Equity Leadership in Novato, CA

For several years now, Novato Unified School District has embarked on a journey towards equity in education in their community.  This journey began with developing equity consciousness and awareness amongst leaders so that they could look at their school system, identify challenges to student achievement, see how the system is operating all through an equity lens.

To do this well, leaders had to work from the inside out – examining their own racial conditioning, discovering their own biases, and developing a heart and mind based on educational justice. Superintendent Jim Hogeboom has courageously taken leadership for equity at NUSD as evidenced by his November Reflection and is an example of how leaders can use their equity consciousness to take action.  Here’s his November Reflection:

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Lately there have been growing numbers of women who have come forth accusing various men in high profile positions of sexual harassment and sexual abuse.  As a white male in a powerful position as the Superintendent here in Novato Unified, I am more and more cognizant of my responsibility to speak out against not only sexual harassment towards women, but also to act on my commitment to equity and social justice.

Many men don’t realize that women have to live on a daily basis with some level of fear for their safety.  When I go out for a run at night, park in a dark parking lot, or am alone on a street at night and encounter a man, I am not afraid and never have to plan for my escape from a potentially dangerous situation.  Similarly, I have never had someone make discriminatory comments about my gender, put their hand on my knee under the table, or try to physically touch me in a way I felt was inappropriate.  I don’t have to carry pepper spray in my pocket, or be afraid of being overpowered.  While these kinds of things happen to women all the time, as a male I never have to worry about this or deal with the aftermath. I’ve learned that, as men, we may not really understand the impact of this kind of behavior on our female counterparts.

As a white man I also realize that I have been the benefactor of white privilege.  This means that I’ve had a lot of advantages in my life that have helped me and have made my life easier in certain ways.  I first realized this when I was teaching at Tamalpais High School and became friends with my assistant principal, who is African American.  He would share stories of being pulled over in his car by a cop for no reason (and then let go when they realized who he was), followed in a store, and stared at by strangers.  He was often the only African American in the room or meeting, and he knew he was always being judged.  On a daily basis we know that people of color have to put up with a barrage of prejudice and racism, some of it overt and some of it discreet.  As a white male, I have not had to justify why I am in a certain location, what my motives are behind my actions, and I have not been denied access (to housing, loans, property events, etc.) because of the color of my skin.  These occurrences happen every day to our Latino, Asian, Native American and African American brothers and sisters, and they take a toll on one’s self-esteem, sense of worth, and belonging in the world.

Recently a Marin Independent Journal editorial referred to a report from the Advancement Project California which ranked Marin as “the most racially unequal county in California” as measured by seven factors:  democracy, economic opportunity, crime and justice, access to health care, healthy built environments, education and housing.  We see that while Marin is on top in performance in areas like economic opportunity, culture and education for some, there are many more people for whom our system is not working.

What I have learned from my friends of color, from my female friends and from my students is that if I want to make our community a place where all of us feel valued, included and respected, then I MUST act to interrupt situations where racism and sexism are displayed.  It is not enough to be self-aware and to model positive behavior; I have the RESPONSIBILITY to speak up and speak out when I see acts of disrespect and denigration.

As the leader of the largest school district in Marin, I must also act to ensure that those students furthest from opportunity reach their goals no matter how wide the current gaps.  This also points to the responsibility that exists for those of us for whom the system is working to advocate for those for whom the system is not working.  As our NUSD Equity Imperative declares, “Equity in NUSD means ensuring that every student has access to educational opportunities that challenge, inspire, and prepare him or her for a strong future. The educational failure of any one student impacts the entire Novato community.”  We will continue to work with staff and students in our schools to promote equity, respect and acceptance of diversity in all its beautiful forms.

Those of us in positions of power, and those of us, particularly white males, who have benefitted from our positions in the system, have a moral duty, obligation and responsibility to act.  We can no longer stand on the sidelines and tolerate acts of inequality.  It is only through empathy and through action that we can make a difference so that we can ALL share in the promise of a great life here in Novato and in Marin County.

– Jim Hogeboom, Superintendent, Novato Unified School District

About Hugh Vasquez

I am a Senior Associate at the National Equity Project. I work with a range of school district and nonprofit partners to plan and implement racial equity initiatives. I am also a partner with the Center for Diversity Leadership; founder of the Todos Institute in Oakland; presenter with Speak Out; a primary cast member in the award-winning film The Color of Fear; the lead facilitator in the film Skin Deep, a documentary on race relations with college students. I co-authored the books No Boundaries: Unlearning Oppression and Building Multicultural Alliances and Making Allies Making Friends: A Curriculum For Middle Schools, as well as published various articles on strengthening cultural roots and eliminating privileged systems.
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