CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard shares our path forward to more fully live into our organization’s DEI commitments.
August 6, 2020
Teach For America launched an effort in early June to assess how our actions as an organization stand up to our deep commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusiveness (DEI). Our pursuit of educational equity and excellence for all children depends on centering DEI in everything we do. In her update to the community below, our CEO shares what we’ve heard and learned from our staff members, corps members, and alumni, and what action we will take to fully embody our DEI commitments.
Dear TFA Community,
I’m writing today to share Teach For America’s immediate steps as we work to fully embody our commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusiveness (DEI).
In this moment, I recognize two truths. First, our work to further diversity at TFA is not new. In 2007, we wrote our Diversity & Inclusiveness Statement, which focused on recruiting a far more racially and socio-economically diverse corps and staff. Since then, we have made meaningful progress to ensure racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity in the classroom, on our staff, and in the variety of roles our alumni lead after their corps commitment. Each year since 2014, about half of the leaders we place in classrooms identify as a person of color. In 2007, less than a quarter of our staff identified as a person of color; today, that number has risen to more than half of our staff. Nearly two-thirds of our 75-person Executive Leadership Team identify as a person of color. I am proud of what we have accomplished as one of the country’s largest providers of teachers of color, and, on that front, we will stay the course.
And yet, that focus on representation without deep grounding in equity and belonging is insufficient. It's insufficient inside our classrooms, schools, and school systems, and it's insufficient inside our organization. That led us to revising our core values and recreating our commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusiveness four years ago. We have not yet woven those commitments into a systematic and standardized approach to our daily operations, which has led to a range of experiences across the organization and network. Given that reality, we must now recast our systems, practices, and culture to create the conditions for our students and all of us in our network to lead, learn, and thrive.
In June, I launched an organizational effort to understand where and how our actions as an organization do not live up to our DEI commitments. Our primary focus was to better understand the perspectives of our staff, corps members, and alumni related to DEI, raise up the experiences and expertise of our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) staff communities, and co-create an action plan to meet our DEI commitments. Over the past seven weeks, senior leaders and I met with over 200 staff members via discussions with 18 affinity and resource groups that reflect the diverse backgrounds and identities within our TFA community. I also spoke with members of our national board of directors, corps members, and alumni, and heard the comments posted by alumni and staff in a variety of forums, including BIPOCinTFA Instagram, Change.org, Facebook, and Slack.
What We’ve Heard And Learned
I’ve learned so much from our staff and our network. Earlier this week I shared an update with our staff community on our work over these past couple months. Below, I want to share some of the key findings that emerged throughout this process.
- Actions in our community have caused hurt and pain. Many among us, have made mistakes, committed wrongs, and taken actions preventing others from fully contributing to our community. These have taken many forms, ranging from micro-aggressions to a lack of action or response when concerns were raised, to failing to interrogate the white dominant culture within our organization. As CEO for the last five years, I take responsibility for the impact and the systemic failures that led to that impact.
- BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ staff feel a disproportionate and unfair responsibility to hold DEI work for their colleagues and the broader community.
- While we have become significantly more racially and socioeconomically diverse as a staff community over the last decade, the representation and distribution of certain subgroups across teams, roles, and titles remains uneven. From leadership across TFA to our board of directors to our corps members in classrooms, we must move closer to having all of our communities represented in all spaces.
- Members of our community, including our Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian/Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian communities, our Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities, our Native and Indigenous communities, and Multi-Racial/Multi-Ethnic colleagues feel invisible, erased, and a lack of belonging, particularly when their voices, stories, and perspectives are missing from our training and communications.
- Our organization’s orientation to data fails to capture the identity of our staff, corps members, and alumni in many ways and, at times, leads to meeting goals only on average as we miss the specific experiences within certain groups. Small sample sizes for certain groups means they are not captured in our reporting, which does not allow for those voices to be considered. We need to build a greater understanding of our organizational data-collection processes, what is captured in that data, and why.
- Alumni, corps members, and staff cited painful lived experiences as evidence that our corps member selection model and selection process do not sufficiently live into our DEI commitments.
- Alumni, corps members, and staff shared examples of the ways our DEI programming for corps members fails to meet the high standard to prepare and develop the aspiring anti-racist educators our students expect and deserve.
Aligning our actions to our words is the essential and urgent work in front of us. In June, I announced a new Chief of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusiveness Office at Teach For America. The purpose of this role is to develop and implement the systems and practices to drive equity, inclusiveness, and belonging. The first charge of the new Office of DEI will be to work with an external partner to conduct an organization-wide equity audit this fall. This audit will reveal gaps in our perspective, identify how our systems hold us back from meeting our DEI commitments, and help us be who we say we are. We are committed to becoming an anti-racist organization in service of our mission to advance educational equity and excellence for kids. That work is already underway, and the audit will help us clearly define and implement anti-racist practices in that context.
Before conducting that equity audit, I have developed an initial set of actions Teach For America will take to move us closer to the standards we set. Some of these are already well in motion.
In our work supporting students and corps members, we will:
- Launch a new selection model and process with equity as a key design principle, and evolve the model via ongoing research and design. This work was piloted last year and will be put into practice this fall.
- Continue to build, improve, and implement a model to train and support aspiring anti-racist educators. We delivered a curriculum consistent with this model at our Virtual Summer Teacher Training this year, and it is required of us now, more than ever, as our students face unprecedented trauma and disruption.
- Provide our frontline staff with training and resources to recognize and support the social-emotional resilience of corps members.
- Strengthen corps culture by building a process to identify, share, and address breaches as they occur.
In our work supporting our staff community, we will:
- Update expectations, development, and supports for all staff—with elevated expectations for executive-level personnel, senior leaders, and people managers—to make DEI and belonging central parts of all staff roles. Drive accountability and learning by having this be a focus in annual performance reviews.
- Create standardized talent policies across the organization to foster equity in our practices and train our executive leadership team to implement these policies.
- Implement an onboarding program for all new staff, incorporating an anti-racist training and training that develops the ability to identify and fight against anti-Blackness. Require annual training for current staff.
This is only a starting point for the work ahead, and these are our initial actions. We commit to staying in regular, transparent communication with staff—from acknowledging progress to taking responsibility and learning from mistakes—to co-create solutions as we come up against new and different challenges.
Amid the uncontrolled global pandemic and centuries-old racial injustice and violence, we are in a defining moment for our kids and our country. We have to create a fundamentally different experience for our students. We have an opportunity—and obligation—to act now to support our students in the face of these crises and to be a part of building a different future for them, one that is more equitable, more just, and more fair. I am humbled by the work all of you continue to lead in the face of so much. While we might not always get it right from TFA, I can promise we will keep listening to you, learning from you, and evolving with you. I’m grateful to all of you for being with us and our students to drive this change. Stay healthy and stay safe.
Elisa Villanueva Beard