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Ebony and Ivory was an instant hit for Stevie Wonder and Sir Paul McCartney in 1982. Ostensibly about piano keys, the song cheerfully tackles race relations in America. The song is short on lyrics, and frequently repeats “we all know that people are the same wherever we go.” That’s a nice thought, but really? I think we might be oversimplifying.
I remember being referred to, dismissively, as “black” in kindergarten by a classmate staring with confusion at my brown skin. It was my first indication that my interactions with race would involve others’ perceptions of who I was and what I was capable of doing.
I again reflected on my skin color when I attended “School Leaders as Change Managers,” an event hosted by The Collective. As I sat in the conference’s opening plenary, I was moved by the sight of numerous shades of black and brown in the room. I truly felt like I was part of a movement, surrounded by peers with incredibly complex identities yet united by a shared goal—equality. What interests me most is the question of what equality looks like when applied to the demographics of leadership in the education reform space.
I am proud to work in Lawrence, a community north of Boston where 75% of students speak English as a second language. While I don’t share the precise cultural heritage of all of my students, parents have expressed excitement that their children see a brown woman confidently leading a team of adults. Working in this community, even mundane tasks have significance for me: the reward of a job-well-done includes the awareness that my actions send a message to students and families about the expectations my school has for people with my skin color.
However, at the same time, mundane tasks sometimes feel complex. The cultural norms and vernacular my predominately white colleagues assume to be “normal,” often require code-switching for me; many of my peers share a set of cultural life experiences that are different from mine. Are we really the same wherever we go? With all due respect to Stevie and Sir Paul, I often find myself wishing that differences were more recognized.
At other times, I find myself expressing the opposite sentiment: I don’t want to be different because of my skin. Early in my career, I worried about being typecast in a Dean of Students role, when my heart was in instructional leadership. I saw my peers being groomed for instructional leadership roles through informal networking, and I sometimes felt on the outside of those relationships.
With these dynamics at play, it’s no surprise to me that the face of the education reform movement is glaringly white. For me these challenges have not been prohibitive—I am tremendously grateful for the strong mentorship and advocacy from supportive colleagues that have led me to the Principal role I have today. At the conference, however, I was inspired to think beyond my own career-path.
I attended a session with Julie Jackson, a Managing Director with Uncommon Schools, and the three school leaders she has mentored since they were founding teachers in the school she built. Not only has Julie been a powerful leader of color but she has also used her influence to develop strong leaders of color, who are each, in turn, building leaders of color in the schools that they lead.
I had previously thought about my career as a series of discrete steps propelling me to another point on my own, isolated trajectory. I now realize that to make an effective impact in Lawrence, I need to think beyond my own tenure. I must actively cultivate a succession plan, just as Julie has. As school leaders of color, we must ensure we are not the rare leaders of color in a sea of whiteness, but instead, mentor our way to being one of many within our organizations. Regardless of our race, we Principals must groom a leadership pipeline, in which we actively seek to include our staff of color.
I imagine a future where a kindergarten student grappling with skin-color can immediately look to multiple role models—teachers, principals, and superintendents—who, through the daily pursuit of excellence, prove what brown and black people are capable of achieving. Whether ebony, ivory, or somewhere in between, I hope that we can all recognize the role that educators of color must play in the education reform movement and take steps to ensure that our students witness our commitment to equality in action.