Conversations for Change: A Queer Endeavor: Queering Leadership With Dr. Bethy Leonardi and Dr. Sara Staley

Want to learn about creating cultures that are affirming of gender and sexual diversity? This workshop series brings attention to policy, climate, and social and cultural norms and practices. While our focus is on gender and sexual diversity, our commitments extend to issues of equity more broadly. Working toward liberation requires always looking through an intersectional lens and questioning how our practices reinforce harmful norms along lines of race, class, language, and other identifiers and their intersections. This session will focus on queering leadership in higher ed and workforce environments.

Originally aired on May 18, 2022


DR. ANDREA BOWENS-JONES: Hello and welcome, or welcome back, to the 2022 NCWIT Summit on Women & IT, which continues to be the world’s largest annual convening of change leaders focused on significantly improving diversity and equity in computing. My name is Dr. Andrea Bowens-Jones, and I am the Corporate Initiatives Program Manager at NCWIT. It is my pleasure to welcome you to this series, which features speakers with a diverse range of perspectives, and hopefully, provocative ideas and worldviews. 

We would like to thank you for being here today, and without our sponsors. So, we would like to thank them as well for making this event possible. And I’d like to thank you, the viewing audience, in advance for your patience should we experience any bandwidth or other technical issues. 

I encourage you, through today’s session, to post your questions and/or comments on the Q&A board, and upvote questions you would like to have answered. Please also feel free to use the Q&A if you have any technical issues. You may also have the opportunity to ask your questions live, but please do remember during that time to keep your mic off unless you are speaking. 

Well, I hope you are excited about this session, because I am! I have the distinct honor of introducing our speakers: Bethy Leonardi, and Sara Staley – which are both co-founders of A Queer Endeavor, which aims toward crating schools that are safer and more affirming to LGBTQ+ and gender-expansive youth. A Queer Endeavor seeks partnerships with educators and school communities to make unworkable the silence that has historically surrounded topics of gender and sexual diversity in education. A Queer Endeavor seeks to grow the knowledgebase on gender and sexual diversity, affirming policies and practices in education, inform research and praxis, and engage in broad-based coalition fielding a variety of community-based stakeholders. 

Bethy Leonardi, whose pronouns are she/her/hers, is currently co-founder and co-director of A Queer Endeavor, and an assistant professor in Education Foundations, Policy, and Practice at UC Boulder. Before earning her PhD, Bethy spent 16 years as a secondary English and math teacher. In general, her work explores how public schools – as compulsory institutions – affirm, include, deny, and are silent about queer identities. Specifically, she’s interested in how educators enact promising practices that disrupt and heal cisheteronormative school ecologies to create schools that are ready for, and not merely reactive to, queer youth; a way into understanding school ecologies through a focus on the relationship between policy and practice, and at a level of implementation. Specifically Bethy is interested in policies that challenge the status quo; that is, what counts normal in public schools. She works to understand how those policies might land in local ecologies, and how educators might till the soil so that they land safely and have positive impacts. 

Now, for the introduction of Sara Staley, whose pronouns are she/hers/hers, and is an assistive professor in Teacher Learning, Research and Practice in the School of Education  at UC Boulder, and co-founder and co-director of A Queer Endeavor. After earning her undergraduate degree and teacher licensure from the University of Kansas, Sara spent six years as a language arts teacher, primarily in Southern California. Her classroom teaching experience fueled curiosities about how teaching is such a difficult profession to learn, and in 2008, she moved to Boulder, Colo., in pursuit of her PhD. Her research and community-based work are animated by deep commitments to justice-oriented teacher education, and to creating safer, more humanizing school cultures for LGBTQ+ youth, families, and staff. Currently, she studies how educators learn and enact queer-inclusive and anti-oppressive practices. So, join me in welcoming today’s speakers. 

DR. BETHY LEONARDI: Hi everybody! 


BETHY: Sorry that those introductions just went on and on, like we are important or something. Thank you for being here. We are going to do something a little bit different in this session, in that you all are going to be identified as presenters, so that you can…Or, panelists, I’m sorry, so that you can turn your cameras on, and hang out with us. We will also be able to talk with you. You can raise your hands, and of course, use the chat. But, just so you know right now, the folks in charge are identifying you as panelists. 

All right! Let me share my screen, and then, we’ll get rolling. Okay. 

