The Power of Working Together to Achieve Systemic Change in Education

A Conversation with Jamila Thomas, Senior Vice President for Corporate and Community Engagement at Big Brothers Big Sisters Greater Dallas and 2019 Presidential Leadership Scholar

Jamila Thomas successfully turned an initiative to increase academic achievement for Black students to an institutional program adopted statewide in Texas. But that win is only a first step in bringing equity to students.

(Courtesy Jamila Thomas)

Jamila Thomas, committed to youth empowerment around the country for more than a decade, made waves recently across the state of Texas when her efforts to integrate an African American studies course in statewide curriculum were successful. 

Her work began in Chicago — in the largest youth detention center in the country — and ultimately began to cascade through the city of Chicago. As a 2019 Presidential Leadership Scholar, she developed collaborative action models to improve education and career advancement opportunities of juveniles currently and formerly incarcerated.

Back in her hometown of Dallas, she’s worked to bring about racial equity and establish African American studies in the Dallas Independent School District before taking the course to the State Board of Education. She serves now as Senior Vice President for Corporate and Community Engagement at Big Brothers Big Sisters Lone Star. 

Jamila joined Catalyst Editor Brittney Bain recently for a conversation on her life’s work on equity, lessons learned, and the impact of including everyone at the table to create lasting solutions.

Tell me about how you addressed racial equity and brought about systemic change both to Dallas ISD and the community.

I started with the district initially in what was called the African American Success Initiative, and that initiative was started 10 years prior to me joining the district. I was tasked with building upon the progress that had already been made, and to move the initiative towards a progressive model of increased academic achievement for African American students, which included community engagement, coupled with additional and intentional academic support.

I received a phone call after participating in some meetings from the deputy superintendent at the time who said, "Hey, what are your thoughts around racial equity based on the work you've done with the African American Success Initiative? How can we institutionalize this?"

I knew that four years prior to me joining, the district tried to pass a racial equity policy and it failed at the board level. I don't think because people didn't want progress, I just think that they weren't ready to have a conscientious conversation around how to institutionalize it. There have been people and entities organizing around racial equity for a long period of time and with our current environment it has reached a precipice point that includes fundamental policy change. Historical ramifications of race and racism have had a lasting impact on societies both domestic and internationally. Therefore, having conversations about racial equity while concurrently moving towards systematic and systemic change are critically necessary.

I knew that four years prior to me joining, the district tried to pass a racial equity policy and it failed at the board level. I don't think because people didn't want progress, I just think that they weren't ready to have a conscientious conversation around how to institutionalize it.

In any move towards drastic change, there must be a designed methodology. We had to include as many voices as possible. We had to establish frameworks of change to make sure that we were intentional. My methodology included presenting a proposal for a resolution to the district, and so my process to do that was having conversations with the board of trustees. I drafted the initial resolution and then began the vetting process by the trustees to ensure their voices were included. And in December 2017, it passed unanimously.

My thoughts were, let's offer a resolution first so that we can recognize, acknowledge, and understand any historical barriers to move us towards a comprehensive strategy of racial, socio-economic, and educational equity. The resolution was a huge win for students, parents, staff, and the community at large because it solidified the acknowledgement that the District was ready to move forward. After researching school systems across the country and seeking pockets of excellence around racial equity policies and diversity inclusion initiatives, writing policy was the next endeavor.  For the next six months or so, I began writing and drafting the racial equity policy. My philosophy has always been that in education you should not have to have a diversity, equity, inclusion statement, because education by the mere nature of what it does, includes all those things. It should, anyway. It encompasses the holistic experience of being a human being.

It is interesting, but not surprising, that districts have been moving towards this idea that we must have diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies considering the history of this country. Now, let's be clear, there's a continuum for that. It's not just what's being taught in the classrooms, but it's what type of teachers are in front of students. It's what administrators are in front of those teachers. It's leadership. It's building out policies for all those things that would then cascade through the district — any district. 

