Are EDI initiatives enough to chart new futures in education and schooling?
This question above about Equity Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) is the starting point of OISE professor Ann Lopez’ virtual lecture, facilitated by the University of Toronto’s alumni association, which took place on November 18. Dr. Lopez is a professor at University of Toronto OISE’s Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education. Her teaching, research, and publications focus on antiracist, decolonizing, culturally responsive and socially just leadership in education and schooling.
Equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives are becoming more widespread in education and schooling, but Dr. Lopez’ lecture title raises the question of whether they are successful in bringing the structural change that is wanted and needed in educational spaces, or whether they just keep things as they are, with short-term measures.
EDI initiatives have recently gained support as our student populations become more diverse. These initiatives are recognized as important to improve outcomes for underserved groups of learners. They challenge us to ask what can be done to confront the status quo and to change the landscape of inequity and injustice. EDI initiatives have also evolved as a response to the anti-Asian racism observed as COVID-19 emerged, and following the conversations related to anti-Black racism, following the killing of George Floyd. She describes, a “cross-racial solidarity” at the time for people from all groups advocating for justice and calling out inequities in education. It was great to see organizations responding by making greater commitments to equity and diversity.
Is it enough? Lopez cautions that in order to achieve outcomes, EDI initiatives must avoid representation that comes without power. A school board for example, might hire different people of colour to fill important roles, but nothing substantial changes. A change in faces but not in policies or practices is strictly performative and becomes a “feel good” exercise. In order to effect change, any increased representation must be accompanied by the power to make structural changes, meaning that hiring more people of colour is only a starting point.
The lecture also stressed that lack of criticality can impede change. In order to fix a problem, it must be named. It becomes important, as part of the process of challenging injustice, to name forms of oppression. These types of conversations can lead to discomfort and resistance as structures of power and privilege are discussed. For example, to improve outcomes for underserved students, curriculum, pedagogy, disciplinary policies, as well as readings, must better reflect their experiences and backgrounds, which requires a significant, systemic shift. Some groups may resist the initiatives as they perhaps have to learn in new ways, unlearn prior behaviours, and give up some of their privilege.
Finally, Professor Lopez raises the question of accountability. Who is responsible to ensure that actions are taken? Without accountability, EDI initiatives may remain a mission statement with endless committee meetings that only lead to more talk. Accountability should be entrenched so that the theoretical is turned into a long-term sustainable practice. There needs to be answers to the questions of: what practices and policies have changed? What is the impact on those who have been excluded or marginalized? Does everyone feel valued and included in the space?
She presented some “think abouts” school boards and other agencies need to consider when addressing equity, diversity and inclusion:
- Frame initiatives using an anti-oppression lens. For example, consider ways in which students might be marginalized in areas like discipline. Are we affected by bias when considering certain kinds of behaviour? Do their families feel welcome in their school?
- What policies and practices have changed? What is the impact of that on people who have been excluded and ignored? Do we see this in examples like curricular or pedagogical change? Are students reading books more suited for diversity and inclusion?
- Pay attention to the voices of people included and excluded in a situation or space. What do we need to learn about the people who don’t have power? How do we make sure they have been heard and understood?
Therefore, no – EDI initiatives are not enough. They must guarantee that representation comes with power; they must examine relationships with communities to foster a sense of belonging, and address inequities through lasting change in policies and practices, with accountability.
Susan Atkins is a retired Toronto teacher .