Can we reimagine schooling together? Three approaches for creating justice WITH our communities

APIA Education Leaders
7 min readSep 1, 2020

Sandra Jin, Phil Kim, Doannie Tran, Gia Truong, Tommy Welch

APIA education leaders from across the nation are mobilizing in solidarity and across differences towards educational equity and justice. We are committed to evaluating how white supremacist cultural norms play out in our work environments in policies, systems, and structures. More specifically, we seek to dismantle discriminatory practices in K-12 education, including those that undermine the learning outcomes of Black and other marginalized students and contribute to the systemized trauma that fuels the school-to-prison pipeline. As APIA leaders, we are aware that we carry privilege in the world of education and educational reform. We will use that privilege to center Black organizations and Black people who have been leading this work.

Captured in a metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia primary school.

As leaders in your schools and districts, you are deep in the work of starting the new school year. But the turmoil of the last six months has made this year’s planning unlike any other in our lifetime. 2020 has been one of the most tumultuous periods in our history, shaped by the resounding demands for racial justice against the backdrop of an unparalleled global pandemic. In the midst of all this, you transformed learning systems overnight to meet the broad range of pressing emotional and physical needs of your students and families. In the face of the greatest uncertainty, you have moved mountains. You have been a lifeline in your communities.

As we move forward into a new stage of planning, we are faced with a stark choice. We can either use the first semester of school to maintain an inequitable status quo or use that same window of time to create a more equitable system. How we lead the reopening process will show our communities what we have learned about justice.

We have an opportunity to pivot and design the truly equitable educational institutions that our communities deserve. We can create nurturing environments that address social-emotional needs while simultaneously engaging in anti-racist learning that is impactful, rigorous, and connected to students’ lived experiences. We can purposefully center the voice, experiences, and history of our Black students and families.

The only way to use the first four months of school to achieve this type of learning environment is by interrogating the planning approaches that perpetuate the type of schooling that devalues Black bodies and marginalized voices. Otherwise, we may find ourselves discounting the very families we are trying to center in our designs for a healing and liberatory re-opening.

We draw from john a. powell’s work on targeted universalism, a theoretical framework that leaders can use to create antiracist policy. powell describes it as an approach for creating policy “so that people, or groups, can achieve a universal policy goal, such as all people being adequately fed, producing housing for all those who need shelter, or having affordable health care for all. Targeted universalism is based on exploring the gaps that exist between individuals, groups, and places that can benefit from a policy or program and the aspiration-establishing goal. Targeted universalism policy formulations do more than close or bridge such gaps, but ultimately clarify and reveal the barriers or impediments to achieving the universal goal for different groups of people. The focus on gaps, while important, should be measured by reference to a universal goal, not just between groups.” If we build an approach that is designed to create access for those furthest from the aspirational goal, we create a robust system that will better support all people and groups.

Our offering is not a perfect first semester plan for schools. No one can provide that outside of your own school community. And there is no shortage of checklists to support key decisions you must make. Instead, we offer three targeted approaches to consider in your planning, focused on:

  • What is on the table for co-creation (goals)
  • Who is at the table (membership)
  • How to ensure a truly equitable co-creation process for reopening (process).

We don’t pretend that any of these changes in approach are easy, but we do believe that true equity and justice are not possible without them. We don’t presume that they are the only things that will matter as leaders dismantle racist systems, but we hope that by highlighting these shifts we support a discussion about liberatory approaches to school decisions and policies.

Community partnership is the work

Community partnership is not the input phase of your planning process. It’s not the rubber stamp or seal of approval once everything is printed and ready to execute. Engaging your community is the beginning, middle, and end of the work. It is the most powerful tool you have to dismantle racist structures because it is a concrete way to divest and redistribute power to the traditionally marginalized voices in your school community.

We offer three targeted approaches for how you think about goals, membership, and process for deep community engagement that will guide the first few months of school. We believe that these three approaches are interdependent, as responding to different community’s needs cannot occur without inclusive decision-making and an orientation towards shared learning and co-creation.

Targeted Approach 1: WHAT — Replace standardization with targeted innovation as your equity aim

“If we can’t do it for everyone, we won’t do it for anyone.” This has been a sentiment shared frequently in recent months. It has driven schools to try and ensure that all students have the same access to devices, access to the internet, and access to live virtual instruction. Even now, the sentiment lives on in re-opening planning through a perception that deviating from standardization invites political risk. Certainly, districts and schools must standardize access to certain things, such as technology. However, we believe that truly equitable, anti-racist learning environments cannot form when standardization of a single, centrally- created plan is the goal. Instead, we need to foster a culture of mutual accountability and shared responsibility around community goals. These goals should be rooted in local experiences, address local challenges, and lift up local solutions.

Ask yourself: What do school communities need to build trust, heal, and thrive? How do we create a space to deeply listen to those needs? What internal work do we need to do to trust what communities are telling us?

Targeted Approach 2: WHO — Trust the experience of the people furthest from the aspirational goal.

Community engagement usually plays out in two ways during a planning process:

  1. A given community is asked for input through a survey or focus groups to provide a planning team with raw data to supplement evidence-based research at the start of the ideation process.
  2. Stakeholder groups are gathered at the end of the process to react to finalized designs when it’s most likely too late to make substantial changes.

These approaches put the system at the center, rather than communities. Community members, and particularly historically marginalized members of the community, should not be a part of an external feedback loop in a planning process. Their perspectives and insights should drive ideation and decision making.

Ask yourself: How do we put community expertise at the center? Whose voices are usually not included and how do we remove barriers to their inclusion? How do we divest power to those most impacted by the outcome when ideating or making decisions?

Targeted Approach 3: HOW — Truly equitable co-creation starts with learning together.

In public education, systems typically put guardrails on innovation. Constraining the topics of innovation ignores critical local context, and is another example of white supremacy constraining the voices of communities. We have all been in community engagement sessions where the agenda is so tightly managed that there is no room to deviate, and instead are designed like a train barreling towards a predetermined station. This kind of process makes things more convenient for schools but takes power away from communities. At a time when uncertainty is high and trust is needed, follow adrienne maree brown’s advice and “move at the speed of trust.” Listen to peoples’ stories, and empower them to create with you. Use the “Liberatory Design Mindsets” from the National Equity Project and Stanford Attend to racial and power dynamics and set up processes for collective learning and iteration.

Ask yourself: If being inclusive usually means we are allowing marginalized voices to be involved in the process that we’ve constructed, in the way that we deem appropriate, what does radical inclusion and co-creation look like? If we are not getting the participation we were hoping for, how can we change our process?

We recognize that these three targeted approaches represent a shift from how plans have typically been created. And that opens up a lot of unknowns in a place and time that is already uncharted and unfamiliar. We encourage you to push into the discomfort. Radically equitable and liberatory learning environments cannot be created using the same approaches that have perpetuated the inequities we all know exist. Be ready to be the leader to move your teams through this change. Politics is real. Use the concept of targeted universalism to make a compelling case for equity, for centering people and the realities that have been marginalized both in the outcome and through the process.

We invite you to engage with us through a newsletter we will send out highlighting resources, organizations, and leaders aligned to these targeted approaches. We are not creating a new toolkit or resource hub, rather, we are centering and elevating the wisdom and experience of Black organizations and people who have been leading the work of dismantling racist systems. Please sign up to join us in that learning at this link.