Coming to terms

By Theresa Kelly Gegen
Theresa Kelly Gegen is editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.

It’s a relatable image, and a familiar one to those embarking on a study of equality and equity: three people of different heights, usually children, trying to peer over a fence. What each can see depends on how tall they are and what size boxes they have to boost them.

Heather W. Hackman, a featured speaker at IASB’s upcoming Equity Event, isn’t a fan of this image — she calls it “tired” but for the purposes of dicussion, she’s willing to work with it and, indeed, take it a step farther. If equality is when every child has the same box, and equity is when each has what they need to see, then social justice is getting rid of the boxes and “tearing the fence down.”

Hackman’s team at Hackman Consulting Group has an “unyielding commitment to bringing about equitable and empowering change to organizations, our communities, and our society as a whole.” When she speaks of “The Urgency of Now: Developing and Utilizing an Equity Lens for 21st Century Education,” her work starts with coming to terms with a framework centered on social justice and equity, as opposed to diversity or cultural competency.

“Diversity work is fantastic for what it’s designed to do, and that is to create awareness and appreciation of difference. And we need that in our society,” Hackman says. “But it’s not enough to substitute diversity work for social justice and equity. It’s not a sufficient substitute, because social justice and equity work does what diversity does not: it looks at systems, power, privilege, and access to resources.

Hackman says the same is true for cultural competency — cross-cultural skill development. It’s worthwhile, fantastic, and invaluable in society. But it too, does not look at systems, power, privilege, and access to resources.

The only framework that can address the issues — the big-scale issues like sexism, and classism, and racism, is a social justice and equity framework. That is the pathway to create substantive change, in individuals, in organizations, and in our society as a whole.”

Hackman redefines business-as-usual as institutional racism and acknowledges that it makes people uncomfortable — in having existing systems challenged and in being part of a system that is unjust. But it’s a necessary discomfort.

“Why? The long-term answer is, because this is untenable in education,” Hackman says. “We aren’t learning the real history, we aren’t able to make engaged decisions. We need to drill down into the system and structures, because that’s what’s killing these students.”

Hackman acknowledges another, more practical discomfort: “It’s a lens, not a list. People want a list. Developing a lens is harder than developing a list. We must fundamentally shift how we view these dynamics.”

It’s harder, but for school districts, each in a unique situation relative to equity and social justice work, it’s better.

“Starting in the right spot,” Hackman says, “means every district can engage and work their way into this concept at their local level. The framework and cognition is non-negotiable, but how they apply it is.”