From the Blog

Learning to Become a White Leader Working Toward Equity

by Mark Kostin 

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I am White. I am male. And I serve as the associate director of the Great Schools Partnership. I am a work in progress. This is hard for me to say. I grew up in an environment where I felt much was expected. While certain concepts and skills seemed to come naturally to me—speaking in front of a group, multi-tasking, balancing chemical equations—working long and hard hours seemed to make up for any innate talents I didn’t possess. Among the unspoken values in our family were work hard, do good work, make a difference, and strive for perfection. As the oldest child in our family, I also found myself thrust into problem-solving and peace-making roles.

For the last 13 years, I’ve provided direct support, facilitation, and critical friendship to schools, communities, and organizations in and beyond New England. While I initially joked that I had become the real life character from Peter Sellers’ classic film Being There, literally stumbling into a role I wasn’t qualified for, I embraced this growth opportunity and went about proving my appointment wasn’t just a fluke.

I carried and amplified many of the traits I felt had helped me along the way into my new role. Here’s what I understood leaders do: we are available, we solve problems, we work long hours, and we have the final word. My upbringing—the leaders I read about, many of the leaders I knew—all pointed to the image of leader as hero. While I didn’t understand it at the time, I would come to see the many inequities inherent to this way of thinking.

Since the founding of the Great Schools Partnership in 2007, we’ve held equity up as one of our pillars. Since then, we have spent time and energy to unpack what this means and how it should guide our work with schools. Over the last five years, we have been privileged to work with facilitators and organizations who have examined our work, served as critical friends, shared powerful resources, and asked us very hard questions. During this time we grew in size and welcomed colleagues of color. The learning experiences we have had together, the workshops we have participated in, the texts we have read, the conversations we have had made me realize not only that I have much to learn, but that the very traits of leadership to which I aspired work counter to our equity work.

As I’ve reflected on my personal and professional equity journey, I’ve had to critically examine and question many of the assumptions I’ve held about what it means to be a leader. As a result, my views on leadership have changed. Here’s just some of what I’ve learned on my journey:

  • What people share with you is their truth. Don’t diminish or ignore it. Don’t assume you know what they mean. Don’t make it about you. Don’t get defensive. When someone shares their experience, their perspective, and how an idea lands with them, recognize that this is a gift. It’s not about you. Take it as an opportunity to learn. Continue to find ways to create and sustain the conditions where your colleagues feel safe and supported to share their truths. Embracing equity means that honoring and valuing everyone’s perspectives and experiences and acknowledging that your own is merely one of them.
  • Avoid stepping into problem solving mode. Don’t assume that someone sharing their experience with you is expecting you to solve their problem. A mistake I have made often is thinking that my role, especially when a conflict or difficult situation has arisen, is to make things better. This kind of leadership move comes from a more “heroic” standpoint and is the vestige of a culture that seeks not to learn and grow, but simply to power through and move on. Expecting and experiencing discomfort—not avoiding the issue or trying to force a resolution—is critical to fostering equity in any and all environments.
  • Don’t hide your vulnerability. In my work as a school coach, we sometimes use the phrase, “They don’t know what they don’t know.” This is used in reference to someone who doesn’t see or understand what they are doing—or choosing not to do—is either harmful or ineffective. The only way I am going to get better at recognizing implicit bias, subtle exertions of power, crafty attempts to bully or shut down others, and many other types of harmful actions, is to accept that I don’t know what I don’t know. I am grateful to the colleagues and partners I consider allies who support my learning every day. I know that if I come across as arrogant, uninterested, or defensive, I’d miss out on the countless lessons I have learned because of my commitment to being vulnerable as a learner. Admitting to yourself that there is much to learn and seeking and welcoming your colleagues’ feedback, perspectives, and ideas is necessary to grow as a leader.
  • Acknowledge your power and privilege. Regardless of how confident or comfortable you are in your role as a leader, never fail to recognize that because of that role, you have power. And that power will likely influence your interactions with your colleagues, what they share with you, and how comfortable they will feel around you. If, like me, you are white, male, middle aged, credentialed, and have financial means, recognize that each of these features likely made it easier for you to acquire that power. I try hard to not be the first person to speak in meetings. I’m careful not to paternalistically summarize or restate what someone else has said. There are many ways to acknowledge your power and privilege; the important thing is that you do so.

When I began my career more than 30 years ago, I would have assumed that I’d know more, have more tools, and be more skilled at this stage. What I realize now, in light of the equity journey I am on, is that it’s not only okay to not know everything, it’s vital to recognize that you never stop learning. As a leader, that’s probably the most important message of all.

I am, and will always be, a work in progress.