The Courage to Teach: Part II – Racial Equity Leadership from the Heart, Body and Mind

I was leading a training on “Racial Equity and Educational Leaderhship” a few weeks ago and found myself reading several times from various works of bell hooks. I admire her so much, and in the two times I have met her, even though I rehearsed what I would say (I really wanted to sound intelligent or witty or both), I got so tongue-tied when the moment came that I sounded like a complete goof. But honestly who would not be awkward in the face of the sheer depth of her wisdom, the super nova-like power of her commitment to social justice, and the rock solid certitude she has about education as the practice of freedom. She also happens to be one of the most astute, articulate, and usefully critical thinkers of our time. And so as I was facilitating this full-day training for E-12 educational leaders I found myself reading excerpts of her work regarding the love ethic (All about love: New visions, 2001), educating from the heart (Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom, 1994), and the power of a loving community (Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope, 2003). I tried to underscore these elements as foundational to educational leadership in the 21st century, but in truth it was not my best work (I packed in too much content into too little time– a perennial struggle for me). More importantly, I did not do justice to her message regarding love, connection and community as indispensible to an educational framework that is truly liberatory. And so in this, my second installment of “the courage to teach” series, I will attempt to do what I should have done in that training – leave the “content” for another time and go as deeply as possible into a racial equity educational leadership framework that is about wholeheartedness, being fully embodied, and practicing mindfulness. The three components I outline here are not meant to “replace” other educational leadership frameworks or approaches, but rather are meant to serve as the “Leadership Lens” through which other aspects of educational leadership are executed. Said another way, if these three factors are not in place, then trying to lead a classroom, school or district around racial equity issues will always fall short for a lack of authenticity, a lack of full commitment, and a lack of awareness and understanding. Let me explain…


Leading from the Heart

This is not a new concept in educational leadership, and yet it is often relegated to a secondary status because it is considered too “soft”, not seen as something that can deliver good test scores, and not given validity and centrality in education because it cannot be measured, studied, and then turned into a neat new model. In my teacher education experience, theories, models and frameworks about educational leadership abound (though many are relatively vapid), and yet as each new model is adopted by those in E-12 settings, they never seem to effectively address the age-old struggles in education: gaps between those with resources and those without, gaps based on race regardless of economic factors, an over-emphasis on test scores at the expense of education that inspires, and a constantly increasing commodification of knowledge such that the privatization of education via the corporate sector is no longer a barbarian nibbling at the edge of the empire, but a full on invasion into educational best practices. These problems will not abate by the mere presence of a new educational leadership theory. These are not even the real problems. Instead they are symptoms of something larger and deeper…they are emblematic of an educational system that has lost its way. And I assert here that the path back is not more theory and more testing and more “innovations”, but rather a return to what we all know truly inspires us to learn, grow, push ourselves, support each other, and try again and again to teach and learn to the best of our abilities – I’m talking about leadership from the heart.


When I say “the heart” I am not referring to superficial kindness like the “Minnesota Nice” I have frequently encountered in the 13 years I have lived here. While that somewhat “non-emotional” perspective may work for a homogenous Norwegian, Swedish, German multi-generational experience, it is not well suited to the type of heartfelt connection necessary for educational leadership that can authentically address racial equity issues in education. Moreover educational leadership that is not heart-based cannot bring to bear the full complement of human emotion and connection necessary to overcome the disassociation and disconnectedness that serves Whiteness and furthers racial divisions in our society. Effective racial justice work takes not only “nice” White folks doing good work, it takes authentic, connected White people who can see the issues, and share the heartfelt conviction and commitment with Families and Students of Color (as well as committed White families) to address them. The times when I have been least effective as an educator attempting to do racial equity work had little to do with my grasp of the content and everything to do with the fact that I did not show any heartfelt connection to the issue. My lack of emotional authenticity and affective veracity led Students of Color to rightfully mistrust me and ultimately created distance between myself and those students precisely when the opposite was needed. As bell hooks, suggests, the key to real transformation in education is the re-centering of the heart, of love, and of the best of what makes us human in our educational practice. If the heart is the ultimate terrain of transformational education, then it follows that we should consider what does and does not feed it when it comes to US E-12 education. Heartfelt leadership and a commitment to relationships in an educational setting will most certainly feed an education that reconnects, inspires and supports us all in creating racially just educational spaces. To be sure this is risky business for leaders – fears about how we will be perceived, whether we will be credible, and if staffs will respond are all real. And yet, we cannot let the outdated edifice of “emotion-free” education thwart us from what we know to be right. The terrain of the heart has the capacity to nurture racial equity in ways that no other framework can and that is why Whiteness rewards sterile spaces and sees as inferior the expression of emotion. Let us instead demonstrate courageous leadership and reclaim the centrality of the heart in US education thereby giving our racial equity work the greatest possible chance for success.


At this point you may be thinking that this is such an obvious point that it is unremarkable and not worth blog space or the time it is taking to read it. And yet, while this may seem obvious, it is something that White dominant educational leadership spaces rarely, if ever, embrace in a way that makes dismantling structures of racial oppression possible. In a recent edition of the radio show On Being Bessel van der Klok was being interviewed about trauma and the many ways we can help people heal through it. At one point Dr. van der Klok said that Western society (read White, global northern) is the most emotionally disassociated society in human history. When we place Dr. van der Klok’s comment next to the long history of Western colonization, imperialism, genocide, and exploitation (and within that racism and whiteness) we can see that there is a relationship between these historic patterns and these emotional patterns. I am not suggesting one’s causality of the other (that is too complex of a conversation for this blog) but I am saying that there is a relationship between systems of oppression and emotional disassociation on the part of the Dominant group. And so, if being emotionally “cut off” or unavailable is connected to these oppressive histories in some way, it follows that a challenge to emotionally connect is a challenge to these oppressive dynamics and histories. In this way, heart-based educational leadership for racial equity is more than just “feel good” education, it is a radical departure from the long-standing pattern of Whiteness and Racism within education and is therefore requisite for the end of racial oppression and the beginning of racial equity. So, for every White leader in U.S. E-12 education who has a commitment to racial equity, you simply must have a commitment to leading from and through the heart.