My philosophy has always been that in education you should not have to have a diversity, equity, inclusion statement, because education by the mere nature of what it does, includes all those things.

The comprehensive racial equity policy that was sent to the board of trustees passed unanimously, and it was determined that a racial equity office needed to be established. We began to build out the framework for what the office should encompass, and that included several conversations with members of the racial equity leadership training team, which included administrators, teachers, and counselors. It was necessary to build consensus with a variety of voices at the table.

While simultaneously working to build upon the successful foundational goals of the resolution and policy, I knew it was critically important that we discussed history. You must understand the history of this country. We all must have a clear understanding of the historical backdrop of the cultural diaspora to respect why diversity, equity, and inclusions initiatives are necessary. Therefore, while I was working to establish the office and things were moving forward, in the background I was having conversations around do we have an African American studies course? Is that available?

You have a policy that is full of all this richness and robust systemic change, but in order to do that we have to have training. It was at that point that I began the road to craft and cultivate a training framework starting with implicit bias, which is so critical to first understand how unconscious bias works in all of us.

We all have them. We can have a bias against pizza, right? Before you can jump in to institutionalized racism, I believe in order to have a productive outcome you must at least talk about bias. We need to talk about those things that have impacted all of us, but the very basis of this all is this unconscious bias. How you grew up, what you eat, where you live. All these things that make you the dynamic human being that you are, but also, why those things that would cause you to think why one group of people is X, Y, and Z.

So we built out the training framework, starting with implicit bias, moving towards what's called cultural intelligence, and ultimately framing in cultural competency, which is actually the skillset to do these things, and then, finally, the goal was to have culturally responsive teachers, administrators, and leaders across the district. However, the intent was not to stop at cultural intelligence but rather a dovetail into necessary conversations regarding becoming an antiracist organization. This process takes time, patience and I believe a humanitarian spirit.

My faith along this whole journey has always guided me, because it's not me. I recognize it's a higher power that's working through me, to stand alongside me. These things that have passed unanimously, the resolution, things were just lined up and I think, at the appropriate time, and so in January 2019, the board of trustees passed a resolution for the African American studies course.

Students and staff from three Dallas high schools pose after testifying in Austin in favor of statewide implementation of African-American Studies course. (via Dallas ISD News Hub)

And then you worked to have the course integrated across the state of Texas?

February of 2019 is when I began the process of submitting the course to the State Board of Education, to have the African American studies course adopted for all high schools across the state of Texas. 

This was right around this time state board member Aicha Davis began to run for office and so we said, "We're going to work together," and then that began to progress forward. She won the seat on the board, and we began to make the course even stronger, with community members and ultimately involving the social studies department for the alignment process with the TEKS [Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills].

This last April 2020 it passed. It was just a whirlwind of emotions and collective thoughts and bringing people together. And the State Board of Education passed it unanimously. So now, high schools across the state of Texas have access to a robust African and African American studies course.

I was conscientious, and the team was conscientious, in making sure that we were specific about bringing in the African experience first. Dealing with the beauty of what it meant to be an African, and living in Africa through the civilizations, and all the wonderful things that they created from engineering, to math, to science. It was critical to all of us that we wanted to ensure we spoke from the lens of a beautiful ancestral place. Delving into the trauma of the transatlantic slave trade is necessary and a potent part of the African American experience, but it does not define the beauty of ancestral legacy.

We wanted to create this journey for a student to really look at the beauty of the African and African American experience up to present day, and so it's one of the most robust courses in the country based on what we've seen.

So, that's the journey. My experience in trying to positively shift organizations towards diversity, equity and inclusion practices through a progressive lens of racial, socio-economic, and educational equity.

I'm interested in getting your perspective on the academic achievement gap. Why do you think it occurs? What kind of progress has been made, and what do we still need to do?

