[With the launch of their new Strategic Framework and its commitment to Black Excellence, MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham is offering up her monthly column space to those who are helping to make that vision come to life. This month’s guest columnists are Mya Johnson, a social worker at Jefferson Middle School, and Maixia Thao, the Teacher Leader for Hmong Language and Cultural Curriculum Development in the Office of Multilingual and Global Education in MMSD. Both Mya and Maixia are member of our inaugural cohort of Equity Fellows, a team of 16 staff members who are using their lived experiences, facilitation skills and critical analysis to disrupt and dismantle inequitable practices in MMSD.

Their views, expressed below, do not represent the individual voices and unique perspectives of each Equity Fellow. ―Ed.]

What is an Equity Fellow?

We both wondered this when we first heard about the opportunity to apply and become an MMSD Equity Fellow. Neither one of us had a clear understanding of what it meant to be an Equity Fellow, nor the journey that it would take us on. Nonetheless, we were intrigued by its potential and understood the urgency of naming and addressing a culture of inequity within and across the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD). Our understanding(s) around the need to address inequities in MMSD stemmed from our experiences as alumni, parents, and current staff of color within this institution. Unfortunately, many of the inequities that we experienced decades ago, as K-12 students of color, continue to live and breathe throughout the district. We both knew that not only did we want to, but that we had the responsibility to, do the critical work of examining racial disparities in order to dismantle oppressive systems that continue to marginalize our most vulnerable communities.

When we met as Equity Fellows for the first time in the fall of 2017, the shared commitment and drive to eliminate racial inequities in service of student success was loud and clear. While there was a general idea about the roles and responsibilities that the Fellows would assume- “a professional learning community charged with furthering the district’s equity vision… that will expand their skill and capacity as facilitators of staff discussions and professional learning focused on a range of topics that leverage leadership and teaching for equity… [and] develop an Equity Facilitation Resource for use by staff across the district” as described in our congratulatory letters – there were imperative details missing that required clarity.

An Opportunity to Create Real Change – Or Not?

Essential questions came up about our purpose, roles, and the impact we would actually make:
What did being an Equity Fellow mean as it related to (or disconnected from) our current roles in the district? Was the makeup of the group and how it functioned equitable and inclusive of all voices? What would our work look like and how would it fit logistically into the current systems of supports? Or, was it necessary to forge our own path within the system?

Our fears about the authenticity of the work we were being charged with doing also surfaced:
Were we just another band-aid on a broken system and inadvertently perpetuating the same oppressive systems that we were trying to dismantle in the district? How would we be perceived by district staff and administrators, and what implications did this have for the supports and resources we would need in order to do our work?

These were just a handful of the questions that arose. We quickly realized that what began as a seemingly clear path to follow, was in fact riddled with uncertainties.

Speaking Our Truths

During our first year together as Equity Fellows, we took time to reflect and build a shared understanding of our collective identity and the task at hand. We participated in collaborative discussions around (a) the work that needed to be done, (b) where we should start, and (c) where we might have the greatest impact. We explored feelings around possible inequities of voice that existed in the cohort as a result of having the collective voices of teachers, support staff, administrators, and central office staff. We wondered who might support us as we began diving deeply into the work. Would we have the capacity to support one another or would our own loads of racial battle fatigue be too heavy to offer support? We defined and redefined ourselves as we struggled to understand what the true intention of Equity Fellows is/was.

As we continued to meet throughout the year and during the summer, we began to develop an understanding of one another’s perspectives, understandings, and values around race, the impact of implicit biases, and the deep levels of racism that exist in the educational system. We had meaningful discussions around the daily trauma that exists for students and staff of color in the district as both groups struggle to be seen, heard, understood, and valued.

Taking Risks

We created a mission and a theory of action while examining who we were as a collective. In order to develop actionable next steps, we agreed to try out two major systems of support that would advance equity work in the district for the 2018-2019 school year. There would be a system for schools to request supports from the Fellows to facilitate discussions on equity imperative topics in meaningful, productive ways that allowed for participant reflection on their current understanding and practices. In addition, we would provide optional professional development opportunities on these same topics for all staff. At the same time, we would build our own capacities within the group to develop our facilitation and leadership skills to lead these conversations.

So far, the Fellows have given two professional development sessions on equity and anti-racism in the district. We hope to open up the system of support requests very soon as well.

As we begin implementing aspects of our theory of action, it’s imperative that we continue to: explore and develop our collective identity as Fellows, build trusting relationships amongst one another, and unpack our individual lived experiences in order to prepare us for the heavy lifting that we will (and already) do in the district.

Looking ahead

It will take time to disrupt and dismantle the deeply racist and oppressive systems within this institution. Because of this, we believe that there is a critical need to pause and reflect on the processes that we are using to do our work as Fellows. There must also be collective efficacy, collaboration, and supportive systems and resources in place across the district in order for us to engage in the work impactfully and sustainably. At the end of the day, we want to ensure that our equity work is reflective of the power, brilliance, and assets that our students, staff, and families of color bring to our school communities.

As survivors of racial inequity and injustice, a recurring theme in our lived experiences is the constant feeling of defensiveness and powerlessness when interacting with privileged members of a system or navigating oppressive systems. Therefore, we take our privilege as Equity Fellows as an opportunity and responsibility to also reclaim our power as agents of social change. At the core of this is our truth – that we are the very people who must figure out how to survive within the same oppressive systems that we are trying to dismantle and improve – and there has to be space for us to do the work in a way in which we are respected, heard, and valued. The creation of the Equity Fellows might not be the right or best solution for some, but it is a step forward and we hope that it continues to flourish boldly, unwaveringly, and unapologetically for its members and the greater MMSD community.