Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: What does it mean in schools?

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is a phrase that has become more and more popular as we work to continually improve our school systems. This includes schools and students that historically have been overlooked, inadequately resourced, and marginalized throughout history.

As I reflect on my educational journey (particularly in elementary when I believe I had the greatest level of need as a student) I can confidently say that somehow my teachers got “the DEI thing” right. Even as I reflect, I’m unable to come up with instances where I felt less than or underserved in a classroom. I was a very shy and introverted student attending Waterloo Community Schools, McKinstry Elementary, in the late 80s. I have countless examples of teachers going above and beyond to make sure that I had exactly what I needed to thrive in the educational setting. I was one of the only biracial students in every one of my classes. My kid brother and I were the only two of five biracial kids in our whole school. In addition to this difference, I came from a low-income, single-parent home and experienced many life-altering events during my time at the school.

Let’s explore what diversity, equity and inclusion means.

Diversity, simply put, is the presence of difference. Dealing with human diversity and difference has been an uneasy space historically, but the difference is an unstoppable part of our future as our classrooms are increasingly diverse and demographic shifts assures this trend will continue. In the 80’s, I didn’t fit in with either of the majority groups – black or white. At times, this was made apparent by the kids around me. But it wasn’t just because I looked different, I also didn’t wear the nicest clothes, or live in the nicest house. I came from less and needed more.

Equity involves trying to understand and give each person what they need in order to be successful. This includes providing resources and services that they have not had access to previously. Equity is not the same as equality, as equality only works if everyone starts at the same place, which is not always the case. I didn’t come to school every day prepared to learn. In fact, there were many mornings when I came in hungry or extremely tired, and rather than criticizing me or simply giving me what all other students received, teachers would provide me with what I needed. Seems simple right? Sadly, this isn’t the case for many students across districts in our communities. Equity can easily be confused with equality. Equity focuses on helping people get what they need in order to get to a place where equality is possible. For example, when I was in elementary school, my father passed away. When I returned to school, my teachers formed grief groups to support me. This was equity in action. They created a space for me to process the life I was dealing with in order to learn and efficiently access the tools and materials provided in class.

Inclusion focuses on involving everyone and making sure no one is excluded for their differences, but it’s greater than including diverse groups – It’s going above and beyond to ensure they feel welcomed and feel they are able to participate. I can remember after storytime in Mrs. Linda Watkins’s class one day, she asked me what bedtime was like at my house. This allowed me the opportunity to be a part of the classroom and share my world with the group. What I shared was quite different from the story that was told in the book. In that moment, I felt a sense of belonging and value, rather than the disconnection I felt as the story was read.

Educational pioneer, Rita Pierson said, “Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.” DEI is what saved my life, and when done with intention, could save the lives of so many!

Gina WeekleyGina Weekley is the Coordinator of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion for Central Rivers AEA. She can be reached at gweekley@centralriversaea.org. Central Rivers Area Education Agency provides leadership and service to 53 public and 18 non-public schools in an 18-county area of north central Iowa. Learn more at www.centralriversaea.org.