The Oval in fall

The killing of George Floyd in 2020 sparked a renewed conversation about race and generated enthusiasm and calls for meaningful action on a scale not seen in decades. Organizations across the United States looked inward at race and inequality and their impact on employees, customers, constituents and clients — and they began to take action.

School districts were no exception. Diversity initiatives were rolled out; positions for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) leaders were created, or existing DEI responsibilities more clearly defined, and expectations for positive change were established.

John Rensink
John Rensink

“After George Floyd’s murder, districts said ‘Let’s hire a chief diversity or chief equity officer to lead these efforts,’ but many times there wasn’t a lot of structure in their roles,” said John Rensink, senior director of the BRIGHT Initiative at Ohio State. “This renewed focus had these individuals grappling with questions like ‘What is our DEI focus in this district? What support or structure do we have or need? How do we define success?’”

The Leading Anti-Racism Change in Education program is helping public school districts address those questions. Supported by a $50,000 grant from The Ohio State University’s Seed Fund for Racial Justice, the pilot program is a collaboration between Fisher and the College of Education and Human Ecology (EHE).

Over the next calendar year, leaders from public school districts in central Ohio will work with Fisher and EHE faculty to better understand how to lead anti-racism change in K-12 schools. As part of the program, each district will receive coaching on a project that addresses a challenge or need unique to its community. The program kicked off in August with the Leading Anti-Racism Change in Education Summer Institute.

Noelle Arnold
Noelle Arnold

“Nationwide, the K-12 student population is growing in racial and cultural diversity, but the teacher workforce remains largely white,” said Noelle Arnold, senior associate dean at EHE and principle investigator with the new program.

“For example, in Ohio, roughly 106,000 teachers are employed across the state; of these, 92% (over 98,000) are white. By contrast, Ohio’s student population is approximately 70% white and 30% students of color. These dynamics, along with recent racial and social unrest across the country, prompted many schools to hire diversity and equity officers to address bias and racism in schools and lead work to bring about change.”

Faculty from EHE will provide education-specific insights to the cohort, while Fisher faculty and instructors will focus on change management and process implementation and improvement. The partnership is an example of Ohio State’s modern land-grant mission in action.

“We are helping these districts understand and frame systematic racism within what’s going on in K-12, introducing them to proven processes for leading change, and equipping them with the tools for influencing and inspiring others to lead and to be a part of that change,” said Ben Campbell, associate professor of management and human resources and a leader in the new program.

Ben Campbell
Ben Campbell

“We developed this program to help enable them to build the institutional capacity to be effective in this very important area.”

In addition to Campbell and Rensink, Nicole Luthy and Carlotta Penn also serve as co-principle investigators. Luthy is chief of staff and director of strategic operations within the Office of the Dean at EHE. Penn is director of community partnerships and engagement at EHE.

“Both education and business scholars study and practice leadership, but they do so through different lenses,” Arnold said. “This partnership brings together multiple perspectives on how to operationalize educational excellence in the context of anti-racism, diversity and inclusion. The program has been impactful thus far in part because the project team members and faculty instructors from both colleges all share a commitment to institutional equity and excellence.”

The pilot cohort includes 20 individuals and leaders from five school districts — Bexley City Schools, Columbus City Schools, Marion City Schools, Olentangy Local School District and Worthington City School District. Projects are currently being scoped and, in addition to regular meetings with Fisher and EHE coaches, the districts will have access to use and to share online modules to better understand and communicate how systemic racism can manifest itself in K-12 education.

Nicole Luthy
Nicole Luthy

“This program is part of a larger focus on educational equity,” Luthy said. “It is important to remember that the goals of this program — addressing issues that have impacted schools for decades — will not be realized in the blink of an eye. This work requires sustained engagement from our team and our K-12 partners. The summer institute provided a great launch for the project, but we expect to be remain connected to these schools for quite some time.”

An added challenge, which everyone associated with the Leading Anti-Racism Change in Education program is keenly aware of, is the recent controversy surrounding discussions of the examination of race and education.

“The people in these roles are in challenging positions,” Campbell said. “They’re being asked to enact change within big, complicated, bureaucratic institutions without a lot of resources and in a context that is now politically of interest. Uniformly, they have run into 5% on one extreme of the spectrum who do not want change to succeed and 5% on the other end who are giving these diversity leaders heat for not moving far enough or fast enough.”

The program seeks to better equip these change agents for success, even if it is incremental.

“We’re trying to help leaders focus on sifting through the noise to get to the places where you can impact change,” Rensink said. “We want to create a system that is equitable so kids can reach their potential.”

We’re trying to help leaders focus on sifting through the noise to get to the places where you can impact change. We want to create a system that is equitable so kids can reach their potential.

John RensinkCo-Principle Investigator, Leading Anti-Racism Change in Education program