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Pave the Way for Brave Conversations About K–12 Equity

Even as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs in schools face pushback, educators can develop an equity mindset and build consensus on closing equity gaps by creating a brave space for conversation.  

Many districts and schools are struggling to turn ideas about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into action. In recent months, controversy — including legislation in 41 states — about teaching DEI-related concepts (including critical race theory) in schools has further slowed K–12 educators’ ability to advance equity initiatives. While conversations around DEI in schools make headlines and polarize communities, K–12 educators and leaders can continue taking steps to close equity gaps by developing an equity mindset and creating a brave space for dialogue about challenging topics. 

A brave space — unlike a safe space, which focuses on comfort — is an environment where students, staff, and families can feel heard, are open to learning, and exhibit a willingness to tackle uncomfortable conversations together. Here are a few tips to make your district or school spaces ready for brave conversations. 

Pinpoint Equity Gaps with Data

Collecting and investigating school and district data is one of the first steps to understanding where inequity exists. Identifying patterns and disparities in data will reveal which areas need the most attention. These areas can then be used as a starting point for opening conversations with stakeholders.  

While evaluating and sharing data is essential, it is also just the beginning. The next step that comes is often harder: Preparing school communities for deeper dialogue and learning. 

Find more tips for districts to make DEI progress, despite limited time, resources, or consensus. 

Set a Community Vision for DEI that Works for Students, Teachers, and Families

Equity work — let alone progress — doesn’t happen inside a district office among a handful of staff. Resolving systemic challenges takes broad input and consensus from staff, students, families, and community members throughout the district, even when facing reluctance or denial. To make headway, your district must consider the local context and perceptions around DEI issues and look for ways to acknowledge and include multiple community voices in the conversation. 

Rallying around a common definition, mission, and vision of equity can create a shared experience across stakeholder groups, one that opens conversations, rather than closes them down. In Hanover’s work with districts around the nation, we’ve found that developing a common vocabulary for discussing DEI supports understanding, reduces resistance, and allows for more productive conversations to occur between schools and communities. Some districts are using terminology such as “opportunity” and “access” to talk about disparities while avoiding hot-button words such as “equity” and “diversity.” The work is the same, but the message comes across differently. 

Whatever terminology your community adopts, soliciting input from all stakeholders and clarifying a vision for improving student outcomes sets a foundation for accountability. At the same time, it allows community members to explore gaps, assumptions, and biases. Once your community has a common vision and vocabulary, communicate widely and regularly with all stakeholders about your progress on these concepts and plans. 

Get on-the-ground DEI insights from district leaders from around the country in Hanover’s webinar, The Current State of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Lessons from the Field

Help Educators Flex an Equity Mindset 

For equity work to be impactful, district and school leaders, teachers, and support staff must embrace an asset-based mindset about equity that focuses on strengths rather than deficits. So, what does that look like? It is both individual and collective. 

Individually, teachers and staff must develop skills and tools to engage in self-reflection and be willing to investigate how racism, inequity, and implicit bias affect day-to-day work. This calls for quality professional learning that develops teachers’ abilities for examining their own assumptions and behaviors.  

Collectively, the school climate must disrupt a deficit view of students and foster a culturally relevant and rigorous experience for all students. As part of a larger equity plan, be sure to provide opportunities for teachers and staff to collaborate and participate in DEI-related planning to continue building their buy-in for change. 

Learn about effective, culturally responsive professional learning opportunities through Hanover’s Educator Learning Center

Model Bravery and Transparency in Leadership

DEI work in schools isn’t new, but it continues to prove challenging especially because stakeholders have different levels of experience talking about identity and differences. For staff and parents alike, confronting inequities and assumptions may be a new and uncomfortable (or even fearful) experience. That’s why it’s important to create a space where learning — and making mistakes — is normalized and supported.  

As a leader, one of the most powerful steps you can take toward shaping community norms is to model expected behaviors yourself. To effectively create a brave space for all stakeholders, your district- and school-level leaders should be ready to: 

  • Be in it for the long haul: Don’t expect results in a day, a month, or even a year. 
  • Start by examining your own assumptions and giving yourself grace. 
  • Address the emotional aspects of equity, racism, and discrimination and how it affects you. 
  • Share openly when you have made a mistake. Be honest about your edges or oversights and demonstrate your commitment to learning. 
  • Continually refine practices and participate in professional learning opportunities to build new skills. 

When learning any new skill, repetition and practice are key. With practice, adopting new behaviors that foster vulnerability, humility, and transparency becomes easier over time, especially once you begin to see others follow suit. When other people see you being brave, they will know it’s safe for them to do the same. 

Looking for strategies to retain high-quality, diverse teachers? Read Hanover’s guide to Inclusive Teacher Recruitment and Retention Practices. 

At the end of the day, equity doesn’t live in a plan or a policy: It lives in people who prioritize it each day. It’s embodied in daily actions and attitudes. The more we can talk to each other openly and demonstrate our commitment to listening and learning, the more possible it becomes to address inequities. Taking intentional steps to examine assumptions and change our behaviors is imperative if we hope to create educational environments in which students can develop their full potential. Finally, modeling an equity mindset sends a strong signal to other community members that it’s okay for them to engage, listen and learn together, too.

 — Susan Groundwater, Ph.D., Senior Research Advisor, K–12 Education, Hanover Research 

 Read more about ways to make equity progress in controversial times by downloading Hanover’s infographic, Making Strides in Your District’s Equity Journey. 

Author Information

Senior Advisor, Hanover Research, K–12 Professional Services
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Education: Ph.D., Teaching and Teacher Education, Literacy and Reading, George Mason University; M.S., American University; B.A. The Pennsylvania State University
Areas of Expertise: Education research, program evaluation, equitable and inclusive education environments, professional development

Dr. Susan Groundwater has extensive experience as a K–12 educator, researcher, and consultant. She taught language arts and history at the elementary and secondary levels and held various leadership positions within school districts. In her capacity as a school leader, Dr. Groundwater worked extensively to foster inclusive and equitable learning environments, support student connectedness, and to facilitate culturally and linguistically responsive pedagogical approaches to teaching.

Dr. Groundwater is also an adjunct faculty member at George Mason University where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses that focus on understanding culture and equity-related perspectives on education processes, equity trends and issues in the school setting, disciplinary literacy, and literacy for diverse populations. At Hanover, Dr. Groundwater supports professional learning through the Educator Learning Center, along with members across the country by consulting on equity, program evaluation, and strategic planning. She also develops and manages research agendas on a wide variety of education-related trends, initiatives, and challenges.

“I have always been passionate about student success from both an academic and a social-emotional perspective. My dream is that every child, regardless of identity, experiences instructional excellence in a culturally proficient and welcoming environment, so that he/she has the opportunity to learn, to be an engaged, inspired learner, and ultimately, to become an empowered member of society.”
Educators can create brave space to talk about diversity and equity in and out of the classroom

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