Disconnection matters

Nov 24, 2020

I recently attended a symposium about building inclusive organizations and had the valuable experience of learning from four equity leaders in our community. One of the speakers shared a model articulated by Floyd Cobb and John Krownapple called the “Cycle of Disfunction with Equity Work.” The model is based on four stages that create a reinforcing loop leading to no change in the status quo. It is a theory of failure.

In summary, the “Cycle of Disfunction with Equity Work” involves these four stages:

  1. A catalyst deeply impacts a broad group, such as the public killing of George Floyd this year and the protests for racial justice that were sparked across our nation.
  2. The catalyst must be influential enough to lead to the next stage, which is a commitment to equity by the dominant culture. The commitment can look like the formation of equity committees, book clubs, discussion groups, etc.
  3. The nature of creating change towards equitable systems is difficult and so stage three happens with problems in implementation. So many complex factors reinforce stage three, including power dynamics, implicit bias, and racism.
  4. The fourth stage blooms from a recognition that the work is difficult. Ambitious steps towards change are watered down and eventually the push for change stops. This stage is called “a return to the inequitable status quo”.

There are many historical examples of this cycle playing out in equity work where oppression in multiple forms is pervasive. Reflection about this theory has brought me to considering two things.

First, this theory of failure and “Cycle of Disfunction with Equity Work” is applicable to multiple systems issues and not limited to equity in education. Disconnecting the reinforcing loop of failure could have implications for how we work to address many conditions with deep roots.

Secondly, what if changemakers and stakeholders within systems were able to better understand the stages in this cycle and counter with methods to push back on the reinforcing loop? The set of solutions and how they are applied will greatly rely on champions and stakeholders closest to the work, along with those in power who can influence change. A disconnection to accepting status quo is also necessary by all players within the system. At the most micro level, any system will inherently change if the relationships among the players in the system change.

I accept that the work I’m doing to support early childhood systems with adopting equity guiding principles and create actionable change at a policy level is one of a million things that needs to happen for equity in education to occur. I also accept that as one player in a much larger system, I am only able to change a finite number of relationships within the network. However, my belief and optimism in the ripple effect I can have strongly pushes me towards disconnecting the loop of the cycle of dysfunction.

Here is how I envision disrupting this cycle at each stage.

1. Keep it personal

The catalyst for equity in 2020 has already happened. Hundreds of years of racial injustice and systemic racism are being amplified by COVID-19’s negative impacts on communities of color. Furthermore, equity in education is a deeply personal issue for me, as I am bi-racial and have painful lived-in experiences related to racism and struggles with education. The stakes are higher than ever in this moment. The catalyst and my personal “why” drive me to strive for change. I believe we must continue to make it personal in whatever way is meaningful to us to ensure change is a priority for allies as well.

2. Reinforce a commitment through more than one action.

Joining a book club, attending one annual training, or forming an equity committee is not enough to create real change at any level, whether it be among individuals or institutions. A commitment to equity must also include a regular analysis of disaggregated data to reveal the truth about who is thriving and not thriving within specific conditions. The data gathering must be carefully done with integrity because data can be manipulated, skewed, and subject to interpretation. Listening to individuals with authentic experiences and having true empathy towards voices are also required. Without both, we easily become distant from the work, which results in “why” we do the work misaligning with the “how” we address the issue. The disconnection to "why equity" in any system sets up the next stage, which leads to problems with implementation.

3. Recognize setbacks are likely and categorize these challenges.

Hundreds of years of a history of racism have passed and we are still grappling with disparity, pain, and trauma. Problems with implementation at an institutional level happen for many reasons, because there are layers of complexity with equity work. I do not profess to have all the solutions with this phase.

What has helped me understand this level and push through with the work I am responsible for is recognizing setbacks are likely and categorizing the challenges. For example, much of my work is focused on the institutional level of change and supporting organizations with implementing equitable practices. To manage problems of implementation I pose these questions as guideposts:

  • How many layers are necessary to navigate change within the institution towards more equitable practices?
  • Who are my allies and how can we leverage the spirit and assets of the team?
  • Who has power to make decisions on behalf of the institution and are they invested in change?
  • How are the communities who are not benefitting from policies and programs engaged in processes?

Additionally, I also motivate my teams by uplifting small milestones of progress. I naturally seek balance as a core value and when faced with frustration and moments of challenge I manage this by grounding myself and others in what has been accomplished in the work.

4. Reflect on what is at stake

Watering down or minimizing the work is what leads to a return to status quo. A remedy for me when tempted to give up is reinvigorate the passion by reflecting on what is at stake. To lead is to accept some fundamental things, such as leadership requires authenticity, bravery, and embracing the risks that may be involved. Frustration, loss, and fear are likely to be experienced. In these moments, we must breathe, remember that we are advocating for change to impact more than just ourselves, and courageously continue to use our voice.

Disconnection to the reinforcing loop matters. The price to maintain the status quo is much too high.

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