The Failures of Ethnic Studies (And How to Fix Them)

Welcome to part 4 of the 5 part series, The Failures of Ethnic Studies (and how to fix them); Ethnic studies educators advise administrators. For ease in reading, I am including the color-coded table of respondents and the graphic of the emergent themes. If that’s confusing for you, please see part 1: Introduction.

Part 4: Words and Deeds

Respondent Demographics

Respondent names are pseudonyms. The colors will be used in quotes to help you follow trends between and within districts.

Emergent Themes

These are the four dominant themes that emerged from the data that I will be referring to and they will be bolded and italicized to bring your attention to them.

Words and Deeds

I included this last question as a kind of catch-all question. I hoped that it would pick up on any supports Ethnic Studies educators felt they needed beyond infrastructure and policy. No new concepts were introduced in this question, and so no new themes were generated by these data. 

However, the Ineffective leadership, including too few POC theme was revisited the most in these data. It was very clear in the data that respondents felt that current leaders were failing them and failing to create authentic, viable Ethnic Studies programs – with the exception of district 2 whose educators were cautiously optimistic. I can break this data down into four sub-themes of the types of leadership Ethnic Studies educators are looking for: Trusting Leaders, Visionary Leaders, Leaders of Color, and Leader Practitioners.

Trusting Leaders

Trusting leaders, in this context, does not mean that educators need to trust leaders. It means the opposite. The educators have a strong desire to be seen as the leaders they are and to be trusted to create and implement an Ethnic Studies program they are trained and have the expertise to do. All of the educators interviewed for this series have an education in Ethnic Studies or related field and/or have engaged in extensive anti-racist and Ethnic Studies PD. That’s more than can be said for most administrators. In my time working on Ethnic Studies, which includes creating and delivering PD, a total of zero administrators have signed up and attended a single PD session. A trusting leader – an effective leader – will either educate themselves, or acknowledge they lack the necessary expertise, get out of the way, and create space for experts in their organization to lead the work.

Another factor of a trusting leader is to trust that anti-racism and Ethnic Studies are the morally correct things to do for their students and staff. Terry explains how fear prevents administrators and educators from acting in the best interest of their students. “Our district operates from a position of fear – they’re concerned that having honest conversations about race, power, and privilege will result in people with means complaining and threatening legal action.” We must put the policies in place that protect anti-racist leaders and mandate anti-racist practices, then trust those with the expertise to implement them. We cannot be driven by fear if we are to serve our students and families of Color. We have to trust the data telling us that anti-racist practices, like Ethnic Studies, work. 

Visionary Leaders

I want to go back to Jacob’s quote from part 2 on infrastructure. Jacob explained, “At its core, ES [Ethnic Studies] is about disrupting racial inequities through education and action. In practice, this requires that teachers and students learn and work in solidarity with each other (and their communities) to disrupt racist policies and practices within their own communities. For me, this means revisioning what it means to learn and how we learn.” This seems to be the basis from which the educators are calling for visionary leaders. They want a leader who has the ability to look beyond the “way it’s always been” and envision something new and different from what we know. With the current situation with COVID-19 school closures, this could be an opportunity to envision a new system that includes Ethnic Studies as the foundation on which we build a new education structure.

Unfortunately, our current system rewards leaders who are good at maintaining the status quo. I’ve made the argument before that this is a way districts weaponize leaders of Color, but it really applies to all leadership positions. Those whose strength is maintaining the status quo are moved into leadership positions. Those who challenge the status quo are pushed out. This practice is intensified against EOC because of racial bias. Gina wonders, “I’m not entirely sure why ‘leadership’ ever got into education if they aren’t visionaries and revolutionaries.” I argue that many educators entered the profession because they are visionaries and revolutionaries and then are gatekept from leadership or are pushed out by a system designed to reward those who maintain the status quo. Our current leaders aren’t in place, for the most part, because they have good leadership skills; they are there because they know how to follow orders.

