Podcast S2. Ep. 26: Being Intentional About Putting A Focus On Equity - Carla London

Character Strong · November 15, 2019

Carla London is originally from Columbia, MO, but moved often as a child and got to experience the excitement of such diverse places as New Orleans, LA; Dallas and El Paso, TX; and Stamford, CT. After beginning her career in education in north Georgia, she returned to Columbia where she was privileged to create the Aspiring Scholars program for At-Promise youth. In 2006, she followed her husband’s career back to Texas and spent 7 years in Round Rock, just outside of Austin, as both a classroom teacher and in educational leadership for a student body that included 1500 middle school students. In 2013, Carla returned to Columbia as the Supervisor of Student and Family Advocacy, for Columbia Public Schools. She was subsequently promoted to Director of Student Services, and is currently the Chief Equity Officer for CPS, where she wears many hats including supervising several district programs. Carla has a combined 16 years of experience in education, nine years as a Social Worker, including four years as an Emergency Room Medical S.W. at Children's Medical Center of Dallas, in Dallas, TX, and three years as a small business owner, Dallas, TX. Her passion is working with children, families, and staff to provide a safe, nurturing, and stimulating educational experience! She continues to advocate for ways to assist youth in acquiring the skills they need to be successful and reducing discipline disproportionality among minority youth.

We talk with Carla about how her district has put a focus on equity, the importance if having these equity conversations, and some of the strategies and resources that have helped the staff in the Columbia district.

“I started to realize that I am responsibility for 100% of the choices that I make, and so is everyone else around me. And so what that means is when other people do things that maybe are not my fault, that I still have a choice to make and I’m still responsible for what I do after they make those choices.”

