Kevin: As our nation debates questions of racial and social injustice, school districts are getting serious about diversity, equity, and inclusion. But what challenges await leaders who push a diversity, equity, and inclusion agenda? How should they respond to those who may not agree that these programs are needed or appropriate? What role if any should critical race theory play in our curricula? And how can we strike a balance that assures each and every student feels safe and supported at school? This is what I want to know.
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by Dr. Rydell Harrison to find out. Dr. Rydell Harrison is a teacher and administrator with more than 20 years of experience. Earlier this year, he resigned as superintendent of Connecticut's Easton-Redding-Region 9 School Districts. In the months leading up to that decision, he was confronted with significant criticism of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that he led. He's joining us today to share his story and insights around the state of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our schools today.
Dr. Rydell Harrison, it's so good to have you on this show. There's a lot I want to talk to you about. This issue of diversity, equity, and inclusion, critical race theory, a huge, huge issue for parents and for school district leaders. But first, I wanna talk about you. I was doing some research on you. You started as a music teacher, and then you got your master's in divinity. How did that experience sort of lead you to school administration?
Dr. Harrison: So I was teaching music, and I felt like I was having a great impact on students. But I was thinking about how do I kind of broaden that impact to not just work with students, but also their families? And so, I decided to do a master's in divinity at Duke thinking that that would be a way for me through ministry to impact more people, and particularly more students. And while I was there studying, that's really where I started to get my activism legs under me and looking at issues of race, and sexuality, and gender, inclusion, from a religion standpoint, and really, then moving from there back into education and taking those experiences with me to develop who I was as a leader.
Kevin: Yeah. And why did you apply for the job at Easton-Redding?
Dr. Harrison: One of the things that I was really passionate about, as you I'm sure you can tell is diversity, equity, and inclusion. And so, Easton-Redding had established a diversity, equity, and inclusion task force of the board. They had been listening to their students, former students over the summer of 2020, who were sharing, you know, we felt like we had got a great education in this district. But as we went into the world, we felt like we weren't prepared to really talk about race and to talk about inclusion and equity in meaningful ways. And so, the board felt like this was something that they really wanted to tackle. And I was excited about leading that work.
Kevin: It became, as we see nationally, and particularly in your district, a volatile hot button issue. Talk to me about what the board was trying to accomplish that you were trying to execute on?
Dr. Harrison: This was shortly after the murder of George Floyd when I think nationally, our country was really reeling and coming to a reckoning of how we are thinking about issues of race, and a recognition that we really are not living in a post-racial society. And so, there was this sense with the board, "Okay, we need to do something, and we need to put this advisory or this task force in place, but we're not really sure what that looks like. But we know that we need to do something." And the board member who was leading the charge, who's fantastic, somebody who has a real deep passion for this work, when I came in, we initially connected, immediately connected, and laid out a framework for, "Here's what we wanna do through the course of the year." And the first part was really just around taking a sense of...getting a sense of where we are on issues of equity and really doing sort of an equity audit throughout the year.
Kevin: And as you began the work, when did you sense that there was a percolating opposition out there? It seemed like that things were moving in a direction that you and the board were looking for them to move into. But then as you said, things changed after the election.
Dr. Harrison: I started to get just a couple of community emails or emails from some families that I as I read them, I thought they seem a little suspicious about this work. And so, you know, this is a good opportunity for me to sort of reframe what is it that we're trying to do? And so, I framed all of our workaround, we want to figure out the best way to support all of our students regardless of their race, their ethnicity, their gender, ability level, that we wanna make sure that they are all successful and that we are supporting them.
Kevin: After the insurrection, it unearthed some of those things that popped up right after the November election.
Dr. Harrison: That's right. And like many of my superintendent colleagues after the insurrection, I sent a message to my teachers, and just said, "As students are coming in this morning on the 7th, give them space to process, make sure that you're supporting them." And then I also sent a message to all of our families. And in the message, one of the things that I shared was, "Like many of you, I am still reeling from the impact of seeing a Confederate flag in our most hallowed building in this country." Which I thought was not a big deal to say.
Kevin: But that set people off.
Dr. Harrison: That set people off.
Kevin: You saying that, making that reference, sort of pulled out a lot of different voices that before that really were silent, or somewhat supportive. Do you understand where that came from?
Dr. Harrison: I was shocked. And I am not a naive person. I've been doing this type of work, and really focusing on many of these issues for a number of years. And I was blown away that I started to get this pushback and this sense of, you know, "I can't even believe that you said that." And it really to me spoke to...you know, so one of the first things I said, just as an aside, when the recruiter from Easton-Redding-Region 9 that was leading the superintendent search called me and said, "Hey, I think that you should consider this. I think it would be a good fit." What I said to him was, "Now, you know I'm black, right? And I've been black for a long time, and I don't think it's gonna change. So, this is a predominantly white community, white district, is that gonna be an issue?" And so, I think that that was really the first sense of the community recognizing that I am experiencing the world around me, as their leader, I'm experiencing the world around me as a black man. And that my education position or my job does not free me from seeing the world through that lens and responding appropriately.
Kevin: But you still had most of the family supportive of what you were doing?
Dr. Harrison: I would say that for every...particularly right after the response to me mentioning the Confederate flag, for every critical email that I received, I probably had two emails of support from family saying, "We not only appreciate you supporting our students, but we appreciate you opening up yourself a little bit and being vulnerable because that's a quality of leadership that we think is very necessary for this community."
Kevin: How were the students and their response to all this?
