Thursday, November 20, 2014

Critical Friendships for Diverse Leadership in Education

"If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?" Hillel

There is hope and indications of a new era of education politics in New York City, starting with Carmen Fariña the new chancellor who courageously speaks about trust as being one of the pillars for change. Cited as one of her six tenets—rigorous instruction, a supportive environment, collaborative teachers, effective leadership, strong family & community ties— building a culture of continuous learning and trust[1] seems to be the most pressing and the most complicated to achieve.

Several years ago as a consultant working with a school in the South Bronx, I found the lack of trust alarming.  Teachers were nervous and afraid to openly discuss their professional development needs and deep concerns about the school. As an instructional mentor working from a socio-cultural and critical pedagogical lens, I was acutely aware of the need to build trust in order to get the information that would allow me to appropriately assess the situation and develop realistic goals, particularly critical for harried teachers charged with teaching poor, Latino and Black students. Furthermore, I needed to build trust with the administration in order to help them build capacity around this important work. No one can argue— trust is critical. The perception of trust and the practice of trust starts at the very top of an administration and will inevitably trickle down to the school, the teacher, the students and the greater community. How can we build and sustain trust in a diverse, economically polarized context riddled with complex political undercurrents, high stakes testing and standards transformation linked to teacher evaluations? What does trust look like and feel like for a critical Latina educator when Latino students are victim to the systemic across-the-board decline in educational achievement within our public education system and also suffer from English language hurdles, assimilation concerns, reduced expectations, and denied access to educational opportunities that exist for children of greater economic means?[2]
Paulo Freire suggests that educators must constantly reflect on their pedagogy. There is growing interest in research on the obstacles to critical pedagogy in education, in particular. Critical pedagogy is the practice of looking at education as a tool to liberate oneself and others from social injustice & oppressive conditions. Freire calls one obstacle false generosity.[3] False generosity is when a group of people who are historically seen as pedagogical authorities and hold leadership positions in the field who for all intents and purposes want to transform the unjust order but “because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change.[4]
Dr. Frank Bonilla, an educator and scholar who founded the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, wrote in 1964 “It is also vital and legitimate to fight poverty not only by spending public funds on the poor but by dedicating part of such funds to work among the non-poor employers, landlords, educators, government officials, politicians, labor leaders, and others whom the poor accept as leaders. Because the poor have the capacity to help themselves through the exercise of organizational, political, and social skills, they are to be mobilized and actively incorporated into the planning and execution of programs for self-help.”[5] 
Prioritizing diverse leadership in the field of education is central to building trust when we consider the dearth of educators and teacher educators of color. In the department of education’s latest school staffing survey, 82% identified themselves as white compared to 50.3% of students who identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian or other non-white ethnicity.[6]  These numbers are alarming, but why stress diverse leadership and not just push for a more diverse teacher force? And, what is the role of critical friendships in building trust?
Dr. Xaé Alicia Reyes, Professor of Education and Puerto Rican and Latino Studies writes “In the current climate in the U.S. accountability and high stakes testing are the driving forces for funding at the k-12 level and in higher education. There is universal acceptance for the belief that equal access to education is a human right, but the enforcement of these rights is often disregarded in political debates. Funding for curriculum development, for academic support for students and for professional development for staff is contingent on competitive grants whose continuity is based on performance outcomes. In order to carry out their missions, schools of education at universities and colleges must secure funding. These dynamics translate into an ethos of incentives and rewards for [those] who are most skillful in obtaining funding and producing scholarship creating a challenge for underprivileged communities in k-12 context and university faculty from underrepresented groups, namely Blacks and Latinos.”[7] 
Structural and pedagogical change is required if we are to build trust around the vision of equity in education. If our aim is to address the growing achievement gap and to ameliorate our service to all students, a shift in praxis at every level of the organization must take precedence. Talking about diversity, equity, social justice, access, and language acquisition cannot be just talking points or content items in a curriculum created by those who are considered pedagogical authorities but don’t represent the community.  Whole systems, from top to bottom must reflect the real world we live in so that students of color can begin to identify themselves with scholarship, professionalism and the teaching profession in particular.  Diverse leadership will not only begin to change the conversation, it will provide higher level salaries for people of color who are more often than not straddled with economic hardships. Furthermore, diversity in leadership will over time change our perception of who we believe to be achievers in society and who is not.
An expanded meaning of a Critical Friendship across race, class, ethnicity, religion and gender is crucial as we consider diverse leadership in education. A critical friend is a powerful idea. A critical friend comes closest to a true friend friendship because it’s a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique.[8] The role of the critical friend in the broader sense is to be a trusted person who will ask provocative questions and offer helpful critiques.[9] Critical Friendship with diversity and equity in mind includes behaviors that Francis Kendall defines as an ally. An ally is making a commitment to the critical friendship across race, class, religion or gender with the intent of advocating for and operationalizing a commitment to equity and social justice. Allies, according to Kendall publicly and privately align themselves with underrepresented and/or targeted groups and respond to their needs. They are also equally committed to exploring through ongoing dialogue what it means to have privilege or not in our society. Allies advocate for this person and for organizational change in collaboration and individually amongst their own peers of equal status. Allies make a commitment to open doors that have historically been closed to people of color, poor people or those who have been marginalized in the field.[10]
In order to access leadership opportunities, those who are in positions of power need to expand their understanding of how to recruit and retain diverse leadership talent. Diverse leadership talent will come in unexpected ways because diverse leaders will often come with unconventional resumes and demeanors that might have been developed over time to withstand socio-political obstacles or might be attached to their particular culture, religion or background. These leaders may come off as hardened, independent or too ‘critical’ of systems thinking. They might be bold and passionate about equity from the start because, who knows more about poverty or oppressive conditions than those who have experienced it themselves? Diverse leaders will often speak from the heart and struggle to control emotionalism because they are not talking about the future of other people’s children but the future of their own children.  Since these are the very things we want to leverage from these leaders in order to navigate the complex terrain of transformational shifts in education—passion, innovation, independence, and out of the box thinking—critical friendships with a diversity and equity lens is necessary. 
Critical Friends are the folks on the ‘inside’ who advocate and support new diverse leaders while they begin to develop trusting relationships on their own. Critical Friends offer trust first and at the very start of the relationship because the risk involved coming into a status quo system as a change agent is much greater than for the ally.  Critical Friends make sure new diverse leaders are given appropriate titles and compensation and not be expected to ‘demonstrate’ their worth if they have already demonstrated scholarship, experience and/or credentials in other related domains. It is important we honor the level of professionalism in the field and not expect people to continuously start over each time there is a transition. Imagine a doctor with ten years’ experience returning to a resident status at a new hospital?  This point is particularly poignant for people of color because people of color and those who belong to marginalized groups are historically given non-leadership positions until they ‘prove’ themselves and build trust while their white/privileged counterparts get positions of leadership at the start because of association with professional and/or personal networks. Even so, new diverse leaders will need time to grow and acclimate themselves within the position and learn the ropes without the fear of losing the job.  Consequently, critical friends with equity and diversity in mind are part of the process of empowering and advocating for the person and the role they play within the organization for an extended period of time, if not indefinitely.
Many organizations focus on attracting a diverse group of employees, but then struggle with retaining the right talent. Organizations with a highly diverse workforce that do not pay attention to an inclusive environment are likely to be more dysfunctional than organizations without a diverse staff. Research suggests that the answer lies not so much in policies and procedures as in the mindset of leaders in creating a culture that is inclusive.[11] If we are honest with ourselves the model of leadership has been largely based on white protestant males. Therefore, as people from different backgrounds break through barriers, we must consider if they are being asked to play within the traditional frame or being given the full chance to effect change as leaders.[12] Critical friends play an integral role in developing and retaining diverse leaders in order for substantial change in practice and mindsets to take place.
The National Urban Fellows (NUF) convened a series of national and regional leadership diversity summits during its 40th anniversary year, with the goal of shifting the national leadership paradigm to include leadership models found in diverse communities, to embrace collective approaches and to define a new institutional diversity standard. The Research Center for Leadership in Action at NYU Wagner is working closely with NUF to develop knowledge and research on diverse leadership. The following are seven relevant findings[13] that summarize their work and underscore the need to develop critical friendships in the field of education that advocate for and support diverse leadership:
  • We need more empirical work to unpack how diversity impacts the organization and its members
  • There is no one size that fits all approach so diversity requires more leadership rather than management solutions
  • Scholars agree that there needs to be more commitment from leadership and with more holistic approaches
  • There is a need to equip people and organizations. Nurturing people without looking at the organization is not enough.
  • Diversity is not about race but is a testament to adaptability and other competencies required in a more complex, changing environment
  • Most gains or progress in diversity are in the workforce, not in leadership
  • There is much less research and evidence about leaders of color in the not-for-profit sector than in the public and private sector
This is an exciting time for educators across the country as we feel a growing sense of urgency around equity in education and especially in New York City. As we move ahead we need to take the time to think deeply about how we can build trust in the education community and advocate for structures and behaviors that will support the development of diverse leadership. If we look at recent trends, we will see an emphasis on preventative measures to address the persistent inequalities in education such as the need to invest in early education. Similarly, we should take a critical look at the other end of the spectrum where we find talented educational leaders from diverse and marginalize backgrounds that are equally at risk. We need to recruit, retain and support these professionals if we are going to address equity in education at the structural and pedagogical level.

