The Heartland Education Action Summit: Addressing inequity in education

Creative Reaction Lab
Equal Space
Published in
9 min readApr 22, 2021


A virtual weekend of collectively shifting education structures to support racial equity, anti-racism, social and emotional wellbeing, and youth leadership.

In February, Creative Reaction Lab hosted the Heartland Education Action Summit with the help of our sponsors Education First, NoVo Foundation, and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. This summit is a three-day convening where educators engaged in interactive activities and practiced developing prototypes to address inequity in education. Because our summit was virtual, we were able to host educators from all over the country (and one from Canada!) working across different learning spaces. Here’s a breakdown of who was there:

Day 1: Examining Self, Power, and the Case for Equity in Education

Image created by Monica Curca, Sketchnotes artist

The focus of our first day together was a critical reflection on our relationships with power and the historical and contemporary forms of oppressive practices in education. We believe that it is important for folx to recognize where they are on their equity journeys before moving forward to develop possible approaches for their learning spaces.

Before we dived into the Day 1 Activities, we took a moment to share some of the Hopes and Fears that attendees reflected on and added to a collective Mural prior to the start of the summit. This exercise is helpful in building community by recognizing that many folx are experiencing similar hopes and fears coming into a shared space, in addition to giving facilitators an opportunity to validate and/or provide additional context on what may or may not come to fruition. A majority of Summit participants were hopeful to identify their biases and engage in unlearning. At the same time, many Summit participants feared not having meaningful contributions or “saying the wrong thing.”

We started with language setting by talking through our definitions for diversity, inclusion, equity and equality, and we worked to center anti-racism in building the foundation for our time together over the weekend. We reminded attendees of one of our favorite quotes from Ijeoma Oluo that “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.” Another important step was building humility and empathy, which involves the examination of the impact our own identities, values, biases, assumptions, and relationships to power and privilege have on how we engage with ourselves, each other, and the communities with whom we work. We stressed that it’s not enough to only build empathy — we also have to exercise humility and acknowledge what we don’t know.

Developing Our Perspectives was our first virtual activity together, where we had educators in small groups reflect on the various messages around education they have received from various sources over their lifetimes. Some educators shared their takeaways:

“We discussed the pain and trauma of having to hide your true self in order to assimilate to the school environment and the longer-term implications of experiencing this early on.” — Aditi Garg

“Something that resonated hard was how much things teachers or parents said to us as kids still stick with us — especially the “you can’t” or value implication messages.” — Alyssa Tsagong

Next, we worked through two activities that helped us reflect on the roles our identities play in shaping our design power. The Paseo Protocol activity encourages folx to recognize their privileges and unseen areas and biases, as well as reflect on their own perceptions of their identities in relation to others’ perceptions. The All that Power activity helps folx to reflect on the various ways through which they interact with power. Through better understanding where we each hold power, we are better equipped to share and shift power in the pursuit of equity and justice.

“As the teacher, I have power in reading behaviors of students and how I respond. One way to shift power is to give them a chance to explain themselves rather than make a snap judgment.” — Emily Agnes Wrobel

“By shifting my power I can help build community (eg. using my bilingual privilege to help build relationships for staff/teachers with students/families) as well as allowing and trusting students to participate in doing that translation if they want to.” — Monica Avalos

Day 2: Co-Creating for Community Engagement + Interventions

Image created by Monica Curca, Sketchnotes artist

On Day 2, attendees learned about inclusive collaboration, rapid prototyping, and testing and learning through a healing-centered lens as they moved forward to ideate approaches.

We started the day with a Creative Reaction Lab favorite, Liberation x Design. To review concepts such as diversity and equity, summit participants matched these terms to real-life scenarios. The second part of this exercise was leaving the educators with prompts to reflect on throughout the summit, for example: “How can we start to design for equity in smaller ways that can grow?”

Participants then determined what it meant for them to be Design Allies for the youth in their learning communities. This led to a group discussion where educators could share how they planned to leverage their power for the youth Equity Designers within their institutions.

“How might I have the humility and self-awareness to recognize when any of my identities/power/position might actually be a barrier to liberation?” — Sarah Minegar

Day 2 then led to exploring the process of Inviting Diverse Co-Creators to co-design a more equitable learning experience. We believe that those with lived experience who are closest to the problem, whom we call living experts, also need to be close to the solutions to approach that problem. The educators were tasked with asking themselves:

“Who is part of the decision-making process? Why?”,

“Who is missing from the decision-making space? Why?”,

and “How can we make decision-making spaces more accessible to those who want and need to be involved?”

These questions serve as a tool that can be brought back to educational spaces to ensure that those most affected by the decisions being made are being heard.

