Is this inequity negatively impacting student achievement? Otherwise we’re going to find inequities everywhere, and we know that we can’t tackle everything,” Lee told the board before they greenlit her policy. “It really is as simple as one bite of the elephant at a time to address that question.”
To learn more about the diversity policy’s impact on the upcoming RISD election, read “Inclusivity at the highest level.”
What is equity?
When Angie Lee, Richardson ISD’s director of equity, diversity and inclusion, presented the new equity policy to the seven-member board of trustees, she defined equity as:
“The condition that would be achieved if one’s identity no longer predicted, in a statistical sense, how one fares.”
Inequities are everywhere, so RISD will decide whether to address inequities by asking the question:
“Is this inequity negatively impacting student achievement?”
A few highlights of the new policy:
- “The District understands that our students, staff, and stakeholders bring their personal backgrounds into our schools …”
- “The District will intentionally recruit, hire, and retain qualified and/or experienced staff who reflect student demographics and the community …”
- “The District will choose and use learning materials that reflect the diversity of students and staff ….”
- “The District will equitably distribute resources, [etc.] to meet the identified needs of a campus, even if carrying out the commitment results in differentiated resource allocations.”
- “The District will ensure employees participate in professional development addressing equity, diversity, inclusion …”
- “The District will use [data] to monitor and address practices that could … lead to overrepresentation of students of color in areas such as, but not limited to, special education and discipline, and their underrepresentation in programs such as, but not limited to, Gifted and Talented and Advanced Placement.”