[2] Statement of Need, Diversity Leadership Institute
[3] Duncan-Andrade & Morrell (2008) The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools.
[4] Freire, P (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (p.94-95)
[5] Bonilla, R. (1964) Rational for a Culturally Based Program of Action for Against Poverty Among New York Puerto Ricans
[6] Klein, R. (2014) A Majority of Students Entering School This Year are Minorities While Most Teachers are Still White. Huffington Post.
[7] Reyes, X.A. (2010) Educational Equity and Access as Universal Human Rights: Effects on Teacher Education in the U.S., International Online Journal of Educational Sciences 2 (1), 1-20
[8] MacBeth, J. (2002)The Role and Value of a Critical Friend. No Quick Fixes: Perspectives on School in Difficulty, Chapter 9
[9] Costa, A. & Kallick, B. (1993) Through the Lens of a Critical Friend. Educational Leadership 51 (2)
[10] Kendall, F. (2003) How to Be an Alley if You Are a Person of Privilege.
[11] Janakiraman, M (2011) Inclusive Leadership: Critical for a Competitive Advantage. Berlitz Cultural Insights Series
[12] Banks, K.H. (2010) Race Matters: Deconstructing Race and Identity. Diversity Leadership in Psychology Today
[13] (2011) Leadership, Diversity and Inclusions: Insights from Scholarship. Research Center for Leadership in Action

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