In the wake of what some scholars have termed the "Great Awokening" during the summer of 2020, it has become increasingly popular for school districts to hire Directors of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DDEIs) to both study and address issues related to systemic inequalities hindering students' academic and social development. While such positions may be created with good intentions, in practice DDEIs serve as little more than six-figure public relations campaigns which, by their very nature, are not designed to facilitate transformative pedagogies or politics. Operating within the same internal logic as the social hierarchies engendering inequality in the first place, managerial DDEIs at best only alleviate symptoms of inequality and at worst obstruct the formation of genuine broad-based coalitions of students, educators, and families capable of altering the punishing policies of the neoliberal state visible in our classrooms. By misdiagnosing the source of inequality as a cultural pathology and directing reform from the ivory tower, DDEIs paradoxically inhibit the building of solidarities needed to effectively oppose a system of schooling serving the prerogatives of the laissez-unfaire market.
Despite progressive-sounding titles, DDEIs cannot possibly elicit the structural changes our students need due to the sheer fact that they are members of management. School administrators ultimately function as agents of stabilization, managing the operation of schools with a top-down hierarchical approach. Since management reserves all hiring rights, including the qualifications for and conditions of continued employment, the process of DDEI selection and evaluation can occur without student, teacher, or community input. From the onset, DDEIs are alienated from the constituencies they are meant to serve, which all but ensures coercive or cosmetic compliance rather than authentic support from teachers. Even if a DDEI with transformative convictions did sneak through the interview process, such a person would conflict with management’s ultimate task of ensuring institutional stability. In all likelihood, disruptive DDEIs will either be screened out or not last long, as highly publicized resignations across the country verify.
As DDEIs settle in and begin conducting racial equity audits, unconscious bias trainings, and performative land recognitions, it becomes apparent that their pedagogy is entirely anti-Freirarian. Paulo Freire argued education can only become an authentic source of liberation when the teacher-student hierarchy is transformed into a process where each participant teaches and learns from one another. Such collaborative pedagogical processes cannot occur within the power dynamics inherent to management-employee relations. Like students in classrooms with coercive grading mechanisms, teachers cannot freely participate in an environment where their opinions could be used against them on an evaluation. Beyond the inauthenticity, the premise that teachers need an outside "broker" to train teachers on how to combat inequality in our schools tacitly suggests we are not capable of talking to, teaching, and assessing specific segments of our student population. Such an approach is antagonistic and counter-solidaristic, precluding participation from teachers who are sympathetic to addressing inequalities, but now concerned that their attempts to help will be packaged incorrectly or viewed as commandeering.
Furthermore, in their role as brokers, DDEIs serve to reify rather than interrogate the material forces engendering educational inequality through a technocratic focus on microaggressions, while shrouding the macroaggressions of a political economy rendering our students disposable. DDEIs focus on microaggressions because their positions are predicated upon on the persistence, rather than the elimination of inequality. If their programs and trainings actually produced transformative change, the utility of DDEIs would dissipate, making their positions redundant. Conveniently, culturally pathological explanations for educational inequality do not lend themselves to easy solutions and instead rely upon a constant awareness, facilitated by training, to mitigate. Unlike class inequality, which can be addressed through policy, cultural change is sold as a (lucrative) never-ending individualistic self-improvement enterprise. If teachers can never rid themselves of inherent biases, logically, they will always need DDEIs. There is little controversy in antiracism disconnected from redistributive programs, making it safe to sell.
While DDEIs adjust educational policies to accommodate inequality, truly transformative pedagogies should seek to alter the existing material conditions underlying inequality. As Henry Giroux reminds us, the pedagogical is always political. It is teachers, not DDEIs, who are best equipped to undertake grassroots coalition building and political action in their communities. Teachers can be organized through existing vehicles, like unions, to create caucuses/committees dedicated to studying and addressing these issues. Is it enough to remove discipline for tardiness or do we organize to improve our public transit system? Is it enough to remove zeroes from the gradebook or do we need to eliminate standardized testing as a form of class filtration and make higher education affordable? Is it enough to increase the demographic diversity in our literature when the school does not have a librarian? No one knows the problems afflicting students like those closest to them and conversations outside the presence of administration leads to democratic and honest dialogues about the issues at hand and the solutions needed for more meaningful change. Through this process of collaboration, rather than DDEI dictation, teachers build coalitions in democratic and authentic manners.
Concretely, teachers can use the tools of solidarity, like collective bargaining, to increase curricular and assessment autonomy, as well as direct resources spent on the DDEI salary and budget to their union caucuses/committees. With contractual language and resources, teachers could then offer staff-led professional development opportunities or bring in expert disrupters outside official school channels to develop initiatives without the threat of censorship or coercion.
As a political project, teachers can create a political action committee within their union to facilitate community relations and exercise agency in the political realm. Ultimately, school superintendents are responsible to the school board, and it is our tremendous responsibility to ensure our students have elected officials who view school equity from the same lens teachers do.
The pedagogical cannot be divorced from the political, and these democratic actions augment teacher agency and cultivate the authenticity needed for a mass movement dedicated to transformative change. When it comes to DEI, it must be a DIY endeavor.
Kevin McCleish is a social science educator and labor organizer from Illinois. His work has appeared in the educational journal Critical Questions in Education and on the shop floor.