SARA: All right. So again, my name is Sara Staley. My pronouns are she/her/hers.

BETHY: And I’m Bethy Leonardi, and my pronouns are she/her/hers. 

SARA: Yeah. We are, in a nutshell, teacher educators and researchers in the School of Education at the University of Colorado – Boulder. In 2014, we started A Queer Endeavor. Essentially, we are an organization that works in partnership with teacher education programs, districts, school communities to support educators, school leaders, and youth-serving adults to learn about gender and sexual diversity. Really, our goal is to work together to create learning environments that are safe and affirming – really of all young people, but with an emphasis on LGBTQ+ youth. The approach we take in that work that you’ll experience in this session today involves considering what queer theory and queer pedagogy afford us. So, we’ll dig into that.

As the name of our organization suggests, thinking queerly is essential to our work. You may be familiar with the way queer can be used as an adjective to signify a particular identity or the whole range of identities and expressions that fall under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. But, as we’ll explain and unpack in the next few slides, when used as a verb, queer means something pretty different. Essentially, to queer something means: to question what counts as normal. 

BETHY: I’m sorry. Okay. So, bringing a queer approach to this conversation about diversity and equity in education and leadership means looking beyond inclusion of more diverse others beyond adding difference. A queer approach asks instead: What does this space leave out? Or, whose opportunities are limited in this space, and why? What’s going on here? It shifts the focus to the space itself, and how normativity is functioning along multiple and intersecting lines of identity and oppression. For example: race, sexuality, gender, ability, status in a particular organization. 

So, it implicates you in systems of normativity. It provokes us to ask: What is my contribution to how normativity is functioning here? Is this organization, or this classroom, or this district, or this school … What’s going on? How is normativity functioning, and what are the consequences of how certain norms function?

Finally, we’ll use a queer approach, too. A queer approach involves recognizing that learning does something to us as learners, just as leading does something to us as leaders. So, we’ll consider the emotional dynamics of this work that you are all committed to doing. We will raise the question: What does leading toward equity and inclusivity do to leaders? That’s where we’ll start today.

SARA: Alright. One more time, as a reminder, if you receive a pop-up notification to become a panelist, please accept that. That way, we can have the opportunity to see your faces, if you turn your cameras on. Then, we can also have a conversation. You’ll be able to unmute that way. 

Okay. So, moving on to the next slide. We will start by digging a little deeper into our use of the word queer. We like to break down the meaning of the word in two different ways that I kind of already alluded to. 

First, you can think of queer as an adjective and as a noun. When you’re using queer in this way, you’re usually referring to, or describing, people. That’s a really important point. Because oftentimes in our work in schools and education spaces – especially right now, a lot of times when we talk about queer people, or LGBTQ topics, or gender and sexual diversity, it gets framed as a controversial issue. We like to say: “No, kids and families are not controversial. These conversations are about people.”

So, when you are using queer in this way, you are signifying a particular person’s identity or the whole range of identities and expressions that fall under the LGBTQ+ umbrella; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning identities. Sometimes, queer is used as shorthand to capture the ever-growing and expanding acronym. 

Something that we like to say is that it’s important to let folks name and identify themselves. Certainly, not everyone in the LGBTQ+ community calls themselves queer, but we both do. So, in the title of our initiative – A Queer Endeavor, calling ourselves “A Queer Endeavor” is one way to kind of honor how we identify. 

When you’re using queer as a verb, it’s a little bit different. As we mentioned in our opening slide, this comes from queer theory. When used as a verb, queer means “to question,” as Bethy explained, what counts as normal, or what counts as common sense in a particular context or space. 

Thinking about the schools and communities in which y’all teach, and work, and lead, what counts as normal there? How do those versions of normal come to be? How do we learn who counts as normal and who counts as different? How do those stories about who and what count as normal or and who and what count as different – how do they operate? So, who do those norms work really well for and privilege, and who do they marginalize, silence, and exclude? 

In the context of our work in A Queer Endeavor, we questioned what counts as normal and even appropriate to talk about in school spaces. We try to push on assumptions that surround what families and relationships look like, what’s possible in terms of how young people identify and who they might become in the world. In terms of pedagogical or teaching practice, bringing a queer approach means that were not just talking about LGBTQ+ people. We’re also trying to question and disrupt what counts as normal with respect to gender and sexuality certainly, but also race, language, ability, body type. And, what changes do we need to make in order to disrupt those norms and transform the spaces that we’re in to be more affirming and more humanizing?

