Designing the Future: The Power of a Proactive Equity Practice

A conversation with Caroline Hill, Founder, 228 Accelerator

In your work with schools and education organizations at 228 Accelerator, you prioritize proactive equity work. Before we get into that, how would you characterize reactive equity work?

Reactive equity work is not necessarily being intentional about the relationships and the way people interact in organizations. It’s assuming that things are just going to play out a certain way, and then when the data identifies that there’s a problem, we’ll address it. It’s more like, “I’m going to look at discipline once I have a discipline problem.” “Once my suspension data spikes, then I’m going to start looking into restorative practices.” I think it’s this perspective that as long as there’s no data (or at least data that we recognize) to tell the story, we’re going to assume that there’s no story to tell. But if we’re going to be proactive about equity work, we should always assume that there’s a story to tell, even if we don’t immediately see the evidence to tell it just because of the context in which we’re working.

So the proactive way of doing equity work involves starting from the knowledge that we live in a society permeated by racism and bigotry, so we should be looking to combat or control for that in every action — no matter whether there’s an “incident” or not.

Yes. And to add to that, our culture has a track record of devaluing difference, especially Black difference. If we know that’s the case, why wait for it to happen? We can actively design for courage, integration, and repair. Why not plan a response to that, including the discomfort we know will come with it, from the beginning? 

What are some examples of reactive equity work? How can we recognize it when we see it?

I think it shows up in when people call in a consultant to say, “Hey, we have a problem: We don’t have any teachers of color,” or “We have students that are getting suspended.” And yes, those are problems, and it’s important to be aware of those issues. That’s a step in the process of doing this work. But if we only react to problems without thinking proactively about the world we want to create, we’ll just continue to reproduce versions of the world we already have. Reactivity keeps us in a place where we’re solving a problem within the frame of the current world rather than trying to create something fundamentally different. When we react only within the frame of the problem we currently see, we also keep the solution within those boundaries.

What about proactive equity work? How do we go from reactive to proactive?

It’s first about reframing your thinking around a vision for what you want to create rather than a current problem you want to solve. Identifying a problem can be a helpful tool for carving out your vision, but ultimately I think the problems we try to address reactively through equity work are just components of the bigger vision we want to bring to life. Is our big vision for our kids’ future only that there will be more teachers of color in the classroom? I would argue that having more teachers of color in the classroom is actually a byproduct of the bigger vision that we need to center on. Through a proactive lens, maybe our goal is actually to do something like create global citizens who can work across lines of difference. Then we can then say, “Well, what curriculum would be required for that? What systems need to be in place? What teachers do kids need to see in order to bring to life the world we’re trying to create?” We can look at the past and present to inform our vision of what the future can and should look like, and then actively design it ourselves.

I think it’s important to remember, too, that proactive and reactive approaches can sometimes look similar at first glance. You might be doing some of the same things in both cases (like having more teachers of color). But the difference is the thinking behind it and the possibilities proactivity opens us up to in terms of designing the future we want to see. 

I’ll give you an example. I’m reading a book called Laboratory of Learning about the pedagogy of certain schools in the segregated south. It also explores what teachers did to make sure students understood their role of citizens, and there’s a chapter called “You Were Raised to Disrupt.” In this school, students were explicitly taught that their job was to fight for justice. They were taught that they could do that from the court as a basketball player, from the classroom as a teacher, or any way they chose from whatever path they took, but they knew that this was their job and they knew why.

It’s not that that school looked fundamentally different from any other school. But the students who came out of it came into the world prepared to make change and take ownership. The school had clear intentionality around preparing students not to accept the world as it was but to have an opinion on what it should be — and then to make that change. That’s proactive equity work.

What can people do on a daily basis to adopt a proactive mentality in their own lives and work?

First, I would say reclaim your time to think and be silent. Learn to relax and be still — which is hard, because our culture prides itself on being busy. But as long as you’re busy, you’re in a reactive state.

And second, practice asking yourself whether you’re solving problems within our current framework or building to a new future. Start from your vision. What do you want to be true of the world in five or ten years? Once you know that, start working backwards. What needs to be true in one year for that to happen? Six months? Tomorrow?