The powerful leadership schools and students need
"There's a weaving that happens," says Dr. Tanisha Brandon-Felder, Shoreline School District Director of Equitable Leadership, Pedagogy and Family Engagement. "Stepping stones, mentoring, conversations outside of structured spaces, thinking past positions, roles and responsibilities to have a vision."
For instance, Brandon-Felder's leadership in an equity committee with 50 stakeholders led to her district adopting a Race and Equity Policy in 2017. In addition, the Equity Advisory Team she facilitiates adopted a decision-making tool designed to improve anti-racist practices and increase equity awareness that was recognized by the Office of Superindendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) as an example for use statewide.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, she and Shorewood High School Principal Melyssa Stone worked to get more books in kids' hands when schools closed. This work was part of Shoreline's Black Voices initiative, an effort they helped to spearhead before the pandemic. Stone has a diverse background in music education and vocal performance, along with many years leading within the Shoreline School District as dean of students and now as an assistant principal.
Another visionary educator at work on this weaving is Dr. Dedy Fauntleroy. She brings her bold and sensitive leadership to her position as the principal of Northgate Elementary. Soon to be James Baldwin Elementary, the entire school is undergoing a complete transformation with a new building, playground, community spaces and art installation reflecting the input, contributions and identities of staff, students and community members.
Fauntleroy has also been a vital mentor to Rena Deese, the principal of Graham Hill Elementary. This support strengthened Deese when she was new to the principal role and continues to fortify her as she works to enact changes that reflect what the school’s community wants for its children. "Principals of color are constantly put into positions where we are stretched to our breaking point," she says. "We are constantly playing the balancing act of being true to ourselves while trying to navigate and push systems."
Principals of color are constantly put into positions where we are stretched to our breaking point. We are constantly playing the balancing act of being true to ourselves while trying to navigate and push systems.
Deese describes the feelings of isolation during her first year and the person who ensured that she's still doing the hard work today. "I would turn around and Dedy was standing there, ready to give me a hug and check on how I was doing. I would not have survived that year without her."
At a time when society needs radical changes to rectify its inequities, Brandon-Felder, Stone, Fauntleroy and Deese increase the brilliance in ways that move school systems, students and communities closer to a thriving collective future. Just as critical, this boundary-pushing leadership also extends to the ways these women support one another.
All four graduated from a University of Washington P-12 Leadership Program, either Danforth, for educators who want to become principals and administrators, or Leadership for Learning (L4L), a doctorate program that also leads to a superintendent credential for current professionals in K-12 school systems, or both. While Brandon-Felder and Stone found one another in the Shoreline School District, Danforth Director Dr. Ann O'Doherty intentionally paired Fauntleroy as a yearlong coach for Deese during her first year as a principal. All talk about the essential support they receive from each other, and the values and supportive relationships developed in the UW programs to their journeys in leading systemic educational change.
To be clear, these women were brilliant leaders prior to their involvement with the UW programs, and there are no shortage of other leaders like them. “I’m trying to engage with community leaders and educators who are from and of and for communities in Washington,” says L4L Director Dr. Anthony Craig. “People come to the UW programs already powerful and knowledgeable. Part of what we are doing is building a collective that changes the kind of work we can do.”
People come to the UW programs already powerful and knowledgeable. Part of what we are doing is building a collective that changes the kind of work we can do.
“We recruit people into our program who are representative of our state and then learn with humility,” says O'Doherty. “Some of the readings and stances were very much white Euro-centric Western philosophy, and you can't work with a diverse group of people and teach how you used to teach and what you used to teach. It needs to be far more relational.”
Collective knowledge-building and supportive relationships expand the human capacity to imagine and then create new ways forward. And it's the kind of change that’s often not welcomed or understood within confining dominant frameworks.
Brandon-Felder describes the feeling she and Stone had of pushing up against expectations. "There were moments when we entered a room and asked ourselves, 'Do we sit together or not?' because people will make assumptions about who we are together and separately. Then we became unapologetic about taking up all the space we needed and not asking for permission."
“Diversity and diversifying pathways is problematic when you only apply Western knowledge,” says Craig. “Too often, programs or districts want to increase the numbers but don’t move beyond checking a box. This leaves many in the field with a sour taste in our mouths.” He references the book Stuck Improving by Decoteau Irby and the idea of influential presence and the power of a diversity of knowledge, energies, skills and imaginations.
"There are a multitude of us fully available with good opportunities to give resources for our youth,” says Brandon-Felder, “And our education system has lots of work to do to hold onto that and care for it as it needs to be cared for."
"I'm beyond proud of the ways our school community is building new ways of doing business," says Deese. "We are a community that is pushing boundaries and setting new paths towards a better future for our students."
Stone describes the kinds of books she and Brandon-Felder worked to acquire as they collaborated during the pandemic. "Books that tell a different story of what Blackness is, books by Black authors about people being Black, not having to be assassinated, or superheroes, just in middle school navigating relationships," she says. "We need to be aware through a decolonizing lens of what we are putting in the minds and hearts of our students."
We need to be aware through a decolonizing lens of what we are putting in the minds and hearts of our students.
In partnership with Washington Ethnic Studies Now, Brandon-Felder has also organized and co-facilitiated an international and sustainable Ethnic Studies Fellows Program in their school district. So far more than 80 educators have completed the year-long program to explore Black Lives, Indigenous perspectives and histories, the Asian American Experience on the West Coast, and Mexican American/Latinx Studies.
They are following in the footsteps of countless others before them. Fauntleroy talks about the eye-opening historical education module taught by UW Professor Nancy Beadie.
"Before Brown v. Board of Education, and despite all the disparities and inequities, there were successful Black schools with successful teachers," she says. "They knew how to reach their students. For the last 50 to 60 years, we have been trying to rebuild that pipeline of Black and brown educators shunned by the education system."
Danforth and L4L want to be part of that rebuilding in Washington state. “Right now, we’re 70% Black and Indigenous or people of color,” says Craig of L4L. Danforth is around 60%. “It’s not a random group of people,” he explains. “It’s a cohort model that builds collective leaders who learn together and take action simultaneously, working to enact the leadership in the here and now that makes those more just futures possible.”
Case in point, Brandon-Felder and Fauntleroy both teach in the UW programs they graduated from. Fauntleroy and co-teacher Catherine Brown have revamped a Danforth communication and conflict module to include more about antiracist practices. Now in her seventh year as principal, Deese has two Danforth interns. "I'm determined to do for them what Dedy has done for me," she says.
Another key part of this leadership includes firing up students’ imaginations as they become the next generation of leaders. They are the ones who will benefit from and carry on this legacy work.
Fauntleroy tells the story of one young student she shadowed as she earned her doctorate at the UW. "When he found out I was going to be a doctor, he was like, 'What?! Why are you still here?'" When she explained that she was applying her knowledge to increase equity in schools, he was inspired. "He thought that was pretty awesome," she says, with his ideas of potential career options suddenly expanded.
"I've been getting texts from my former students," says Stone. "Some have graduated high school on the Dean's list or are in college joining Black sororities, becoming a labor and delivery nurse, finding their way and connection points, because we're breaking down barriers and holding doors open."
Charleen Wilcox, Director for Marketing & Communications, firstname.lastname@example.org