Open the door to liberation.
Beware of Equity Traps and Tropes
In the March 2021 issue of Educational Leadership: Equity in Action
Lead. Heal. Transform. Together.
ABOUT DR. J
Creating the space to radically reimagine leadership. Attending to your leadership and healing needs. Unequivocally moving us toward a more equitable and inclusive world.
Dr. Jamila Dugan (she/her/hers) is an author, leadership coach and researcher.
Jamila has dedicated her career to making “equity” more than just a buzzword. She works with individuals and organizations across the nation to develop and support transformational leaders who care deeply about advancing diversity, equity and inclusion.
She has a particular focus on the education sector, with over a decade of experience coaching mentors and leaders.
Jamila knows firsthand the importance of strong and diverse educators in students’ lives, and that real systems change centers student voices, especially those most underserved. From a young age, growing up in East Oakland, CA, she felt like she wasn’t good enough, pretty enough, or worth enough.
In middle school, Jamila had a number of teachers who made an impact on her life — making school a place where she could thrive and succeed. But by the time she started high school, her life was in transition. At home, Jamila was dealing with custody battles between her parents and felt tolerated (not loved) by her mother. So, she sought “love” elsewhere: hanging out with friends, looking for affirmation and running from her trauma.
By 10th grade, her school experience changed. She realized that her peers — mostly Black students and students of color — weren’t being tracked into the same honors and advanced coursework classes she attended. Jamila felt out of place. Overlooking the challenges she was experiencing, the resounding message from educators was do better and to be better without direction or support. Though high expectations were professed, the bar for her and her peers was low. Her school counselor even told her, “Maybe you’re not college material and you should consider another route instead.” In that time period, Jamila’s expectations for herself changed dramatically. She wanted to be with her peers so she unenrolled from advanced coursework classes, yearning for a place to feel valued and feeling the burden of others’ low-expectations. School had quickly become just a chore — Jamila was unseen by most of her teachers, and her friends were her only guide with no one in school encouraging them to embrace their talents, skills and expectations of what they could be. Left with no mentors and no in school support system, when Jamila was 15, she was expelled from high school.
Jamila then transitioned to live with her father who enrolled her in a pan-African school focused on identity development, self-love and education for Black liberation. This was pivotal. Her teachers there would become the guides that would push her to critically think, see herself as valuable and reinforce positive messages about what she could achieve.
The mentorship she gained from teachers like Baba Thabiti who had high expectations of what was possible for her set the stage for her commitment to leadership focused on student affirmation and healing. These experiences are what ground Jamila as a leader and coach — the implicit bias and explicit systemic low-expectations that many Black and other students of color experience.
Today, there are many students just like Jamila whose future success should not be dependent on low expectations, standardization and past mistakes. Students cannot be what they cannot see, and Jamila has dedicated her life’s work to cultivate leaders who seek to be the models students need. She leads from the stance that systems fail students; they don’t fail themselves. Schools, districts and leaders must strategically disrupt practices that hinder liberation and work to close the gap between their expectations for a better world and the impact on students’ academic, mental and socioemotional wellness. Jamila believes that is the pathway toward a more just education system.
Jamila is the co-author of Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation, focusing on culturally-rich education environments and anti-racist approaches to reimagine learning. She has also co-hosted the Brave Spaces Institute that brings together hundreds of participants to learn how to lead inclusively.
Dr. Dugan began her career as a teacher in Washington, D.C. She holds a doctorate in Education Leadership for Equity from the University of California, Berkeley; a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from George Mason University; and a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Fresno State University.
Jamila lives in Philadelphia, PA with her husband and two children.