Who’s Setting Your DEI Pace? Part II: An Interview with Principal Angela Sheffey-Bogan

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-Boganwho 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.”  

Image courtesy of Angela Sheffey Bogan

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: 

  1. Stay humble – you’ll always learn something from your staff, your students, your peers. 
  1. 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.  
  1. 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 injusticeand 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.

Header image: courtesy of Angela Sheffey Bogan.

Who’s Setting Your DEI Pace?

By Sapna Sopori, Founder & Owner of Sapna Strategies, LLC

*Acronyms used: BIPOC = Black, Indigenous, & People of Color; DEI = Diversity, Equity,

I consider myself in pretty good shape. I work out a few times a week on the treadmill or in a
power-stretching class (I refuse to call it “yoga”). But the other day, I was helping a friend
out at his winery and I learned how not in shape I am. I had a fun vision in my head of stomping on grapes in a barrel, like that classic I Love Lucy episode…but the reality was a lot harder than I anticipated and I was sore for days! I found muscles I didn’t know I had! I was turning a 500-pound pressing block, shoveling grapes from a hot tub-sized bin, mixing the fermenting wine with a potato masher that stood almost as tall as me, and more. Full. Body. Workout. What really blew me away was that my friend was outpacing me without even breaking a sweat! This is his daily life, so he is in much better shape for this work than I am. He doesn’t need to count his steps or go to crossfit because his regular routine makes him stronger than any scheduled activity possibly could.

And, that got me thinking about how we build the strength and set the pace to tackle issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our workplaces. Is it through the rigors of daily life or is it through opt-in experiences like classes, books, podcasts, etc.? The reason I ask this is because there is an assumption that these two ways of knowing are the same. But they aren’t.

A person does yoga on a rocky bluff overlooking the water. Image by StockSnap from Pixabay.
An image of people holding signs at a Black Lives Matter protest. “Demilitarize the Police, Black Lives Matter” by Johnny Silvercloud, used under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The strength built up by people of color who experience and struggle through racism every day is different than that of their white counterparts, who are generally able to “opt-into” the racial
equity fight. There is often a history of racism for BIPOC that goes beyond an individual
lifetime, spanning hundreds of years and even crossing continents. The constant effort needed to navigate daily life, to survive and thrive in a system designed to keep you down, requires a level of strength and resilience not attainable through a few hours a week of reading blogs or books or watching movies. In other words, reading The New Jim Crow is not the same as living it.*

“Reading The New Jim Crow is not the same as living it.

And, I bet that most people, white and BIPOC alike, understand this difference in regard to daily
life. But when it comes to our workplaces and the DEI goals we hope to achieve, we pretend like these two ways of knowing lead to the same level of strength and resilience. So, let’s ask ourselves some hard questions: in regard to employees within organizations tackling DEI initiatives…

  • Does everyone have the same level of strength, resilience, and understanding of racism?
  • Who is in better “diversity shape” to address the issues of racism head on?
  • Shouldn’t the people with the greatest understanding of the issue set the pace** for the DEI work in their organizations?

I mean, if I went to help my friend at his winery and asked him to slow down the work until I
built up my strength, would I actually be helping? Or worse: what if I went to him and demanded that I lead the work? This is not to say that I shouldn’t try to help. I most definitely should help, regardless of how out of shape I am at that moment. But I need to choose the right mindset: an understanding that just because I want to work doesn’t make me the most qualified to lead the work. I need to take on appropriate work that fits my current strength-level and helps me grow so I can build my strength and be more impactful in the future. And I have to be okay with giving my friend the space to lead the work at his accelerated pace, and not make him feel badly about being stronger and faster than me. Otherwise, I would be centering the experience on my needs, not the needs of the work itself. There’s a subtle but critical difference. And, if I was really serious about helping him out, I would support him more often, work out on my own to get stronger faster, push myself harder and use him as a model instead of trying to slow him down to my level.

The fact is that organizational leadership will determine the direction and pace of DEI initiatives. But it is also a fact that leadership positions are mostly held by white people. BIPOC employees are more likely to be in lower level positions and often are implicitly tasked with accommodating the burgeoning understanding of their white counterparts (especially those in leadership). All the while, the BIPOC still have to grapple with the racist structures and systems held in place by the slow pace of the DEI work. And this dynamic of slowing down the pace of the work to accommodate those least “in shape” sends 3 implicit and completely erroneous messages:

  1. That the work is not urgent enough and can afford to go at a slow pace;
  2. That the white staffers are not capable of developing their resilience and strength at a faster pace; and,
  3. That BIPOC employees and stakeholders who are ready to go faster will wait around while the organization moves along at a pace that accommodates those least impacted by racism.

None of these messages are true. Not a single one. But because we rarely take the time to
unpack the issues around our DEI pace-setting and leadership, we often send these messages
unintentionally. This all said, a common retort I hear to statements above is that going faster will risk losing white stakeholders, including staff and funders. Part of this is correct: there will be risk, but there is also risk if you don’t speed up the pace: you risk losing engagement from BIPOC employees and stakeholders. But this retort also comes with its own implicit and erroneous message: that BIPOC employees aren’t capable of understanding those risks and developing with white leadership a scaffolded strategy to address them. That message is just as false as the previously stated myth that white staffers aren’t capable of following a faster pace. Slowing down the pace is denigrating to all people involved, white and BIPOC.

So, if you don’t believe these myths, ask yourself: who is setting the DEI pace at your
organization, and does that pace unintentionally send any of these messages?
These are hard questions to ask and answer. Most organizations don’t even try. But, if you want to really unpack the possible implicit bias of the DEI work at your organization and unleash its full potential, I can help. I work with leadership teams to examine their DEI work, specifically around complex issues such as these. This is what leads to setting and achieving real diversity goals. Together, we can create Just Strategies for Just Solutions!

Side notes/food for thought:

* This is not to denigrate learning about racism through opt-in experiences. These learning
opportunities are very important for everyone who wants to engage in anti-racism work, both to develop critical white allies and for BIPOC to examine our internalized racism (just because we know we are oppressed doesn’t mean we know how to dismantle the oppressive systems). I am simply advocating that classes cannot fully convey the daily life of someone on the receiving end of society’s racist structures and beliefs.

**It is important to note that “setting the pace” for DEI work does not mean doing all of it alone
or even taking on the bulk of the work. When I was at my friend’s winery, he set the pace but I
worked super hard, too, and my time and efforts were greatly appreciated because I allowed him the bandwidth to do the more complicated and challenging tasks I wasn’t ready for yet. He could also take a break, which given that he was working on this way before me and would be way after I left, I felt really good about providing him. I was part of a team and I trusted my friend to set a pace that achieved a goal he understood far better than I did. Why are we comfortable following someone else’s lead in situations like volunteering at a winery but when it comes to DEI in our workplace we get all prickly? Hmmmm…

Header image: Demilitarize the Police, Black Lives Matter” by Johnny Silvercloud, used under CC BY-SA 2.0.