Building a Brave/R Space for Racial Equity: An Interview with LISD's New Chief of Equity and Innovation, Shawn Lassiter

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Shawn Lassiter, Leadership ISD’s new Chief of Equity and Innovation, sat down with the Leadership ISD team for an interview to share her journey with Leadership ISD, her own story in regards to public education and racial equity, and some words of wisdom as we do this work together.

LISD: How did you get involved in Leadership ISD? What were some of your key takeaways from your Fellowship experience? 

Shawn Lassiter (SL): I got involved with Leadership ISD about 2 years ago. I was looking for an opportunity to engage with people in the city who had a real interest in advocating for and talking about equity in public education. I joined the Class of 2018 cohort, and that’s how I was first introduced to LISD.

The Fellowship was an interesting experience because it was grounded in equity. Every one of our sessions was beautifully planned and gave really good information. The one thing I struggled with during the Fellowship was that I didn’t see enough isolating race in our conversations. We didn’t talk deeply about race and how it showed up as we were learning how to be advocates for equity. So, my Fellows and I thought a lot about it and consistently raised the question of how race impacts public education. We loved the Fellowship, and we loved what we were learning and how we were taking action. We also really wanted it to help us to dig in and navigate through the realities of the impact of race on our education system. 

What I got out of the Fellowship was an amazing opportunity; an experience to network with people and also to learn the pieces of the education system that you don’t get even as a teacher, administrator, or working at the district office. I was able to truly deepen my understanding of the systemic pieces of public education, like governance and school finance, and how all of those things worked and impacted our kids. What I wanted more of, for ourselves and for the Fellows after me, was to be equipped with making the connection between equity and race. That started me on my journey of working with staff members at Leadership ISD to talk about what would that look like and how could I support the next Fellowship and beyond. I started facilitation sessions for the next year’s Civic Voices Fellowship and now I have joined the team to do the work of racial equity organizationally! 

LISD: What has your personal journey entailed in regards to racial equity? How has that journey transformed the way you connect to public education?

SL: Starting off as a teacher, I saw, up close and personally, the realities of how race impacted education. I just wanted to make sure that my black and brown students, in particular, had the same opportunities that I would watch the white students have in terms of access to AP classes, access to support for testing, etc. So, a lot of my advocacy was as a teacher and it was very personal. At that point, it was me and my students battling against the school, the campus. But as I started to grow, I realized that this journey had to start with a personal revolution. It was a moment of reckoning where I realized that I had to first come to terms with what race meant to me as a person before I really connected it to what it would mean to me as a teacher or an educator. So, I started my personal journey, and it was then that I realized that  what I was seeing in my classroom was bigger than the campus, it was the system itself. It was the way schools were run, it was systemic racism. 

Once I came to that realization, I was like woah, right. The fight, the advocacy, the battle is us against the system. I began to ask myself, how do we start to dismantle these systems that have not served our students well, particularly our black and brown students? That led me from my work in the classroom to working with principals and groups of teachers, collaborating with them to think about how to help push this journey along so that all kids can succeed? That exploration moved me to the district level of this work, investing in educators and administrators and supporting their personal revolutions. In the last year, I’ve begun to deeply explore governance and how elected officials, especially our school boards, show up to address systemic racism. This dismantling needs to be on a policy level, but also needs to focus on building up the coalitions to actually do the work of implementation and community engagement in this process. 

So, it’s been full circle. It’s been my growth from teaching in the classroom all the way to what people would consider the top, examining our systems of governance. I used to look for the space in between the ground and the sky, the ground being the teacher and the sky being the policy and governance space. However, what I’ve come to understand more and more is that we all have a responsibility to do this work. We all have to bring our own stories, experiences, and be willing to join the fight from wherever we are. We must ask ourselves, how do we affect change no matter where we enter from? Then, let’s connect the dots within a system. We cannot accomplish the tall task of dismantling the system with just one particular teacher or one particular board member. It’s going to take everyone diving in, building our coalitions together so that we can work together to do what’s right for kids. 

LISD: As the Chief of Equity and Innovation for Leadership ISD, what do you hope to see for our organization? What are some of our greatest challenges? What are some of our greatest opportunities? 

