As schools continue to navigate the rippling impacts of COVID-19 on their communities, we need to hear many voices at the table to ensure we are considering as many narratives as possible. We cannot look to fully reengage our students through the events of the past two years if we are not actively engaging with all stakeholders within our communities. Equally, we cannot fully understand our students’ and communities’ needs if we are not engaging them through an equity lens. After all, equity work on a community engagement level is founded in the process of giving folks what they need to thrive in the environments where they hold space. Schools must be physically, mentally, and emotionally safe places for every child and every adult community member within them. School climate is a way to evaluate the safety of an institution. What has the climate of your academic institution been like since reopening your doors for the 2021-22 academic year? How would a faculty member describe it? A staff member? A parent? A student? Your thoughts on how each of these community members would respond to this question matters. They are the key stakeholders across your community who are impacted by your decisions as school leaders each day.
As a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioner, it is my responsibility to examine the systems, structures, behaviors, and postures of my educational institution year over year. “The work,” as we call it, is about leaving no stone unturned, no dark hallway unlit, and no closet unopened. Schools need to be searching for answers to the most urgent questions in service of the people they are designed to represent and serve. As school leaders and key decision-makers in our institutions, we also must accept that there is no defined destination in the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our articulation of this fact as we continue to lead and advise our communities can help our stakeholders manage their expectations and pace themselves for a marathon, rather than shortsightedly preparing themselves for an all-out sprint to nowhere with little to no time to recover between efforts and initiatives.
There is not a single destination we seek, friends. There is only a journey - full of twists, turns, and unknowns - that continues as we learn and evolve. Where does that leave us amid the continued health pandemic and social pandemic, while fighting to reengage our students and keep our schools healthy and emotionally safe places? My hope for every school is that you have slowed down during this time to recalibrate and find a speed you can maintain. It’s a fine time to take stock and inventory of where you’ve been, where you are, and what’s next in your journey of deepening your understanding of equity work as it lives in your institution. This time will help you make positively impactful decisions that are mission-aligned, values-centered, and sustainable.
Your school may have adopted a DEI-focused strategic plan or has been creating space for crucial conversations around DEI-related topics. The work of equity as it relates to deepening our awareness of every individual's life in our communities will continue to call us to the table. How can we examine the concept of more meaningful community engagement through the lens of equity? I’d say by honoring every life, each day.
Equity is when every individual in a community is uniquely offered the tools, resources, and opportunities they need based on their identity to be successful and to thrive. Equality, when each individual receives the same tools, resources, opportunities, etc., is different. It’s imperative that the two are not conflated as we create goals, define key performance indicators, and measure our organizational growth.
Doing equity work in our schools looks like honoring every life each day by acquiring the resources people have identified a need for, amplifying those marginalized voices, and finding more tangible ways to demonstrate allyship. We cannot speak of the authentic equity work we hope to see happening across our school communities without speaking about what must be our fierce commitment to more meaningful community engagement practices across our institutions.
Community engagement is characterized by the involvement and participation of stakeholder groups in an organization for the benefit and overall health of a community. Meaningful community engagement work flows abundantly in communities where people feel genuinely seen, heard, valued, and cared for in their holistic identities (i.e., a true sense of belonging) and in the fullness of who they are. It’s only when we see our community members in their totality can we accurately assess their needs. We know that when people feel seen, heard, known, and valued, their contributions are richer, more plentiful, and effortless. This is true of both the children we serve and the adults we trust in carrying the business of our schools forward. Every person across a community has the things they require to experience success. How is your community positioned to examine equity as it relates to your identity as an organization?
For me, meaningful community engagement work at its best invites people across differences to come to the table ready to share perspectives, actively listen, honestly share, and show up ready to be changed. When was the last time you entered into a dialogue with a colleague, a friend, a parent, or a student, with the space in your heart and mind to be truly changed by their story, their lived experience, or their truth? Our schools will continue to evolve in a way that uplifts equity work if we focus on community engagement efforts that are: 1) intended to replace the narratives that no longer serve us with the stories we haven’t felt ready to tell, 2) created to trade the comfortable for the uncomfortable so we might be in pursuit of the remarkable, and 3) designed to acknowledge the dynamic ways that community members can be different from one another.
As school leaders and key decision-makers, we must be brave enough to ask the difficult questions. We must be able to sit with the healthy tension that conversations around equity can bring about - people not feeling confidently positioned, adequately supported, or safeguarded by their institutions. The work of these conversations isn’t free from hardship. Still, it’s crucial to the process of re-engaging our students and communities through the pandemic and to the prevailing growth of our institutions.
The journey continues as we live the stories of our institutions. How does your community honor every life each day so that community engagement practices and your equity work have no light between them? What has the past year demonstrated to you about the identity of your institution and your current posture towards equity work? What happens next?
Camille Simone Edwards is the daughter of two U.S. Army Veterans and a graduate of Northwestern University. She is a "people & culture" focused consultant, diversity, equity + inclusion (DEI) practitioner, and educator. In her consulting practice, she works in partnership with independent schools, universities, arts & cultural organizations, and intimate corporate teams. In her work, she delivers client-specific programs, workshops, and professional development opportunities to communities looking to grow in ways that are authentically tied to their mission and values.
Outside of her own consulting practice, Edward currently serves as the director of Diversity, Equity + Inclusion at Friends Academy of Long Island, New York, a community that she has been consulting for since 2012. Her areas of expertise include community engagement, DEI practitioning, leadership development, identity + culture, team-building, vision & goal-setting, and interpersonal communication strategies. She facilitates summer leadership workshops for young people, annual wellness retreats for women of color (PoC) and offers one-on-one coaching year-round for all individuals. Edwards believes in discovering and harnessing the infinite power of courage that exists in all of us in order to bring about meaningful change in ourselves and our communities.