Equity-Centered Leadership—What Is It? And How Is It Cultivated?

Equity-centered leadership: From awareness to commitment

We’ve all admired leaders who are willing to ask the tough questions, challenge the status quo when it isn’t working, and call out long-standing biases, even when it’s uncomfortable. What enables these leaders to do so? And how can you become that kind of leader?

These leaders are equity-centered, or what UCLA professor of education Pedro Noguera calls “guardians of equity.” In other words, they have equity at the core of all their work.

In the context of this discussion, what is equity? (We’re going to be using equity in education as our example setting, but these principles apply to many different contexts.) UNESCO’s “Handbook on Measuring Equity in Education,” says that equity “considers the social justice ramifications of education in relation to the fairness, justness and impartiality of its distribution at all levels or educational sub-sectors.” And according to the handbook, equity is measurable, which is extremely valuable as it allows us to make comparisons of equity.  

Although these measurements are important, leaders should go beyond just tracking metrics on equity issues, equity is also a felt and lived experience. That’s why social-emotional learning is vital to improving the culture of organizations. 

How do you become an equity-centered leader?

This requires some introspection from those of us in leadership roles. Of course, most leaders have little time to spend reflecting on their personal relationship with issues of equity. However, it’s vital that we become aware of how our identity and experiences shape our approach to issues of equity. Why? Because we can not disrupt inequities if we don’t understand our relationship to them. 

That’s why Laura Aguada-Hallberg, the Interim Assistant Dean for Learning, Leadership, & Change Programs at the University of the Pacific, and I developed a five-step process for “equicentric” leaders. The goal of this process is to empower and support leaders as they take their self-reflective journey toward equity-centered leadership.

There are five processes that fuel this “equicentric” leadership model: name it, activate self-awareness, remember the past, commit to change, and schedule self-care. Let’s discuss the first process. 

Step One in the Equicentric Leadership Model: Name It

This first step is all about reflecting on and naming our experiences—especially the ones that relate to our perception of equity. We do this by trying to “step outside of ourselves” and look back to see our life with fresh eyes. When we do this it becomes easier to name our experiences in ways that resonate with the experiences of others.

When we work with leaders on this step, we ask them to list all the elements that define their identity and to name as many as they can. Then, we ask them: “What connections are you making between your identity, your culture and our previous conversation about the definitions of equality, fairness, and equity?” 

Finally, they create their own categories and labels for their identity and experiences. We ask the participants to identify things like gender, cultural background, and job title that contribute to how they see the world and how the world sees them. Leaders must acknowledge, accept, and recognize these influences in order to understand and lead others. 

During this step, it’s important to identify all of your labels, every category you fit in, and use them as a critical entry point to begin to understand who you are. In leadership discussions, I often encounter microaggressions that reflect a lack of awareness. For example, a leader might say, “I was raised by a single mom and I was able to achieve this goal, so others should be able to do the same.” This simplification that reduces all experiences into singular aspects of a person can be harmful to others in both action and policy. Without a deeper awareness of the many contributing factors that make up oneself, a true understanding of others is much more difficult. 

The next step toward becoming a more equity-centered leader is to activate self-awareness. We’ll be discussing this, in a future post on equity-centered leadership. Equity centered leadership coaching is an integral part of my work at the Center for Learning Leaders. If you’re ready to make sustainable changes and lead with intention, integrity, and in alignment with your purpose, please contact me.

Louise J Santiago, PhD
Executive Coach and Organizational Consultant

Where Leadership is Intentional Work

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