My community—the Latinx community—is the fastest-growing population in the U.S, accounting for 52% of growth in the last decade. Latinx students currently represent nearly one in three K-12 students. However, the education sector fails to validate the identities of and serve this growing population of students.
Daily interactions and experiences within classrooms and schools implicitly and explicitly reinforce racial hierarchies. From disproportionate discipline and special education rates to a lack of representation in curriculum and teacher and leadership positions, education systems succeed at sustaining, rather than dismantling inequities.
Research is clear that when educators represent the students they serve, all students benefit across academic achievement, school discipline, and long-term educational attainment. Yet, for decades, 80% or more K-12 teachers have identified as white and Latinx students are least likely to have a teacher of their same racial or ethnic group.
This was my experience. My first Latinx teacher was in college—when I chose to minor in U.S. Latino Studies. In the 13 years prior, well-intended white teachers regularly marginalized me. One of my biggest lessons was how to cover meaningful parts of my identity and how to survive microaggressions. I’ve been using these skills ever since because these deep-seated injustices are also a problem in the workplace, especially at the very top levels of organizations.
A new study from my organization, Promise54, finds that education organizations (including schools, universities, foundations, and nonprofits) remain grossly unrepresentative of the students served. For example, CEO and leadership teams are overwhelmingly white. In 2020, 75% of CEOs, 67% of board members, and 65% of executive teams identified as white. Not much has changed since 2016, where numbers were 74%, 67%, and 63%, respectively. The greatest disparity is among the Latinx community: Latinx students comprise 39% of our sample, but only 8% of organizational leadership.
These aren’t just numbers. Across my more than 20-year career, every single CEO I worked for identified as white. The internal environments at these organizations were anchored in white supremacy culture with sterile definitions of professionalism, devoid of vulnerability and emotion. Efficiency and urgency won over authentic relationships and engagement. Trust was regularly breached and transparency was a luxury only afforded to the lucky few, often white, leaders at the top.
I hid aspects of my Puerto Rican culture, my marriage to my wife, and my weaknesses, insecurities, and fears. I was careful about pictures displayed on my desk or discussions about my weekend. I removed my big, hoop earrings and stowed away my bright, colorful clothing. I slowed the pace of my speech, decreased the volume of my voice, and tucked my hands in my pockets. Instead, I highlighted my elite academic background and formal credentials. I allowed colleagues to shorten my name to protect them from the discomfort of learning to pronounce it. This sort of covering and assimilation is the daily reality for people of color in the workplace.
Now I’m the CEO, proud to identify as a Latinx queer woman, working to address identity-based oppression and replace it with alternate paradigms.
Deconstructing white supremacy is everyone’s work. In fact, those with identity-based privilege and positional power—as in the case of white CEOs—hold a disproportionate responsibility to interrupt such structures. Luckily, this is a solvable problem at the CEO and leadership team level, as well as in classrooms and schools. But we must be courageous enough to do so.
In order to share power across racial lines, the entire workforce—including leadership teams, CEOs, and boards—must be diversified. To support, develop, and retain a diverse workforce and more effectively serve a diverse student population, diversifying hiring must come with a parallel strategy for increasing inclusion and equity.
An exclusive focus on diversity results in a revolving door phenomenon where new staff members leave a few years after being hired, having realized the organization was not “ready to receive them.” Staff with historically marginalized identities experience these organizations as assimilationist, expecting a more diverse group of staff to align to the status quo.
Sustainable change requires shifts in organizations and institutions themselves. This work starts by looking internally to identify where white supremacy is being tolerated and perpetuated through behaviors, habits, cultural norms and expectations. From there, organizations must build the skill to interrupt and change structures, policies and practices to create the conditions where all teachers and leaders of color feel welcomed, supported, and can thrive—free from oppression. Promise54 is one of a number of nonprofits partnering with organizations across the country, especially those focused on social justice, to advance this critical work.
Shifting the tide will require us each to hold ourselves accountable in our interactions, teams, classrooms, schools, and organizations.
And we must.
When adults are supported they can do their best work and deliver on their organization’s mission. That in turn, will enable students to learn and thrive.