An older gentleman with a crew cut stands behind a podium with a sign saying "25 Years" on it speaking to an audience while other guests on stage sit and listen.

#TFA25: The Role of White Leaders on the Path to Equity

Four dynamic educators took the stage at our 25th Anniversary Summit to discuss the role white leaders play on the path to equity.
Monday, February 22, 2016

At Teach For America's 25th Anniversary Summit, panelists, such as former Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Dr. John Deasy; Washington, D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Jenny Niles; San Francisco State University Professor Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade; and TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard each shared their perspectives on how white leaders can use their privilege to challenge existing structures and elevate others on the path to educational equity.

Deasy believes it’s impossible for a leader to be effective if they are not firmly grounded in the issue of equity.

He says, "It is very much to willfully and deliberately use both the gifts and the privileges that we have to both dismantle a hegemonic structure in this country of white power and white privilege, and to use that privilege to lift others."

Niles shared her story of starting E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.

"When I started out thinking about being a white leader...I first was trying to solve all of these issues that relate to the fact that we live in a racist society, and that our institutions in the United States are built on a racist path and therefore have racism embedded and endemic into them," she says.

She notes that if she weren’t such an aggressive and naïve optimist she would be overwhelmed by the task of ridding society of these racist structures and beliefs.

Niles believes that in order to change society, each person of privilege in the dominant culture needs to figure out how to actually give up power while awakening white moderates to do the same.

Andrade believes white leaders need to start from a place where they stop thinking they know what is needed in communities of color. If white leaders are going to enter a community to offer assistance, he says they must first ask permission and bring not sympathy, but empathy.

“So the challenge I give to white leaders is to move from a place of sympathy to empathy. That's the move. As long as you are sympathetic to the suffering of poor people and people of color, you are no use to us,” Andrade says. “Empathy, the pathway to being empathic, is the ability to understand that your humanity is connected to our humanity. That my suffering is your suffering. And as long as you understand that your freedom is directly tied to my freedom then we can go on a journey together."

Elisa Villanueva Beard shared her story of growing up in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, and how a visit to the home of a friend during college shaped her vision of what needs to be done in order to effect change.

Growing up in a predominately Mexican-American community, she left to attend college in the Midwest. She made many friends, and upon a visit to one’s home, she was astonished with a statement made by her friend’s mother—that Mexicans were cleaning people.

Though what she said shocked Elisa, making her feel as though she had been punched, what was even more disappointing was that her friend didn’t step up to say something in her defense.

Elisa understands stepping up and saying something in this type of situation is difficult, but believes it serves as a starting point on the path toward equity.

"That is one of the things we just really have to own because we've heard our destiny is tied together,” she says. “And I believe deeply that we need to be a diverse community and that we all have to understand our asset, our power, and our privilege in this work—which are different—and we just have to confront that. And I believe that in order for this to change we've got to reach every dinner table in America from Darien, Connecticut, to rural Alabama to South Texas, but we've got to be centered and understand our power and our privilege in this work that we are doing. And I know that it is hard." 

Check out the video below for the full seminar and more on these leaders’ perspectives on the role of white leaders on the path to equity.

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