I like to call it opportunity gaps which is defined by ways in which, according to TNTP Reimagine Teaching, “race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, community wealth, familial situations, or other factors contribute to or perpetuate lower educational aspirations, achievement, and attainment...”. I think what has happened historically when you understand cases such as Brown v. Board of Education and other landmark civil rights cases, they were all focused on equal access to information, to opportunities, to resources, right? And so over time, if resources and access to viable educational growth opportunities have not been available to populations of students and families for generations, then quite naturally it's going to take a longer for a group of people to catch up based on the fact that we have been not privy to information that other groups have been.

If resources and access to viable educational growth opportunities have not been available to populations of students and families for generations, then quite naturally it's going to take a longer for a group of people to catch up based on the fact that we have been not privy to information that other groups have been.

Now, that has nothing to do with the capability of a mind. I want to be clear about that. I think that’s often where this idea of the academic gap comes into play, that students don't have the capacity because of where they're from or what they've experienced. I don't believe that's the case. High expectations in the classroom demand accountability and a focused intentionality to be a culturally proficient teacher/administrator in order to reach a student where they are regardless of circumstances. 

It's really about the lack of resources and opportunities that unconsciously have been baked into the system of education. Let's be clear that school districts, based on where a school is, are provided resources based on the tax bracket of that area, right? Historical ramifications of race and racism including policies such as redlining played a role, and still play a role, in why certain groups of students still do not have the same resources that other schools have access to according to demography and geography.

A seventh grader walks by a Black History Month display at Sutton Middle School in Atlanta. (Allison Shelley / American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)

If you're not getting new resources every year and other school districts are or other schools are, then quite naturally the playing field is not level. COVID-19 has exposed this fact by the attempt of school districts to move to an all virtual platform. Understanding resource allocation is a major contributor to academic gaps or academic opportunity gaps. 

It’s not just what's happening in the classroom. It's the overarching experience of students' lived experiences that can and will contribute to a students’ educational experience. There are layers of disparity that impact a student and/or teachers’ experience in ensuring a child meets the expectations of their educational growth and development. Therefore, whether it is lack of resources, unintentional teachers or a district missing critical curricular and educational resources — the academic achievement gap is a multilayered problem. 

Considering the social and emotional health and well-being of children is a critical component of educational experience. Many children are experiencing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and our school systems must be creative and equipped to meet the needs of that child. Imagine a child who goes home on the weekend Friday, Saturday, cops show up on Sunday. Cops take the dad. That same child is supposed to come to school on Monday and sit in the classroom with a pencil and try to think and write. We haven't dealt with the social and emotional trauma of what that child has experienced. According the Centers for Disease Control, 61% of adults have experienced at least one type of ACE, while nearly 1 in 6 reported that they had experienced four or more types of ACEs.

I think fundamentally we must listen to students and teachers. We need to do a better job collectively internally and externally, because they're telling us what they need. The question is are we listening?

I think fundamentally we must listen to students and teachers. We need to do a better job collectively internally and externally, because they're telling us what they need. The question is are we listening?

Talk a little bit about the work that you're doing now at Big Brothers Big Sisters and how you've brought some of these lessons learned along with you in this role.

When I made the transition to Big Brothers Big Sisters, I was thinking to myself, "Wow, I’m so grateful to be transitioning to a space that is fundamentally about children, mentoring." I think the ultimate calling in life is obviously, pouring into young people's lives. So, when I began the process of interviewing and going through the vetting process, I thought this work is going to feed my soul.

The goal that we have is to connect hearts with hearts. People with people. And it comes in the form of mentoring and relationship. When the pandemic made its arrival, it revealed what has been happening in the underbelly of our country. It peeled back layers of injustice that we have seen but fundamentally ignored in this country, racial and social injustices that have been happening for quite some time, but the pandemic exacerbated what many of us already have experienced.

When the pandemic made its arrival, it revealed what has been happening in the underbelly of our country. It peeled back layers of injustice that we have seen but fundamentally ignored in this country, racial and social injustices that have been happening for quite some time.