Leaders of Color

*Caveat: Here I am reminded by the voices in my head that, “All skin folk ain’t kin folk,” so I want to be clear that I am talking about critical EOC; EOC with a strong foundation in anti-racism and Ethnic Studies. My predecessor is a Black educator who said, “All lives matter,” and led a protest against the Black Trans and Queer themed day of Black Lives Matter at School. Critical EOC is key.

There are so many layers to this part of the data. First, critical EOC is key, which is why I’ve used the above caveat in three of the sections of this report already. Not only are leaders of Color weaponized, we are also tokenized. The example in the caveat is an example of tokenization. District administrators who chose to place that educator in that role only saw a Black woman and had no understanding of and/or no concern about Ethnic Studies and anti-racism. 

Another layer is the desire of EOC to step into leadership positions. I was wary of doing it partially because I saw the lack of respect for the position I stepped into with the example of my predecessor, and largely because I have heard the horror stories of leaders of Color and how they’ve been treated and pushed out in the past. And now here I am, two years in and on administrative leave… I wrote about my apprehension when I accepted the job, including the fact that I knew the Borg would come for me eventually (except I used Star Wars analogies). “If that happens, I’ll be ready, and if I get pushed out, I’ll be ready. The next rebel will come, though, and their work will be easier because of the chunk I’ll take with me.” The reality is that many EOC balk at stepping into leadership positions because they know their revolutionary visions aren’t welcome.

The last layer I’ll address here – which is definitely not the end of the layers – that came from the data are the systemic barriers in place that prevent EOC from being seen as viable leaders. I think Linda painted the best picture of this: “I think there are historic barriers of who is promoted, who is connected, and who is seen as a leader. Those barriers need to be addressed and removed. Also how people who are already seen as leaders are then continually tapped for other things (leading to burnout) or on the other side people are designated as a leader and then are not encouraged or forced to keep learning and leading…so they get stagnant.” It’s important to note that the leaders who are “tapped” to lead initiatives are almost never promoted and provided the title for the resume or the increased income for their intellectual and emotional labor. Instead, white leaders keep those perks for themselves and check a box with a Brown face on the work. And while Linda was not being specific about EOC, her statement rings true with so many EOC. The fact that we’re disproportionately disciplined at higher rates precludes us from many leadership opportunities.

Leader Practitioners

The respondents were clear in their data: they want leaders who get shit done. Like Heather said, “Walk the Talk. Actions speak louder than words.” Gina agrees with Heather, expressing her frustration saying, “I am tired of barriers. Words need to match actions. If people see themselves as thoughtful, educated, and progressive, they can’t just talk about it while blocking action.” As you can see, the emergent theme of Ineffective leaders, including too few EOC is very closely tied with the All Talk. No Action. theme. I think all of the emergent themes are to some degree, but for this one, the leaders are the ones who are talking too much and acting too little. Or in some cases, acting in a destructive manner, as with district 1.

I’m struggling to write more on this, but what more is there to say? It seems pretty straight-forward – do something! Back your words up with actions. Get on board Sarah’s sense of urgency: “We have to do this work. It is too important not to make it a priority, regardless of barriers.

Concluding Thoughts on Words and Deeds

I’m not sure how I feel after looking at these data. What and who we have isn’t working for Ethnic Studies or anti-racism in our schools. Going back to part two and the systems theory pyramid – how do we change the hearts and minds of the named leaders or force them to make way for visionary emerging leaders? Does the answer lie in educator unions? Maybe a formal alliance between students, families, and educator unions? I always consider Frederick Douglass’ wisdom when he said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Can we rely on existing leaders? The answer is looking like, “No.” 

Next week’s post will be the final post called “Now What?” Unlike the first four parts, part 5 will be a personal reflection on the data, what I knew before analyzing this data, what I learned, and what I think we need to do to make Ethnic Studies and anti-racism a reality in public schools.


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