BETHY: In keeping you all at the center of this, we want to acknowledge we are all coming to this conversation from different places. So, some folks in this Zoom space might be newer to conversations about equity, diversity, and inclusion – and maybe, especially as it relates to leadership. Sometimes, even the language itself is hard to wrap our heads around. With that, there’s a certain awkwardness to engaging in conversation, and there might be fear of saying the wrong thing. If you are here, we invite you to lean into what might feel like discomfort. We’ll do our best to create what we call a soft space of accountability for us all to land in. 

Others of us have been here quite a bit, because we embody identities that are typical to, or typically central to, conversations about diversity. There’s power in that, to have an identity that is implicated in certain conversations, but there’s also vulnerability. So, we want to put that into the space, too – that conversations about equity, and justice, and identity, land on different bodies in different ways. Thinking about this as you bring what you learn from this session back into the spaces that you’re in, that starting these conversations, you know they are tender and have different implications for different people. 

Then last, some of you are already immersed in DEI work. You are flying around with your justice capes on, and pointing out hot spots in your organizations or communities. If you are there, awesome! Show up that way, as somebody who’s willing to share their knowledge and expertise. Also, still finding places where we might continue to learn and grow. 

SARA: Given that, we want to invite you to reflect on how you are showing up to this conversation, and to consider how the other folks in this space are showing up. 

We’ve facilitated conversations, kind of like this one, with probably 10,000 educators at this point. We’ve noticed that sometimes, people want to jump straight to action, and to the logistics of how commitments to diversity and equity and justice will live. That’s important. Obviously, taking action matters. 

But, we really firmly believe doing this kind of internal work, that – in a minute, I’m going to read this quote by Gloria Anzaldúa that she’s kind of alluding to, or discovering, is absolutely crucial. We also know that, especially for y’all – folks who are positioned as leaders in particular communities, there are vulnerable dynamics that surround your own personal processes and relationships to the type of internal work that we are asking you to do. That is typically ignored in conversations like this one. So, we want to name and honor that. 

We love this quote from Gloria Anzaldúa, because it reminds us that a crucial first step toward any kind of social change involves starting with ourselves, and turning inward to confront the assumptions and biases, and vulnerabilities and strengths, that we bring to conversations about identity, equity, diversity and justice. So, Anzaldúa says, “The struggle is inner… The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the real world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.”

We also know, from having these conversations, facilitating these conversations a lot with folks, that talking about identity, equity, and diversity is rarely easy. We know that, sometimes, we can tend to avoid these conversations because of our fears of being vulnerable. So, we just want to name that, too.

We are going to ground in a couple of … I am going to read some questions to you, and just give you an opportunity to take stock of what’s coming up for you, in this moment, and to ground in that personal, internal work. The first question is this, and I am going to change it slightly from what’s on the slide. Do you think we should put it in the chat?

BETHY: I don’t have that.

SARA: Well, I guess it’s on that. I’ll put this. This is the first question that’s slightly different than what’s on the slide. 

So, just maybe close your eyes. Consider this question as we launch into this conversation this morning. What will this conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion for leadership bring up for you personally? Maybe take a moment, just to check in with what’s going on in your body in this moment right now. What’s this conversation bringing up for you personally?

Now, take a moment to think about a vulnerability you might be holding; something that you worry could limit your effectiveness, your willingness to show up to this conversation, and to participate in it wholeheartedly. 

Now, think about a strength you are bringing this morning. Something that will help you to engage openly, and honestly. 

The last question is this: Now, take a moment to think about the vulnerabilities and strengths that other 65 people in this Zoom room might be holding in relation to this conversation. 

BETHY: Okay. So, I am going to just stop sharing my screen for a minute, and see if we can see you all. If you feel like turning your cameras on, don’t worry about your bangs. Listen, I spent just a few minutes this morning. 

Oh, it is so nice to see people!  Thank you. Oh, hi Edie! Hi, John! Oh, look at this!

Okay. So, we want to just start here. You know, what we have done – just because of technology and Zoom – is have people share out in the chat. If you’re sharing a vulnerability, just label it V. Then, share what you’re bringing. If you’re sharing a strength – and it could be a vulnerability and a strength, use S. Then, just share in the chat what you are bringing to the space today. 