Carla London

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast, where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Carla London. Carla is originally from Columbia, Missouri, but moved often as a child and got to experience the excitement of such diverse places as New Orleans, Louisiana, Dallas and El Paso, Texas and Stanford, Connecticut. After beginning her career in education in North Georgia, she returned to Columbia, where she was privileged to create the Aspiring Scholars Program for at promise youth. In 2006, she followed her husband's career back to Texas and spent seven years in Round Rock just outside of Boston as both a classroom teacher and in educational leadership for a student body that included 1500 middle school students. In 2013, Carla returned to Columbia as the supervisor of student and family advocacy for Columbia Public Schools. She was subsequently promoted to director of student services and is currently the chief equity officer for CPS, where she wears many hats, including supervising several district programs. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Carla London.
  • John: All right. We are very honored to have Carla London on the CharacterStrong Podcast with us today. How are you doing today?
  • Carla: I'm doing great. How are you?
  • John: I am wonderful. Well, we sure appreciate you taking the time in the work that you are in. You're the chief equity officer for the Columbia Public Schools. Where is that located?
  • Carla: That is in Columbia, Missouri, right between St. Louis and Kansas City.
  • John: Nice. Well, I know out here near Seattle where we are, we're famous for rain. It's raining nonstop. How is the weather for you right now?
  • Carla: So today I actually get to brag that it's about 76 degrees and it is sunny. We just had the rain, so right now we've got a little bit of a break.
  • John: Nice. That's good. Well, we are big on the shorter nature of the podcast. We kind of say cut the fluff, get right to the stuff, and we believe that that stuff is really, really important. And you've got such a great experience and resume in the work that you're doing, and so I just want to get you going into it. And that is, in the work that you're in as chief equity officer ... This is a big focus for us at CharacterStrong and how we can continue to support districts ... how has your district put a focus on equity?
  • Carla: This was so exciting. About three years ago, this position was created. And so as one of our deputy superintendents was retiring, we really decided that instead of the work that we had been doing for the probably three or four years prior to that where there was hit or miss equity work, if you will, if schools wanted to learn a little bit more about that, we had a team of about 10 folks that we could send out and train. We really decided to go more intentional with that.
  • Carla: With the creation of this position, it really focuses on multiple marginalized students. Some of the areas that I oversee are our special education department, our English learners department, all of the behavior support, the discipline hearings, those types of things for our district. And so we really moved from, "This is an interesting topic," and, "Gosh, we'd be happy to share more with you." We started our focus with the superintendent's cabinet and then secondary administrators and then went on to elementary administrators. But then that was sort of where it landed about three years ago.
  • Carla: The superintendent always refers to me as a slow drip. It took me a little while to be okay with that, but he reminds me that the Grand Canyon was probably also started by a slow drip. What he means by that is I kept the conversation going even when there were times when, because these are difficult topics to talk about, when people heard race or socioeconomic status, it was kind of like, "Oh, I don't really want to talk about those things, because doesn't talking about it make it worse?" And so to really come to that understanding that taking the fear out of the word privilege and recognizing that these discussions are not only long overdue, but really, there's no more excuse to not have them.
  • Carla: We really moved to, "This is something that has to be district-wide if it's going to be a system-wide change." And that was really my focus for the past seven years that I've been back in the district is to say, "How do we take these hit or miss trainings, if you will, and opportunities and make them a part of who we are at Columbia Public Schools?" And so with that in mind, the superintendent came to me and said, "So what I hear you saying is. No more just optional." I said, "Absolutely. This has to be mandatory." And so then it became for all 31 buildings in our district, mandatory that every building undergo two to four equity trainings per year. And so I will talk a little bit about what that looks like.
  • Carla: We are now, by the way, up to 40 trainers and we send eight trainers a year through a program called NCCJ in St. Louis, which is the National Council for Community and Justice. And it's really intense. You sort of live together, if you will, for three days of really unpacking your socialization. And then you go through another series of two day trainings to be fully certified as a FaciliTrainer. That's what they're called. And so there are about 40 of us now in the district, the largest number that they've trained in any district, and we train in diverse groups, either based on socioeconomic status or race or gender or sex or religion in each of these buildings.
  • Carla: And so we cover, because we're all made up of multiple identities, we cover all of those things that I just mentioned, in addition to appearance and ageism and ability status, all of those pieces that make up who we are. And again, going back to focus on, we all have privilege in some area, and so let's stop being stuck in that word and getting offended by that word, and how do we take that and use it to be an ally for someone who doesn't have a voice at the table or doesn't even have a seat there, even if they have a seat, don't have a voice.
  • Carla: The work is really intentional. It's unpacking all of those messages that we have all heard, we've been fed by the media, by family, friends, our own internalized experiences that then make up who we are and can lead us to that implicit bias. And so we often say if we have a brain, we have bias. We've heard that, because we all do. We know that it was really important for us as a district looking at seven years ago when I returned our disproportionality for out of school suspension for a minority youth. We were almost at seven times. You were seven times more likely to be suspended if you were a youth of color, while we only made up 20% of the total population in the district. We had to be really intentional about going to a process that says, "This is not an option. We have to dig deep into ourselves and how we are experiencing and affecting the students that we're reaching in our classroom."
  • John: That is so good. I'm taking many notes here and we will also when the podcast comes out, make sure that we include the transcription, because I know a lot of people love that where they can go back, right, and find the different things that you've been sharing here. And I think that in the experience of being in education myself, I love how you took that focus on, we've got to take the fear out of the word privilege, right, and how do we take that and turn it into being an ally.
  • John: I know a lot of times that is, it's like the uncomfortable work that we know needs to happen and even people I know, they want to dive into it, but there's a role here with the intentionality. I've heard you use that word, of how you bring that in. So maybe speak to that a little bit. How have you and/or how has the training, right, that deep training that your trainers have gone through to be able to come back and help your schools, what are some of the techniques, strategies that have helped or approach to help take the fear out of that word privilege?
  • Carla: Sure. Well, part of the training that was really powerful was just working through our own socializations. What are the experiences that brought us to where we are at this point? I know for me, things that I thought personally, "I haven't thought about those in years. They're not really a big deal." And as I started to look back at those pieces of me, this little minority child who was greeted in third in a new community where we've moved with a cross burning in my yard, and then the first day of school, someone walks up and says, "Ooh, a black kid," and nobody said anything. Nobody stood up for me. And I think that was the first time at age eight that I was really feeling like an other and very different.

“...having that idea that fault, responsibility, that move right into my thinking here about it’s your character not mine, and it’s my character not yours, and it helped me really I guess lower the defensiveness that I found myself having even after 17 years of teaching whenever a kid came up with their fingers pointed at me.”