I believe that Leadership ISD is one of the most unique spaces in the world of education and racial equity because of our belief that we all have the responsibility to show up in this work, starting with our personal journeys. So, as I begin my work as Chief of Equity and Innovation and we do this work collectively, we have to begin to live and breathe and walk what we say we want other people to do. The internal transformation of our organization has been my top priority. I’ve been working to figure out how we can build systems that model what it looks like to be an organization that not only just says we believe racial equity is important for our public schools, but that we believe it is essential to the core of our organization. The reason why the title is “Chief of Equity and Innovation” is because you can’t fight to dismantle systems without having a mindset of innovation, imagining something that doesn’t exist yet. In order to truly innovate around systems change and not perpetuate systemic racism, we have to dare to imagine solutions that may not exist yet. To me, that’s the core of innovation. It’s asking: how can we center people in our mission? Do we show up every day to work, to advocacy, to governance, by honoring humans? Then, putting humans at the center of our work and building all of our systems around people. Every day, we’re going to show up to do this hard work of fighting for equitable policies and practices for kids and exemplify what it means to transform our organization around racial equity.  

LISD: How can our stakeholders - our Fellows, our alumni, school boards, our partners, etc. - deepen their commitment to racial equity?

The first step to begin this work of racial equity is deciding that we, as a generation, can no longer accept just being non-racist. We have to move ourselves from being non-racist to anti-racist, meaning that we have to actively work against the systems and policies that have long upheld racism in our country. But what does this really look like and mean and how do we move into that space? 

When I think about what it means to be anti-racist, I think about years ago when the campaign around anti-bullying was spearheaded in schools. We had posters and campaigns and put a lot of money behind moving our schools into safer spaces for kids. We asked students, young students, to not just sit around and be a non-bully. They couldn’t just stand against the lockers and witness someone bullying someone else. Instead, we as adults put a hard charge on kids that if they saw something, they had to say something. For a lot of kids, that even went against cultural norms. I always think about the comment that our kids say, “snitches get stitches”. It went against their cultural norms to tell someone about the bullying, but we as adults implored them to do so in order to make their schools safe for everyone. 

I take this lesson and I go into spaces with adults and say, hey guys, we can no longer be bystanders against the locker who hope that the bullying will stop, but not take any action. We can’t just sit back and watch this system consistently perpetuate disproportionate achievement rates based on race; if we see something, we’ve got to say something. We’ve got to move from being non-racist to anti-racist. It is that personal commitment to show up every day and shift ourselves from being non-racist to anti-racist. It is that commitment to show up, to start the personal transformation journey, and to commit to this work of advocacy that is truly rooted in racial equity. If we can do that, if we can bring ourselves bravely to this work, then we can start to radically change outcomes for our kids. 

LISD: Any final words of wisdom or advice? 

If I could do anything in this work, right now, my goal would be to raise everyone’s racial consciousness in order to develop an anti-racist culture in our community. That is my goal with our Fellows, alums, school boards, partners, and stakeholders. What I’ve learned doing this work and facilitating racial equity is that we all show up to the table with different muscles. As a black woman, having grown up as a little black girl, I’ve known I was black for a long time. My muscle around race and racial issues and racial conversations is pretty big. Sometimes it even gets to the point of fatigue, and I know that. When I’m in a room facilitating, I’m aware that some people are showing up with a really big muscles around race. Other people are just coming into their journey, they’re just finding out that they are even a racial being. So, their muscle around race is pretty small, and can be fragile. My job during these moments in working with our Fellows and our stakeholders is to continue to build conditions in a room where everyone can come and work out. Then, we can begin to build a coalition of multi-racial, multicultural, multi-generational people that are willing to be even braver when it comes to advocating for racial equity for our students in this education system.

LISD: Thank you, Shawn, for your thoughts and insights. We appreciate all that you have given to our organization as a Fellow and alumna and are thrilled to have you on our team! 

Shawn Lassiter is Leadership ISD’s Chief of Equity and Innovation. Stay tuned for more opportunities to learn from Shawn, including upcoming training opportunities across the state.