You didn’t know you were going to have to do anything. See?  We are queering things up, and we do want to have a conversation. It’s really important to know who is in the space, right? If you are leading in this work, keep that in mind as well. So, let’s just take a few moments. What’s here? What are y’all bringing today? 

This is actually when you do something. Oh good, thanks! 

Nice. Yeah, thank you. This is really rich. 

You know, just as you take in your colleagues’ reflections here, sharing, just hold these. I mean: thinking about the embarrassment that we feel when we’re trying to come from a good place. That’s real, and I think it’s on us to kind of create the space for people. Calling on adrienne maree brown, who says we have to be invested in each other’s growth and transformation. 

SARA: That’s for sure.

BETHY: To take that seriously, we have to share grace with people as they continue to grow and learn. So, thank you. Thank you for these. 

All right. I am going to move us along. Let’s see. All right. 

So, we want to name that there are “usual,” or sort of normal, ways of even having conversations about inclusivity, and equity, and education. In organizations, they often involve imperatives, like “we must diversify,” without consideration of, really, what that means, why we seek it, or the resources of time and emotional energy that are actually necessary to think beyond knee-jerk reactions. 

Usual approaches don’t often ask what is it that we hope to diversify, and what is it that we hope diversity will do for us and to us? Right? And with us, how might the story of our organization, district, school change when new voices are foregrounded?  What might that bring up for me personally? What work am I willing to do and not do? 

Typical approaches often involve locating the problem; sometimes, in the most privileged folks in the room. Followed by a series of declarations about ownerships of privilege, and then, perhaps, temporary compliance. They involve repeating stories of institutional inequity, sitting in the space of what we’re not doing or getting right, and in the abstinence of power. That’s not the approach we’ll take today. 

Instead, as we mentioned in the introduction, we’ll center and really take up his question of: What counts as normal? We know that historically, many institutions – including those in education and beyond – have been biased toward particular kinds of workers, learners, employees; particular ideas about what’s normal. Working toward creating equitable educational and organizational context requires that we look through an intersectional lens, and that we take seriously the ways that normativity operates along multiple lines of identity and intersections. That’s what we want to name and to disrupt. 

So, that means that we’ll dig into your broader contexts. This is a session that we hope to support you to really reflect and engage the contexts that you all live and work in: the policies that you have, social and cultural norms that you embrace, common language and discourse, ideas of who counts as a “good fit” for your organization, and why that is, and to think together about the lived experiences of employees, students, staff, and faculty, and how a lot of our identities often clash with normative cultures and systems in ways that are really consequential. Okay.

SARA: All right. So, here’s some questions on the next slide that Bethy is going to show you. Here are some questions to help you start digging in, and taking stock of, and recognizing, and listening to what’s what in the context and communities in which each of you works and leads. 

So, using this overarching question, which – if you can’t tell by now: it’s our favorite essential question, “what counts as normal?” We are going to ask you to take about five minutes, on your own initially, to think through these questions. Feel free to turn your cameras off, if you turned them on. Reflect in writing, or some other modality that works for you. 

I’m going to read the questions in a minute. Then, ground yourself in them. Then, we’ll come back together, and invite y’all to unmute, and talk to us. We’ll try to have a little conversation. 

So, Bethy just put them in the chat, but the questions under this umbrella of what counts as normal in your context or community. So, thinking about the many layers of the communities in which you lead. For example: the social and cultural norms in that community or context. If you’re in an educational space: curriculum and pedagogy, the language and discourse, power dynamics. Who and what count as a good student? A good employee? A good fit, as Bethy said? Who and what gets counted as valuable?

So, what counts as normal? What comes to mind, if you were to just brainstorm some of those norms? Then, relate it to diversity, equity, inclusion specifically. What counts as normal when it comes to good leadership, and then, what doesn’t? 

Then at your place of work, what counts as normal in conversations about equity, inclusion, and diversity? What counts as normal in the ways that people show up, in what people say and don’t say, and who says what? And, what counts as normal in terms of what you know resistance looks like?

All right. So, It’s 11:26 (a.m.). Eleven thirty-one, let’s come back together. Just do some silent reflection on your own. We’ll call you back in five minutes. 

