Unpacking Why Some Educators See the Word ‘Equity’ As a Threat

EdSurge Podcast

Unpacking Why Some Educators See the Word ‘Equity’ As a Threat

By Jenny Abamu     Mar 27, 2018

Unpacking Why Some Educators See the Word ‘Equity’ As a Threat
Kirsten Baesler seated in the middle at the Aspen Institute Feb. 2018

How do you close achievement gaps when all your students don’t start with the same opportunities? It’s a question of equity, a goal that is generally assumed to be one most educators want to achieve. Yet, these days the issue seems more complicated, as political debates frame equity policies as in conflict with ideals of fairness and tradition.

Last month at the Aspen Institute’s States Leading for Equity event, North Dakota’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Kirsten Baesler, noted that in her community, this question of providing equal opportunities for all through schooling could be divisive. “There is a threat certain people, certain organizations, and certain communities feel when you start to talk about equity,” she said.

This week on the EdSurge OnAir podcast, Baesler unpacks why some people in her community feel threatened by the word, and she describes the challenges school leaders face in implementing reforms to promote equity in their communities.

Listen to the podcast for the full interview below or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). Or read highlights from the conversation (which have been edited and condensed for clarity).

EdSurge: You’ve said there are people you know who have been left out of this conversation on equity because they feel that it is something that's threatening to them. Explain how you've seen this play out and why that is.

Kirsten Baesler: I think in a lot of middle America—which is where I was born and raised and where I continued to work and raised my children—there is that feeling that because things are changing so quickly, that that old way of life has been disappearing. There is a lot of fear and risk. People want to return to the days when everyone that looked like each other that looked like me had the same opportunities and were successful. Now that is being threatened, and I think that they feel that they haven't achieved what they wanted to or what their father, their grandfather, grandmother, mother or grandmother did.

I see it up close and personal, but I don't think it exists just in middle America. I believe that that's our biggest challenge. We do need to make sure that we can become a nation that's even better... and imagine what we're going to be when everyone has true equity. But right now, we're just caught in that middle, and we're having a hard time seeing past and through what this great nation could be.

As an educator, how have you seen this conversation play out in the education space? How are you able to include people who might not agree with you?

It's all about respect and relationships. I think it's about having a civil discourse. I think it is about being able to model what we want our students to see in these conversations. I do a lot of listening, and I don't try to relate because I can't relate immediately, but I can listen, and I can begin to understand. That's what we've been doing at the State Department of Education in North Dakota. That's what we've been modeling for our school districts as they go out and work. Our local school leaders go out and work with their local communities who are of color or tremendous diversity. North Dakota is changing. We used to be a very homogenous state. We used to have mostly Scandinavians and Germans, and now we have a large new America population—and of course, we've always had our Native American population. So as we move into this new era of who we are, we need to model that, and we need to see through that.

I'm a black female reporter, so I'm not going to pretend that I come from the viewpoint that sees equity as a threat to society, but for those who don't believe in equity, what is your pitch? How do you tell someone who feels threatened by others advancing in society that their advancement does not have to come at the expense of someone else’s? Or does it?

Specifically for North Dakota, we have a severe employee shortage. Our unemployment rate is extremely low. So I say to all of the business owners, those that are being successful, those that are feeling threatened to imagine what we could be as a state. We are not reaching our fullest potential in our industry, workforce, innovation, and creativity until we have 100 percent of our workforce pulling in the same direction. When we only have 80 percent, 77 percent or even 67 percent of our workforce fully educated and reaching their full capacity, we are operating at a deficit. I come at it from economic terms. Then they begin to understand. But each conversation is individual. I take time to understand why that person is feeling threatened, and then I counter with an argument of how it really would benefit.

That's what I mean by saying we've got to see them through the challenging part and past what their biases are and begin to get them to imagine what our world, what our nation, is going to be like when we get past that. We're going to be so much better when we have true equity.

What are some things that you've done in North Dakota to make the state more equitable?

I needed to make sure that at the state education agency, at the very top of education that my entire staff understood the importance of equity, not just those who were dealing with our Native American schools, not just those program people who were dealing with our students in poverty, but every single person—from our outside reception staff to our fiscal staff and grant writers and grant deliverers to our accountants, that they understood that each and every one of us played a role in making sure that we had true equity.