Carla London

  • Carla: And so thinking that I had sort of moved past that, and, "Gosh, you've gone on to do all these wonderful things," looking back at that and realizing that the impact that that had on the spirit of the human spirit and the spirit of a child really led me to become even more engaged in the work and thinking that not only as a mother myself, but I often say that I have 19,000 students or 19,000 kids of my own, I want no child to ever feel like an other. And sometimes as an educator, what we may tend to say that we think is complimentary is, "I don't see race. I don't see any different than anybody." And what we're really saying is, "I don't see that person." And so people want you to see them. I want you to see me and all of me, all of those things that make up my identity.
  • Carla: So first, that work started with just our own sitting with, if you will, those layers of that onion that needed to be unpeeled for ourselves and how have all of those experiences played into my interactions with others. And then from there, recognizing that as you do go through that list of identities, that somewhere along the way we all have privilege in one area or another. So while I may be considered targeted in the area of race, for instance, in the area of ability, and I often say this in leading trainings, when I come to my job every day, there's a ramp there, but if there weren't, I still wouldn't have to stop and think, "How am I going to get up those stairs and to my job?" If I had an ability issue, then that would be a concern everywhere I went. So I would be wondering, "Are the hallways going to be wide enough? Do they have access at the entries? Do I have to go around back to get into the building?"
  • Carla: So just all of those things help us to focus on not only areas where we may have had some struggle, but what are the areas in which I have privilege that then I can use that privilege to speak for, or to speak alongside is probably a better term, of someone who is experiencing some targeting in that area. And we're really purposeful on saying speak alongside, because what we don't ever want to do is speak for a group, right, because sometimes we can think, "I'm going to be the powerhouse and I'm going to be that voice at the table and I'm going to tell you about this other person's experience," but if I haven't lived that experience, I can't tell you about that experience, but I sure can partner with you as you share your experience and find ways and take it upon myself and make it my responsibility to say, "What are some ways that I can be of support to you?"
  • Carla: If I hear something that's negative or ugly about a group, what gives me that voice? How can I speak up and say, "You know what? That's not okay"? Maybe I used to laugh at that joke. Maybe I used to think that was okay or maybe I used to shy away from a conversation and now really I'm emboldened to say, "Oh, you know what? That really makes me uncomfortable because we're putting someone down. We're being disparaging." And so just first, the self-intentionality and then how we take that out to our buildings and help teachers, recognizing that everybody is in a different place on their journey.
  • Carla: Our work is never about a personal or a character assessment of who you are personally, because we don't want to say, "Because you had all of these privileges, you are just an awful person," because nobody gets to check a box when they're born and say, "I think I want to take this group." That's not the way life works. And so we are raised the way we're raised, we're socialized the way we're socialized. The intentionality piece comes in when saying, "Okay, so I had these X and such benefits not because I worked hard, but just because I happen to belong to a certain group, and how am I going to use the privilege that comes with those benefits to make things better for everyone?" Because if you take away two, three, four areas of targeting, let's say, but even one exists for someone else, then we're all hurt. It's bad for all of us. And so when we do better for one group, we really are doing better for every group.
  • Carla: And so helping our teachers understand that maybe just a shift in, "Why am I seeing student A as having a problem that day and student B as being a problem and being disrespectful and needing to be removed from the classroom. What is it about those two students that's making me see things differently?" So when teachers are now coming and stopping me to say, "Well, I've really looked at my discipline numbers and I've looked at my data and I'm able to say I really was looking at these students differently than I was looking at these students and I'm reflecting on that and I'm going back and challenging my own beliefs and assumptions and changing the way that I administer consequences in the classroom." That to me is moving the needle.
  • John: Yep. So good. That is so good. And I've been taking notes throughout. Appreciate even in this shorter-length podcast, and I hope that it does leave people wanting a lot more, and so maybe we could end with this. One, I did hear you mention the NCCJ, so the National Council for Community and Justice, right? That is the group that was leading the training. Is that what you were saying for the people that were coming back to your school to work with schools?
  • Carla: Yes, that is correct.
  • John: And so maybe let's end with two things. One, if I'm an individual educator, right, I'm getting ready to head back to my classroom today and I'm interested in learning more, even just individually, what is a resource that you first might recommend to me, either a book, article, something that would be an immediate thing that you could reach out and grab, even if my school district wasn't deep into this work yet or starting it, let's start there. What would be a resource that you'd recommend?
  • Carla: Actually, you can go to ... There are a couple of different things. So the NCCJ STL website, and I believe it's just NCCJSTL.com, has some resources there that can sort of start the conversation for you. And that's always a great place to start. We are doing as an equity team, and we just actually had a retreat this morning, which was amazing, a book study, which is always helpful, as we do look into as a group, "Okay, what is the practicality for me?" And so we are looking at a book, These Kids Are Out of Control, because very often with our work, it's easy to say, "If that group just did this, if the parents just did this, if the kids just did that," and so those are two resources that right away you can go to and say, "This might be something that I need to learn more about."
  • Carla: I think it's important to say that we don't say, "Here is a prescription to fix this," because if these were easy conversations to have, we wouldn't still need to have them in 2019, so it really isn't about, "Here's a checklist of things to do," and then you check these off and say, "I'm culturally competent," but really it's an ongoing series of internalized work first that then goes external.
  • John: So good. How about this? How can people connect with you moving forward if they were listening in?
  • Carla: Absolutely. So my email is clondon, all one word, C-L-O-N-D-O-N, at CPSK12.com.
  • John: Great.
  • Carla: I'm sorry, dot org.
  • John: Dot org.
  • Carla: We moved away from dot com. Dot org.
  • John: They're always changing the emails in the district.
  • Carla: Always changing.
  • John: Well, Carla, I am grateful for you, and I actually can't wait to follow up another time to dig more into this work with you. Such great practical examples of what is actually happening to give that vision, but also the key reminders of this is deep work. It's important work and it's doable and we need to be doing it. And so thank you for the work that you're doing. Thanks for making the time to be with us today and I look forward to connecting with you again in the future.
  • Carla: Well, thank you for having me and I always love to talk about our work.
  • John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we're supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening and make it a great day.

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The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.