BETHY: All right, y’all. Let’s come back together. Talk a little bit about what’s coming up for you in your reflections. You can share in the chat. You can raise your hand. You can just shout out. We’re here for all of it. What’s coming up as you think about the places that you live and work? 

Yes, Mary Kate? 

MARY KATE WILERSON: Hi, my name is Mary Kate, and I work as a women’s program coordinator for STEM programs at the University of Central Florida. One thing that I have found in the year and a half that I’ve been in this role that drives me utterly insane is: what is normal for our University is everyone – all the students – are either male or female in our system. So, if I’m going to pull rosters to see how many? You know I can’t see how many women-identifying students there are in our computer science major because it just lists female, and that’s based on what their birth certificate says. 

So, if I pull a list, I know that I’m excluding some. I know I’m including some that would rather not be included in offerings that I’m providing. That’s one of those normalities at this university, and I’m sure at many universities, that I wish could change, and I don’t know if or when it will change. 

BETHY: Yeah. Yeah, thank you. I mean, we are seeing that. You know, in so many organizations like schools that track students’ identities, it’s like, “You are either this or this. It’s too difficult for us to figure out how to do something different, to do it differently!”

But, I will say that there are many universities moving to a less binary tracking system. So, reach out to us, and we can get the party started at your university. Nobody’s going to do it, right? 

I mean: I think I will say right now: You know we are in this. We should have really named the moment that we’re in. In the next session, we are, but you know this is a really hard time to be a trans person, to be a queer person, to be any people of color. Of course, that’s no surprise to you all. 

But, I think with regard to trans people in particular, there are over 250 bills across the country attacking rights of trans people; trans youth, in particular. So, I hope that this session puts a little fire in you to just start the conversation. Get people on board, because you know these little instances of how normativity functions, these are like microaggressions. They build up, and they hurt people daily. 

MARY KATE: And I will just say, in defense of UCF, in our web courses of the online classroom system that we use, students can change their identity in that. But, it’s from our administrative end. It gets frustrating sometimes. 

BETHY: Sure. Yeah, thank you. Thank you. 

What else came up for y’all? 

Yes, Jenn? Thank you. 

JENN GIBBS: Sure. So, what came up for me, as far as what’s considered normal: I think individuals with behaviors that support productivity in the classroom. You know, students who follow directions and can sit still for prolonged periods of time, for example – which can be very oriented toward neurotypical behaviors. But it’s also: There can also be some real gender expectations, and attached to that, stereotypes. 

So, you know girls – cis girls – that don’t fit that, the mold of the obedient girl, may have their needs unmet. And then of course, that’s skewed highly against boys who aren’t neurotypical. But then, when we talk about non-binary folks and anybody who is in that fluid space between those polarities and expectations can get lost; their needs can get lost. So, I guess that’s speaking a part of, in my mind, the harm that these rigid definitions can have. You know, just part of the harm. 

BETHY: Yeah.

SARA: Yeah. It’s reminding me of when we work with teachers and we get deep into their taking stock of what counts as normal in their schools and classrooms in the contexts of their curriculum. We like to emphasize that these norms that surround cisnormativity and heteronormativity; so, norms that surround gender and sexuality. I mean, gender in particular …  Those norms affect all of us. They create very rigid expectations and boxes that you know we’re all supposed to fit in – and they don’t. They don’t fit. 

We have worked with many teachers who have opened up these conversations with really young learners; like, second, third, fourth graders, because kids know these norms. They have learned them, and they like to talk about them, and what counts as fair and not fair in terms of these gendered expectations and what we expect of kids – especially in school spaces. So, finding ways to open up these conversations with youth, with adolescents, and even with adults, I think is a really productive move. 

BETHY: Yeah. I’m curious about those of you who aren’t in an education context, but in organizations. How does normativity function with respect to gender, and masculinity, and femininity? 

I mean: I know that sometimes, in our places of work, you know if somebody … It’s like, “Can somebody take notes?” It’s always the women taking notes. It’s always the way, you know? Or, it’s like, “We need somebody to do something on the weekend.” Well, you know the men are busy. Apparently, weekends are very busy for men.

So, you know I’m curious. Do y’all have any? In your organizations, what kind of norms are you noticing? It’s not – I don’t think that these are easy questions. Because they’re asking you to think about that status quo and common sense, and to turn it on its head, which is hard to do. But, I know you’re smart, and I know you want to talk to us. So, organizationally, anything come up with adults around these questions?  