“Inviting parents/community members to come to the school not only for student/parent conferences or when there is a specific problem with their student, but allowing them to understand and know they can come to the school when they have an idea or issue they see with the school/classroom.” — Monica Avalos

To further the discussion of living expertise, we invited a panel of youth living experts from within our alumni network to discuss their different experiences in the learning spaces they have been in. This panel featured Antigone Chambers-Reed, Kimori Porter, Mariapaz Gomez, and Malik Singleton. These youth spoke on the topics of why youth representation is important and the challenges they’ve faced in their own equity journeys through formal and informal education. Additionally, the panelists shared what they believe teachers, administrators, faculty, and other educational leaders need to understand about their experiences, and what they envision for the future of more equity- and justice-centered education.

“It takes a village to raise a child, so for me, I would like to see educators in their advocacy working directly with the people that are directly impacting the student.” — Antigone Chambers-Reed

The last activities of the day were Ideating Approaches and Rapid Prototyping. During ideation, the summit participants were presented with prompts such as “How can we integrate equity and anti-bias, anti-racism, practices into social emotional learning?” and “How can we incentivize and hold educators accountable to co-create youth-led spaces?” This exercise prepped the educators for selecting a topic to address through prototyping. After a short break, educators came back together and voted on a specific problem to address and ideate on the following day.

Day 3:Prototyping, testing & learning, and presentations

Image created by Monica Curca, Sketchnotes artist

Building off of Day 2’s ideation practice, Day 3 of our summit involved summit participants (in small groups) working together to further ideate, prototype, and test their approaches for integrating Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Antiracist/Anti Bias (ABAR) practices to address a specific challenge in their learning communities.

For example, one group worked to address a lack of diversity in school leadership, another focused on how to shift power to student voices, and another looked at approaches to de-prioritize standardized testing.

As the small groups worked to test their prototypes, we prompted attendees to consider the following:

  • Who benefits most from this prototype? Least?
  • Who benefits least (or is harmed by) this prototype?
  • How does/might this prototype make people feel?
  • What assumptions are made in the creation of the prototype?
  • What might be some consequences (+ or -) the prototype could have on the community for which it is intended?
  • Who decides what success looks like?
  • Whose input are we [still] missing?

Participants had the chance to have pair-and-share feedback on their prototypes from another group, and afterward, they all came back together to integrate that feedback and continue prototyping their approaches. After that time together, we had each group present their prototypes to the summit. We had them share an overview of their concept, why it might fail and some unintended consequences, at least one prototype and testing plan, and what they still need and want to know.

Here are some of the prototype ideas that came out of the weekend:

— Establishing a mentoring program to connect students to diverse professionals.

— Highlight stories of healing in school communications: Creating change in school policies and practices that will promote a sustainable shift away from a reactive consequencing system to a proactive healing-based system.

— Work co-creatively with historically underinvested communities to share stories of joy, expertise, and celebration to reframe how we teach/learn history within educational spaces to share the full human experience.

“We know that students are saying that there aren’t a lot of educators and professionals that look like them. A simple solution could be to hire BIPOC people but we know that isn’t enough. We are proposing a peer mentoring program that connects students with professionals that represent the same underrepresented groups.” — Dax Craig

“We would like to facilitate stories from their own communities… Students would be able to share stories of triumph and joy and co-create them with the community and share them with others.” — Maddie Deegan Davenport

After groups shared their ideas, we wanted to ensure that what was learned over the weekend wasn’t left behind after the summit ended (we like to say, “what’s said stays here, what’s learned leaves here”). So, one of our final steps on Day 3 was initial action planning where we asked summit participants to individually reflect on the following and then share and debrief in small groups:

  • How will you shift decision-making power to youth in your learning community? What support do you need?
  • What opportunities do you see to intertwine ABAR and SEL practices in your learning community?
  • What could you begin testing next week? How? What resources do you need to support prototyping and testing?

Our Creative Reaction Lab team felt that the weekend was a success and the educators agreed!

“The summit served as a reminder that while educators are facing seismic shifts and setbacks, creativity and collaboration allow us to innovate to better serve our students of color.” — Samantha Siros

Educators noted that they felt empowered to share power and lead differently after the summit and that they enjoyed ideation and prototyping a tangible idea (and working collaboratively in groups to do so).

Many educators also appreciated how we worked to center youth voices throughout the entire learning engagement, especially noting that the youth living expert panel was effective and powerful.

“It was great to actively participate in this process to better understand my own thinking/learning so I can better facilitate students in the prototyping process. It was also great to hear from the youth panel and hear other groups prototype presentations!” — Caitlin Munguia

Thanks to funding from the Novo Foundation, educators are able to apply for a prototyping fund to implement their ideas from the summit into their learning spaces. Through the platform Mighty Networks, we have built a community of Heartland educators to ensure we further engage far past this weekend of learning.



Creative Reaction Lab
Equal Space

At Creative Reaction Lab, we believe that Black and Latinx youth are integral to advancing racial equity and developing interventions for their communities.