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DEI in Schools: Can Teaching Intersectionality Foster a More Inclusive Environment?

“During the pandemic, several events occurred in society that pushed us to examine the role of diversity, equity, and inclusion within schools and classrooms,” recalls Krystal Allen, Founder & CEO of K. Allen Consulting™. 

“One of the most prominent of these events was the murder of George Floyd,” Allen continues. “Following this tragedy, racial tensions heightened, as well as resistance to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at the same time. Even today, some organizations and institutions ban books that highlight the holistic histories of communities of color as well as other marginalized groups. They prefer erasing the marks of an oppressive society versus rolling up their sleeves and taking real action to achieve an equitable society. While many DEI initiatives — trainings in particular — build a theoretical understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion, many rarely address its practicalities.”  

Has DEI built inclusive classrooms?

In theory, inclusive education welcomes all students regardless of race, ability, background, gender, religion, or other aspects of identity. It is a framework that addresses inequity in schools and allows all students to learn and thrive by creating environments in which every learner feels seen, valued, respected, and a sense of belonging. In other words, in an inclusive classroom, all children have access to instruction, materials, and opportunities and can achieve their full potential.  When done well, DEI work within schools should help school communities learn the specific practices, strategies, and methods that drive the aforementioned outcomes, as well as support them within the implementation process to ensure adequate follow-up and follow-through.

Why is intersectionality essential to an inclusive classroom?

A great deal of DEI work within schools centers on one aspect of a student’s identity: their racial identity. While this is an important focus and should remain front and center, it will be very important for school communities to also embrace the plethora of additional identities our students — and even adults — hold in order to ensure that schools are not creating nor perpetuating unjust practices and inequitable conditions that also hurt or threaten students’ sense of psychological and emotional safety, as well as academic student success. Intersectionality, a term coined by Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, acknowledges the multiple identities individuals hold — particularly marginalized identities — that produce compounding complexities and nuance to their lived experiences.

“The intersectionality of being Black, female, and the product of a lower socioeconomic background, for instance, impacts every day and aspect of my life,” says Allen. “As a woman of color that is also a first-generation college graduate, I have not only dealt with racism. I have navigated racism, sexism, and classism — especially elitism — all at the same time.”

Intersectionality acknowledges how oppressive institutions such as racism, sexism, and ableism are interconnected. It helps us understand how each part of a person’s identity influences how they may experience the world, such as how they are treated and what unique experiences they may encounter or face. 

An intersectional approach to education recognizes this complexity by noting how teachers and educational leaders can combat multiple systems of oppression within classroom instruction, classroom culture, and school-wide practices and policies.

To create inclusive classrooms where all students can participate, teachers and educational leaders must acknowledge and embrace the development of a richer and deeper lens of understanding of the different needs, challenges, hopes, and desires of students as well as families from a plethora of different backgrounds. UNESCO states that true inclusion happens when educators actively learn from the diversity of the children they serve, closely monitor students at a high risk of exclusion, and eliminate the barriers they face. 

Why educators must understand society first 

Intersectionality asks educators to understand oppression and complexities within their society to better understand the students they serve. For example, a third grader learning English as a second language may not be fully included in the classroom with language support only. If that child is transient due to work demands their parents/guardians face, lives within an impoverished household, and has a learning disability, any and each of these compounding nuances can impact their well-being and academic performance within a classroom.  

Intersectionality helps educators examine the crossroads where the aspects of these identity characteristics meet. They can account for simultaneous interactions between a student’s gender, exceptionality, socioeconomic background, race, and more.

How intersectionality brings real change

This view helps educators understand that an inclusive education is different for everyone, and that educators must account for all of a student’s needs in combination. 

“Our students and staff are multi-faceted individuals who hold multiple identities,” Allen insists. “It is critical that educational leaders and teachers come to understand, honor, respect, and nurture the various aspects of diversity our children, families, and their fellow practitioners bring to our school communities. The intersectional lenses we hold are assets, not deficits or aspects we should shun, discourage, or deflect.”

To live out inclusivity, schools must define their vision for diversity, equity, and inclusion. They must concretely — not abstractly or conceptually — map how they will live it out inside classrooms. They must carry this action to every aspect of schools, including finance, marketing, operations, and human resources.

“Authentic, transformative, and sustainable DEI work isn’t a checklist,” Allen affirms. “It is a lifelong commitment to ensuring that every single child and adult within the school community is seen, heard, valued, and appreciated. It ensures they are treated fairly and given the tools and resources they need to thrive.”

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