ANDREA: Well, while we are waiting for others to chime in, I am going to put one out there that I thought about as you guys were kind of explaining the norms. 

I was in a volunteer organization, and they were talking about preparing food. I barely want to cook for my own family, let alone do it in my volunteer time. Immediately, the person who was facilitating it said, “OK, women. Can you guys be the ones that prepare the table and bring the food?” So, even down to thinking about what’s normal for women’s roles versus male roles, even in volunteer efforts, if you think about that. So, yes. That’s mine. 

BETHY: Yeah. Yeah, thank you for that. 

All right. Catherine, I can’t hear you. 

DR. CATHERINE ASHCRAFT: Can you hear me now? 

BETHY: Yeah.

CATHERINE: Oh, good! Apparently, my AirPods won’t work if I need to talk. Just often, In the organizations we work with too, it was reminding me of personality penalties that we often explore with when you violate gender norms; if you’re “too bossy” or too assertive, or being told to tone it down, or if you’re not assertive enough, fitting other kinds of stereotypes. I think that happens a lot. 

BETHY: Yeah, and then, when we add intersectional elements of our identities. Even – and you know – in schools, and we’re going to play a text in a minute, the school-to-prison pipeline is heavily populated by boys of color. You know. So, making sure that when you think about these questions, with respect to the contexts that you’re in, that you are thinking intersectionally, and recognizing that these norms really affect people, and what they’re willing to do, and how they feel about themselves. Which is important, right? 

Terry, where are you? There you are! Hi! Say your question? 

TERRY HOGAN: I was wanting to ask a question about normality versus expectation. Is that the same thing? Is it different? Do we expect things because they’ve been normalized? Do we normalize because we expect them? How do those two things relate? 

BETHY: My answer is: Yes. I mean, that’s the thing. We have to break the cycle, right? It’s like we go through the motions, but people who don’t? If you are a student, or if you’re a person in the world, and you walk through the world without thinking about your identity, things are working pretty well for you. Right? I think it’s like we have to start thinking. You know kids, or people, who don’t, who have marginalized identities in schools in particular; they are walking through the hall, they are bumping into things all the time with respect to multiple aspects of their identity. They don’t fit, right? People with minoritized identities have to think about this all the time. 

I think what we are trying to queer, or to flip, is to say: if you’re not feeling uncomfortable, why not? What are all the things, as a white whatever-how-we-identify, that are working for me, and why are they working for me? And who might not they not be working for? Right? Challenging ourselves, you know?

I think about different stereotypes; like, about bossy women, or whatever. We all have reactions to things that are out of the norm. So, instead of thinking, “I wish she’d quiet down, just like a XYZ…” Instead, we have to think: Why am I so affected by what’s happening right now, because it’s not normal? Right?

So, that’s the way we take that inner work that we talked about at the beginning, and sort of put that in conversation with the ways that these norms function, because we are perpetuating them all the time. Because they are easy to perpetuate, if they work for us. Does that make sense? 

TERRY: Yeah. Definitely. Thank you. 

BETHY: Yeah. Yeah, all right. Let’s move us along; give you a break from being on the spot. Let’s see …

SARA: I do think it’s important, too, that we have a little transition note on how we want to make the transition across these slides. These questions were really meant to have you all, againl take stock of your communities, or your organizations, and what counts as normal. Because that’s the first step to thinking about what needs to be disrupted because it’s working, those norms are working, really well for certain people within your organization, but not so well for others. So, take this question back with you, and see what kinds of conversations it might open up, and what kinds of things you can change based on disrupting the norm.  

BETHY: Okay. So, when it comes to taking action, there is sometimes – you know – a stall. It seems that part of the struggle in conversations about equity and diversity is that there is a distance between the problems, or what we perceive to be the problems, and our personal, individual involvement or contribution to those problems. Maybe it’s because these conversations tend to focus on issues to be addressed, and that’s where the discourse stays. 

In the broader social context, there is the issue of same-sex marriage, or the bathroom issue, or the immigration issue. In higher education, there are issues of low enrollment, retention of students and faculty of color, the gender equity issue, the issue of junior faculty burnout, the issue of hierarchy. Right? When we keep those conversations at the level of issues, first – we ignore that those issues actually affect real people, and second – we keep the problem sort of out there; somewhere external to who we are and what we do each day. 

