By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC
*acronyms used: DEI – Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; BIPOC – Black/Indigenous/People of Color
Last month, I wrote a blog titled Who’s Setting Your DEI Pace?, which asked leaders to internally reflect on their organizations and think about which staffers they look to when pacing their DEI initiatives. This month, I’m highlighting a local leader of color, Principal Angela Sheffey-Bogan, who internally reflected on her school and set her equity pace based on her students’ needs. Read on to learn how this educational leader is making real equity change for her students, teachers, and community!
Angela Sheffey-Bogan is a veteran public school educator and Principal of Sartori Elementary School, an innovative STEM school in Renton. Sartori is Angela’s pride and joy and she takes very seriously her responsibility and privilege to teach a student body composed predominantly of low-income students of color. In her first weeks as Principal, Angela developed Sartori’s vision – that every child shows up every day as their authentic self; no one should have to assimilate. On the surface, this seems like a straightforward and simple goal, but scratch the surface and you can see how it clearly addresses the oppressive systems that surround the daily lives of Sartori students. And the pace is clear: every day. Not, “for one hour of each day” or “by the end of second grade,” but every day. Children should not have to wait until the adults feel comfortable to move forward. They should be able to show up today and engage authentically in their learning.
By setting this vision and pace, Angela is directly upending the dominant norm that allows the guise of “comfort” to slow the work, and instead she truly centers her students’ lives, families, and cultures. Angela also understands that DEI work cannot be done in isolation or as a side project. This is why she baked it into the overall vision of the organization. And this vision guides everything she and her staff do. Her understanding is built on an age-old mantra: know, do, become. As Angela explains it, you have to “think about what you want to become and then work backwards to determine the steps you take to get there and then the knowledge you need to take those steps.”
“Children should not have to wait until the adults feel comfortable to move forward.“
Angela may have set the vision but she made sure that her staff takes the lead on how to get there because they work most closely with the students and best understand their needs. To do this requires openly uprooting internalized bias, which can be challenging for individuals. So, Angela works with her team to collaboratively build a community first: “If you’re not comfortable with each other, you can’t talk about this work. We need to be able to openly ask each other, ‘Are we looking at this issue through an equity lens?’ We must be able to trust each other to have hard conversations.” An example of how the staff leads the work towards the vision is how they revamped the application process for Sartori’s school lottery. Sartori is a public magnet school, which means attendance is determined by applications from parents, not just district boundaries. Initially, Angela proposed the traditional lottery process used by most public magnets, which is to post the application on the website where interested parents can submit their child’s name. But, her teachers began asking if they were really reaching everyone within school district boundaries. What about parents without internet access or those who don’t speak English? Angela took pride in telling me how her staff was comfortable “calling her” on this issue: “This is just what we do, [these conversations] are common practice for us. Because we trust each other and we know where we want to go, I can let the staff take the lead and propose solutions that work best for our students.”
One of the dispositions that makes Angela so successful at connecting with diverse teachers, students, and parents is the humility of a life-long learner: “I am never ‘the expert,’ I am always learning…I co-evolve with my staff.” Angela recognizes that just because she has the lived experience of a black woman doesn’t mean she doesn’t have biases herself. As she says, “You have to be okay examining your own biases and beliefs in order to best support the students. Intrapersonal exploration is really important for me. I was very assimilated as a kid, so until I examined my own values and upbringing, I wasn’t as able to understand how others interact with the world. [I try to] take this awareness and turn it into grace for myself and for others to make mistakes.” This vulnerable humility is the foundation of trust-building at her school.
To illustrate this, Angela shared an example of a challenging situation she had with a staff member and parent. Last year, an African American student reported concerns about microagression from their white teacher. Angela connected with the teacher and then set up a meeting with teacher, student, and the student’s parent. The teacher came to the meeting prepared to defend herself, showing pictures of the many children of color in her family and life. The parent was upset by this because they perceived this as a variation on the “I can’t be racist because I have black friends” argument. The teacher responded to the parent’s anger with their own frustration. This is an all too familiar downward spiral that happens in many interracial conversations. But Angela wasn’t daunted. She regularly and intentionally worked with the teacher over the year to build the trust between the two of them and to overcome defensiveness. They discussed intent vs impact, and how the teacher’s actions when viewed through the lens of oppressive systems explained how the parent felt in that moment. Angela proudly shared that the teacher really embraced the perspective shift, and the teacher and student were able to heal their relationship. And, to the immense credit of the teacher, they are still at the school and now actively engaged in the DEI work. It is this type of committed support and guidance from leadership that brings community together.
Angela also told me that she doesn’t want her staff to embrace the work “just because of what she looks like;” she wants them to genuinely engage with it because they want to and they understand its importance to teaching well at her school. Because she had already set a strong vision that centers the students, it’s the students’ needs that guide the staff, not her identity. When Sartori started, Angela initiated a DEI team, but it is now such an embedded part of the culture that she feels comfortable to give input as a regular staff member, not as “the Principal.” The DEI team is empowered to propose structural and programmatic steps to bring Sartori as a whole closer to that vision. For example, the staff suggested (and Angela approved) time for monthly meetings that all staff attend on Race and Equity. These are not training sessions but rather working sessions where the teams can bring practical concerns and challenges to each other to collaboratively address them in a trusting and accountable environment.
I asked Angela if she had advice for other leaders who want to embed this type of vision and pace in their organizations. She said you have to “set and hold firm on that vision. Any time someone is doing the opposite of that, you need processes to call it out in right when it happens, at the beginning; don’t wait for it to fester. And when you do call it out, don’t sugar coat it.” She does this for her staff and they do it for her; it’s how they show care for each other and their students. Important note here: Angela sees this “calling out” not as what has come to be known as “call out culture” but rather “supportively watching each other’s blind spots for potential negative impacts despite intentions.”
For other womxn of color in senior leadership positions, Angela had this advice to share:
- Stay humble – you’ll always learn something from your staff, your students, your peers.
- Push the envelope – don’t do things the way they have always been done. Be open to new ways of doing things. Your staff and students are always changing and you need to change with them.
- Get a white ally who is also in leadership – this allows you to speak the same leadership language but get a different racial perspective. She recommends finding a “thought partner,” like another principal or CEO. But, don’t forget that you need to build that trust and shared vision with this person first or it won’t be an honest relationship, which is what you need to really hear what needs to be said.
So, how is all this playing out with her community? I could hear Angela’s smile through the phone when she answered. She regularly receives appreciation from parents and staff of all racial identities for having a clearly antiracist vision to focus on and the empowerment to move towards it at the pace the students need. Many teachers, both white and BIPOC, tell her that this is the first time they’ve had the opportunity to support students in this way. But the biggest feedback/measure of success comes from the students themselves. They are comfortable to be who they truly are, to engage authentically in the learning, and openly communicate what they need to get there. Angela and Sartori clearly model how when the vision and pace center those most impacted by injustice, and the humans tasked with achieving this vision are supported to grow and learn, the work is able follow. Sartori is a school that moves at the pace its students need.
If you would like to know more about Angela and Sartori, please visit their website at https://sartori.rentonschools.us/non-discrimination-policy1.