Dr. Harrison: At the beginning of the year, even in a COVID situation, I started the year visiting as many classrooms as I could. And one of the things that I always say to students is, "I'm not the superintendent, I'm your superintendent. So I'm here to really support you and help to develop who you are as a student, and as a person." The initial response from my students of color, when I would walk in the room, there was a doubletake of like, "Oh, my God, this person looks like me." And so, there was a really strong positive response initially. And then even several of our students and alumni throughout the year reached out and just said, "We really appreciate you leading this charge. And really the ways in which you're talking about centering the voices of our students, and particularly our most marginalized students, that that's something that we appreciate about you as a leader."
Kevin: So this took on a life of its own. And, again, in reading reports is instructive because there was the suggestion that you weren't just engaging in an audit or a level check to see where people were, see where the community was, see where your district was in terms of equity and inclusion issues. The suggestion was that you were trying to ram down the throat some critical race theory curriculum, and it spun out of control. How did the critics respond when you tried to correct the record?
Dr. Harrison: My experience as an education leader is that when there's confusion in the community, or among stakeholders and you provide them with clarity and truth, that everyone's able to move on. And it became really, really clear that no one was looking for truths. These folks were not looking for answers. They were looking for the next step to add to the narrative that they had already laid out.
Kevin: Sadly, even though you had the support of the board, even though you were implementing what the board wanted you to implement, even though you had not made any recommendations about how to deal with the curriculum, or what to do other than provide the audit and the level check that you were tasked with, you came to the personal decision to resign. And why did you do that?
Dr. Harrison: The same board that unanimously approved the establishment of the task force, and started the year really supporting this work, several of the board members really started to backpedal. This is tough work. And without having that full support of the board, I was really concerned about my ability to really do meaningful work overtime. But the other piece is that the responses from the community went from critiques of the initiative or concerns about the initiative to concerns about me. And there was a lot of what I interpreted as very sort of racist comments. There were these pamphlets and mailers that went out to all community members. It was a really organized attack of, "We need to be concerned about Dr. Harrison the person who's dangerous, and he's pushing these ideas on our students, and look at these excerpts from his dissertation that prove that he is sort of out to get us with his own agenda." And so two things. One, I am really passionate about education, but I also recognize the emotional investment that has to be in place to do this work well. And that level of attack from the community from a personal standpoint was difficult.
Kevin: What are you doing now since you've resigned?
Dr. Harrison: So I'm working for the Connecticut Center for School Change. It's a nonprofit that works with districts all over the state, and expanding into all over this region. And we focus on supporting districts, supporting leaders in particular on moving forward high-quality instruction, leadership development, leadership coaching, and equity. Diversity, equity, and inclusion. And so, I'm really excited to be a part of that work, and being able to share my experiences in Easton-Redding-Region 9. And then, also sort of stand in the gap between research that's happening in the academy, right? So, really academic research, and practice the way that that plays out in the schools. And so, being able to stand in that gap and really interpret and support districts. It's really exciting work.
Kevin: What advice would you give to superintendents who want to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, but in the wake of this political environment, they know it's tough? What advice would you give them?
Dr. Harrison: I think it's really important to lead with a real clear picture of, what is it that you're trying to do? And so, when people started...for me, when people started talking about critical race theory, we were sort of already on our heels trying to respond. So my recommendation as superintendent would be to really lay out your framework, and go ahead and attack some of the responses to critical race theory but first saying, "Look, we're not talking about critical race theory, here's what critical race theory really is." The other thing is, as much as you can, it's so important to have one-on-one conversations with people. And so, in my one-on-one conversations, even with some of my biggest critics, I was able to say, "But listen, you're responding to me with all of your talking points, but that's not what I'm talking about. So how many students of ours are you okay with not feeling supported? Because my number is zero. So if it's one, then this is a worthwhile effort." And so really framing it around that.
Kevin: Dr. Harrison, last question. This is what I really wanna know. What is the future of diversity, equity, and inclusion in American schools?
Dr. Harrison: There are days that I feel really hopeful based on conversations that I'm having with leaders, and hearing about some of the initiatives that they are working towards, and wanting to move forward. And then I watch another news story about how these communities and these folks are really organized, that they're coming forward with these very organized attacks. I think that the future of this work really lies in the hands of our students. And so, I think that that is really what...for the opposition, that's what in many cases makes this such dangerous work, or dangerous for them, right? And hopeful for me because historically, what we see in this country is that when young people take up an issue, change happens. And so, what I saw happen over the summer of 2020 after George Floyd was it wasn't the adults leading this charge, it was our young people saying, "We have to do better. And as the adults who are supporting us, we need more from you." And so, I think that the future is hinged on how well our young people are able to organize and find support in their organization. And that's the other sort of critical piece for superintendents and district leaders. How do you really create space to bring forward those student voices?
Kevin: You're absolutely right. And for those who are not engaged in revisionist history, I urge them to. Read Taylor Branch's book about the Civil Rights Movement, and Dr. King, the Children's Miracle which more than anything led to the passage of the Civil Rights Bill in the middle '60s largely because thousands of children in Birmingham crowded jail cells. That's what led to the change. And I believe you're right. I believe that children, the young people, will drive equity and inclusion issues in this country. Dr. Harrison, thank you so much. I certainly enjoyed chatting with you.
Dr. Harrison: Thank you. I appreciate you having me.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want To Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #wiwtk on social media. That's #wiwtk on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want To Know."
Meet Dr. Harrison
Dr. Rydell Harrison is a teacher and administrator with more than 20 years of experience. Earlier this year, he resigned as superintendent of Connecticut’s Easton Redding Region 9 school district. In the months leading up to that decision, he was confronted with significant criticism of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that he led. He now serves as a program coordinator at Partners for Educational Leadership (formerly the Connecticut Center for School Change).
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.