We engaged in a process. We're working with the Midwest States Center for Equity out of the University of Indiana, and we hold training sessions for our staff to uncover what we might have as implicit biases, and how we might communicate. We're training all of our staff in the department. As importantly, we're helping our local school districts begin to understand how important it is for every student in North Dakota—German, Russian, New American—to understand who was here before that and that's our Native American culture. What we have is what was modeled after Montana, is Indian Education For All, and it's called Essential Understanding. It's a set of curriculum and principles that guide each and every grade level, K through 12, into having an understanding of what the history was and who the people of North Dakota were before it was settled.

I've seen a lot of districts adopt courses on ethnic studies in communities of color, but what you're saying is taking these types of cultural pedagogies to all communities. Why all communities and not just the communities where those cultures are?

Because when we have kindergartners that begin to learn exactly who North Dakota was, who comprised it, who lived on this land, the belief in the culture. It's part of that child's history. When they begin to understand and learn that as a kindergartner and then continue through high school, each and every year learning right alongside our white kiddos, learning right alongside our kiddos of color, and that they're learning it together. Then we become one citizen of North Dakota. They will be our next mayors, our next city councilmen, our next governors, our next legislatures, our next U.S. Senators. When we have a generation that has grown up with that essential understanding of who they are and where they came from, they will be incredible leaders that equity comes naturally to. They won't even understand why we struggled with it for so long.

I understand that you live close to the Native population in North Dakota, near where the Dakota Access Pipeline protests occurred. Tell me how that discussion has played out in your district and if you had the opportunity to bring equity to that discussion?

That is where I began to understand how important that civics education was to the issue of equity. I don't believe that we're going to reach equity unless our next generation of leaders in my K-12 schools across the state begins to understand really how to engage—whether in Charlottesville, Ferguson, Dallas, St. Paul, and the Dakota Access Pipeline.

I grew up just a few miles away from where the center of the protests was, and I know those people and I know that when they got the notice to have the opportunity to exercise their voice at a public service commission hearing on the 12th floor of the capital on this date at this time, they just looked it, and went, "What?"

Conversely, to me, who had grown up with a [different background]. My father was involved in the city planning and zoning commission. My mother was involved in our city council. I'd been to one hearing after another growing up. I had complete exposure to it, where I knew that my friends didn't have that advantage, and so when it came time to go through the proper channels of protesting the pipeline in the public service commission hearing meetings, they didn't engage in that. Then suddenly it was put upon them even though it had gone through all the processes.

The only thing that they knew to do was to protest. I think if we get our young people engaged in community and civic activities—as a third grader, as a fourth grader, as a middle schooler and high schooler–they will know how to become part of the process, find their voice early, and then move on and engage in the proper channels before it reaches the level of protest.

So what advice would you give to other school leaders who are maybe in positions like yours?

Be courageous and be willing to be uncomfortable. We need to recognize that yes, this conversation is going to be uncomfortable, but if you model as a leader that it is comfortable, it will be fine. It will be absolutely fine.

I want to ask you to reflect and think. As someone who didn't exactly start off with this challenge, how would you say that you've changed after taking on this mission?

That is such a good question and I really just kind of sighed and a feeling of warmth really came over me because the emotion that I have when I think about how important this work is. The most important change that has come over me is that I knew the problem existed, I knew it was a challenge, and I knew it was a struggle, and it became so hard for me to deal with because I was so emotional about the gains that we weren't able to make, and I was so emotionally devastated about what can one person do to make that change? It seemed like an overwhelming problem to me, so I sometimes just avoided it and went on to things that were easier, and I could see more gains more quickly.

Since I began and really made my commitment two years ago, I have just become a person that has said truly and convincingly, if not me, then who? I know that one person can make a difference, and a small group of people can make a difference because that small group grows. So it's just an unshakeable commitment to this work. And with that, I just present myself as stronger, more convicted, with a stronger voice. People see that and those that were like me before, that are saying, "I can't complete this mission. I just got to figure out what I can fix in my own little nine acres." Now they are jumping on board too with as much passion because I think we've all really understood together we can make a difference.

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