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Equity and Justice in Education: Solitude, Introspection and the Sacred Work of Systems Change

  • 5 MIN READ

Dr. Jeanine Williams, founder of Williams Higher Ed, speaks about equity, justice and the work involved in systems change in education.

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When it comes to equity and justice in education, we often do not know where to begin. Inequity and injustice are so vast and so entrenched in our education system, in our society and in our everyday lives that we seriously question whether there is really anything we can do to bring about significant and enduring change. Yet we are driven by our desire to do something—to move before we lose momentum or, even worse, before we lose our nerve.

In our urgency to do something, anything, now, we frantically look for the low-hanging fruit. We anxiously scour the internet for articles, books and TED Talks. We attend workshops, seminars and professional development sessions in an almost desperate search for steps and strategies to get us to this imaginary equity and justice finish line. And once we wade through all the information and find something that we can enact, we are soon met with the painful realization that any gains we may have made do not persist. This forces us to once again ask this question: Is there really anything that we can do to make equity and justice a true and lasting reality?

I have witnessed this frustration among many educators with whom I have worked, and more importantly, I experienced this vicious cycle firsthand for the better part of my career. What I have learned is that enacting equity and justice in our professional spaces (and in our personal lives and in society at large) starts from within.

This work cannot be reduced to a five-step process, a fancy new curriculum or a set of classroom strategies. Equity and justice in education begin with and are sustained by an individual commitment to a critically reflexive praxis, questioning our taken-for-granted assumptions and examining our beliefs, judgments and practices to see how they influence all aspects of our work with students. This critically reflexive praxis is not something that we do for a particular semester or academic year; it must be a habit of mind, a lifestyle, a core disposition that drives our work inside the classroom and in every area of our lives. Anything short of that will fail. There is simply no way around this truth. Without an individual critically reflexive praxis, it is impossible to rethink, reimagine, and redesign educational spaces to be equitable and just.

So how do we come to this place? How do we cultivate this habit of mind? How do we adopt this lifestyle? How do we develop this driving disposition?

First, we must recognize that achieving equity and justice in education is about systems change. Like most, perhaps all, of the systems in our society, the educational system is inherently, intentionally and persistently inequitable and unjust. We see this in the insistence on standardized testing despite the overwhelming evidence that such tests are culturally, linguistically and racially biased. We see this in the continued disproportionate placement of Black and Brown students in special education in the K–12 system and in the remedial course pipelines in colleges and universities. We see this in the lack of cultural, linguistic and racial diversity among classroom teachers and college professors. And the list goes on and on. Attempts to enact even the best strategies for equity and justice will always fail because the system is not set up to facilitate such success. Just as there is no way that we will ever be able to get a clean drink of water from a cup made of mud, it is impossible to actualize equity and justice within our current educational system.

Second, we have to acknowledge that we are all products and perpetrators of this unjust system. As a result, the majority of our educational ideologies—along with our curricular, pedagogical and assessment practices—are tinted and shaped by our own experiences as students, and now professionals, in this tainted system. This is what makes it nearly impossible for us to break free, envision and ultimately enact equity and justice in educational spaces. Despite our good intentions and whether we have done so unknowingly, we can and do contribute to the very problems that we are seeking to solve.

Finally, we must commit to leveraging this reckoning in ways that propel us forward. As bitter as these pills may be to swallow, they afford us a beautiful opportunity to move forward. In fact, this reckoning, with all its pain and discomfort, is the only way to truly move forward. The work of equity and justice requires us to grapple with raw emotions, to be authentic, to be vulnerable. For us to fully leverage this reckoning and to, more importantly, be transformed by it, we have to sit with it time and time again. We have to do so intentionally and mindfully, asking ourselves the hard questions and challenging ourselves to move from reflection to action. With this in mind, I invite you to consider the following:

  • In reading this blog, what thoughts and feelings come to the surface for me? What experiences, values and biases might be fueling these thoughts and feelings?
  • Which ideas in this blog post do I find helpful or validating? Which ideas give me feelings of dissonance or cause me to pause?
  • What are my truths and lived experiences regarding the ideas presented in this blog?
  • How might I use the ideas presented in this blog to move myself forward in my journey as an educator working for equity and justice?

Whether you are just beginning your critically reflexive praxis or whether you are already well on your way, I encourage you to regularly come back to these questions, sit with the discomfort and come to new revelations. And while the work of equity and justice in education starts from a place of solitude and introspection, know that there are countless educators co-laboring in this work—this sacred work of systems change. Together we will actualize equity and justice; together we will be the change that our students, our society and we ourselves so desperately need.

Dr. Jeanine L. Williams is founder/principal of Williams Higher Ed, a consulting practice focused on equity and justice in postsecondary literacy and learning. She is a scholar-practitioner-activist who has worked for two decades as a faculty member and administrator of developmental literacy, first-year writing, and writing across the curriculum. Jeanine earned a PhD in Language, Literacy, and Culture, an EdS in Educational Leadership and Administration, a MSEd in Interdisciplinary Studies in Human Development, and a BA in Psychology.