Leading with the Body

If heart were all it took, however, racial equity would have been achieved in many educational settings all over the country. So many teachers and educational leaders are full of love, conviction and passion for what they do. And yet, we still struggle with issues of racial oppression in our schools. I believe this is because this heartfelt conviction is not accompanied by “the body” element. More specifically, I am suggesting that those in educational leadership need to be much more active and present in their commitments to racial equity work. I was in a workshop with Paul Kivel years ago and he asked the question, “What do you stand for?” and had us stand and share with our neighbor what issues and concerns we “stand for”. As you can imagine there was a cacophony of voices easily sharing what we all stood for as educators, community organizers, and activists. He then asked us to answer, “Who do you stand with? (apologies for grammar, but that is how he asked it). Interestingly, there was far less chatter in the room. It took folks a while to gather their thoughts about with whom they stood, or more generally, how they put their previously shared convictions into action.


And this is exactly what I see from so many well-intentioned White leaders in education – they really mean well, their hearts are basically in the right place, and they generally stand for racial equity in schools. But when push comes to shove they do not stand with Students and Families of Color in their classroom, school or district. In the most difficult and challenging moments, White leaders are overcome by fear and, despite their convictions, often back away from the work they are pledging to do saying things like, “our school just isn’t ready for this yet” or “we need to slow down and really think about how we are approaching this and give it a more solid attempt next year”. What is really happening, however, is that these White leaders are succumbing to the insidious tug of Whiteness and the subtle ways it scuttles their ability to truly lead around these issues. This is not solely a cognitive moment. This is about the body. This is about paying attention to the disconnect between words and actions and correcting that mismatch. The difference between White liberalism and true racial equity is mediated by a leader’s answer to these questions: “Do my commitments match my words about racial equity? And do my actions justly represent them both?” I have trained in many schools and districts over the years and in all that time the lack of deep and sustained action on the part of White leaders regarding racial equity is one of the most pernicious problems. White educational leaders must embody an educational leadership that stands with Students and Families of Color. Otherwise, their heartfelt commitment, their racially just mission statements and strategic plans, and their desires to close the race-based achievement gap will never be realized.


Mindful Leadership

And finally, no combination of “heart” and “body” can truly effect change along the lines of racial equity without a clear, critical and powerful mental frame – specifically mindfulness. When I was teaching at the University, and still in trainings today, I often reference Daniel Siegel’s book The Mindful Brain because it has some very useful content regarding how the practice of mindfulness impacts the capacity, chemistry, and balance of the brain and its corresponding ability to learn. Similarly, Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley’s book The Emotional Life of Your Brain supports the notion that mindfulness is really the only choice when addressing challenging and complex life circumstances because it accesses the higher order areas of the brain thereby supporting effective decision-making. And if ever there was a challenging and complex issue in education that requires effective decision-making it is the long-standing specter of racial inequity. Mindfulness supports the heart and body work mentioned above in that it helps us be fully present, more able to access the heart, and more capable of acting upon our best thinking. Mindfulness also aids our ability to think critically and clearly, to see the forest for the trees when it comes to racial equity issues, and to make decisions from our clearest and most focused perspective. More specifically, I have observed in my trainings that mindfulness reduces resistance on the part of everyday White folks and helps them maintain an openness to learn that would typically not be there or not be as accessible to them because of fear, guilt, shame, or resentment. In recent years mindfulness has taken on a more mainstream profile and as a result has been used to describe almost any practice that has one pause for a second and take a deep breath. While this is helpful, there is a difference between this and a dedicated practice regarding mindfulness, and it is the latter that I am encouraging educational leaders to undertake. Heartfelt action without mindfulness runs the risk of “White savior” and can often exacerbate racial issues more than abate them. Accordingly, the element of mindfulness makes space for our best thinking to take root and safeguards the racial justice quality of our educational work.



In summary, I want to suggest that these three aspects of educational leadership for racial equity are equally important, but should be considered in the order I present them here. As stated above, the “heart” is often relegated to the backwater of leadership conversations or is seen as the sole domain of early childhood education and not of middle or secondary education. I contend, however, that to start with the heart insures that the action and decision-making that follows will come from an authentic, connected, and deeply human place. And this is a motivation that can be trusted far more than Minnesota nice or token White liberalism. This foundation lends itself well, then, to a deeper presence and commitment to action for educational leaders that more consistently meets the needs of Students and Families of Color. And finally, a critical race lens as expressed through mindfulness practice ensures that the complexities of Race, Racism and Whiteness are addressed with the fullest breadth and depth. In closing I’ll end where I began, with a (slightly edited) quote from bell hooks, “Awakening to love can happen only as we let go of our obsession with power and domination. … We do this by choosing to work with individuals we admire and respect; by committing to give our all to relationships; by embracing a global vision wherein we see our lives and our fate as intimately connected to those of everyone else on this planet. … Commitment to a love ethic transforms our lives by offering us a different set of values to live by. In large and small ways, we make choices based on a belief that honesty, openness, and personal integrity need to be expressed in public and private decisions” (hooks, 2001). And I contend that in a parallel way, leading by a love ethic – one that is heartfelt, embodied and imbued with mindfulness – can fundamentally transform U.S. E-12 education and bring about racial equity in deep and sustained ways.


hooks, b. (2001). All about love: New visions. New York: Perennial.