So now at Big Brothers Big Sisters, we're moving towards fundamentally how to ensure our Bigs, Littles, and their families have the resources they need to navigate conversations impacting all of us. We are living in a world consumed by virtual engagements. Therefore, we are making sure that we're crafting a framework to ensure that our Bigs, Littles, and their families have a space where they can seek resources in order to have conversations that are relevant and conscientious without doing more harm than good.

I've been tasked with helping to build out those practices around our diversity, equity, and inclusion work, bringing in a racial justice lens as it relates to how we systematically do business. When you become a Big, we must ask very specific questions, and some of those questions are around where do you live, are you comfortable volunteering in this area? And so, what does that mean? What are we saying? Are there particular areas that we shouldn't be in? Well, there are kids there.

These are conversations that we're having, and perhaps the language that we're using, that we've used in that past, is something that we need to work on updating in a progressive way. Having a progressive model of understanding racial, socioeconomic, and educational equity — that's what we're working through right now. The lesson I've learned is that it's critically important that we have these discussions regardless of the space and work that you're in, so that we can value the human experience and respect our diversity.

One of the analogies that has always stuck out to me is this idea of what exactly is equality, and what exactly is equity? There’s this picture that shows a very, very tall man. Next to him, there's this woman who's about average height. Next to her, there's a little boy that is I'd imagine a rambunctious little 9-year-old boy. Next to that little boy is a girl in a wheelchair. The idea is that we give them all a bicycle. They all get the same bicycle. Even if they can't use a bicycle, they all get the same one. Well, that's equality.

Well, equity is you give the big, tall man a bike with big wheels and big handlebars so he can sit comfortably on that bike. You give the woman a bike that is ergonomically correct. You probably give the little boy a dirt bike because he's rambunctious and wants to play. And the young lady who's in the wheelchair, you give her a bike that she can sit in. You can't have one without the other, and with equity, that means that some people will need more than others to ensure their quality of life.

Some of us need a little bit more than others, and as it relates to mentoring, what's baseline is that we all need a mentor. All of us. I don't care what age you are, what creed you are, what your human construct is, or how you define your culture. We always need somebody in our corner. That's what we're moving full steam ahead on at Big Brothers Big Sisters.

We all need a mentor. All of us. I don't care what age you are, what creed you are, what your human construct is, or how you define your culture. We always need somebody in our corner.

For Big Brothers Big Sisters, we're moving towards making sure that every single kid who has raised their hand or has filled out an application, that we are moving full steam ahead to make sure we identify a mentor. We still have a wait list of about 400-500 kids who are just waiting. We also have kids that are now signing on more because they're like, "We're not going to be in school like we typically are used to," and normally, perhaps your mentor is used to be your sports coach or your teacher. Well now those relationships look different. Big Brothers Big Sisters is doing the best we can to create a sense of normalcy. 

Big Brothers, Big Sisters Lone Star Dallas continues to match mentors despite physical distancing. (via Instagram @bbbsgreaterdal)

We believe that we're able to step in as we always have been, but even more so now, we're able to virtually step in and say, "We're here. We're going to do everything we can to identify a caring adult that you can lean on and talk to outside of your parents and aunties and uncles. We have another extended family member that has been vetted 100%."

What drives you and inspires you to keep going?

Human resiliency. I always go back to, fundamentally, the human resiliency that's in all of us and being able to tap into it when you need it most. Sometimes that's the hardest thing to do, which is why it's so important to have people around you.

No one has the same human spirit, which is why it's so important that we work together collectively, because I need your spirit just like you need mine to keep going. You're not supposed to be alone, which is why the pre and post COVID-19 world is so interesting, because we're being forced to stay apart when really, we need each other to keep going.

There’s a scripture that says, specifically Ecclesiastes 4:12, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” You can work it together versus trying to figure it out on your own, and that's what keeps me going.

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