So, what we want to do moving forward – and I mean, we’ve kind of been doing it all along – is: Shift that, and really make the move from thinking about issues of diversity and inclusion to thinking about the lived experiences of employees, students, faculty, staff, including your own experiences. Turn inward and ask, “What’s my contribution?” What are we all doing, knowingly and unknowingly, to reinforce certain norms, assumptions, practices that impact the lived experiences of people in the communities that you work in? We want to hold space for possibility of creative thinking as we move on. 

SARA: All right. So, with that in mind, we are going to turn to a text. This is Nancy Hanks. When she gave this talk we are going to show you in a video in just a moment, she was a top administrator for the Madison, Wis., school system. In this talk, which he gave to a group of over a thousand teachers, she really gets at this idea of bringing some of the problems that we have, or issues that we have, in education a little bit closer to home. 

We know that some of you are in education, but many of you are not. So, we are holding that, and we think what Nancy Hanks has to say is impactful for thinking about leading in a whole bunch of different contexts and the different ways that we are all implicated in these systems and norms that, again, work really well for some folks, but not at all well for others. So, Bethy is going to share, or play, the video for you. Then, we have some questions that we are going to give you to kind of chew on. 

BETHY: All right. 

[Video starts] 

NANCY HANKS: I thought really long and hard about what I had to say to you about a subject like the school-to-prison pipeline. I found myself wondering what I had to say that was so compelling, or profound, that it would lead you, inspired, to acting convicted. I thought, like, “Maybe what quotes could I share?” You know? Should I go with an MLK quote, or more like a Ghandi – “be the change?” You know the usual suspects. But, that didn’t seem like the word that I wanted to share with you this morning. So, I went back to the drawing board. 

In my next draft, I decided: Maybe I should just point to the data. Right? Because the data should be enough to move them. Stats shared by the US Department of Education, like the fact that while Black students represent only 16% of the student population, they constitute 32-42% of students suspended or expelled and 27% of students referred to law enforcement. Then, I thought, “If I really wanted to piss them off, I can share stories about judges literally selling kids to privately-run jails and detention centers, and making close to $2.6 million in the process.” 

But then, I started to think about this a different way. You see, a part of the problem is: When we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, some of us are looking for someone to blame; a group, a system, an antagonist, or a villain, if you will. We’ve somehow found a way to conveniently externalize the pipeline. We’ve made it about systems, and structures, and vestiges, and we’ve divorced it from the actions that each of us take every day.We’ve made it this abstract thing, you know? Something out there. Something to be shunned, and examined; a Huffington Post article to share, another cause to tweet.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not asleep, or naive, or dismissing any of the complexities of institutional racism, or mass incarceration, or the myriad of forces at work here. But when we do that, we keep the conversation at that level, and we only focus on it that way. It allows us to avoid doing the one thing that none of us want to do, which is: Make it personal, and admit our own fault and contributions to the pipeline. 

And I know that’s hard to hear, but yes: you and I – intelligent, well-intentioned, warriors of equity, we contribute to the pipeline. Consider this. If you’re a teacher, it’s in the moments when the unconscious bias that we all have compels you to address the aggressive, or off-task behaviors of your scholars of color, while the identical behaviors of their white peers often go unaddressed. Banishing those students to the main office, discipline referral form in hand, while you continue on with your Common Core-aligned lesson. That’s your contribution. 

If you’re a dean, or a principal, or assistant principal, it’s in the powerful decision-points that you hold as to whether or not you’re going to suspend or expel students, sometimes as young as 4 and 5 years old, because they’ve somehow “disrupted the learning environment.” Or, violating one of the often subjective infractions in our codes of conduct. It’s also in the incidents when we deliberately misuse school resource officers, inappropriately involving them in incidents that often don’t need officer involvement, and escalate in a matter of seconds; blurring the line of what is criminal behavior, and simply matters of school discipline. That’s your contribution. 

If you’re a superintendent, or a CEO, or you’re a CMO, then it’s in the policies that you fail to change: continuing to promote zero-tolerance, masking it as just a commitment to safety or high and unwavering scholarly-like expectations; failing to engage your boards in the conversation around the data and the disproportionality, because they may think a restorative approach would be too soft. After all, rocking that boat might cost you your next contract. That’s your contribution.

And I can go on and on, but you get the point. Yes, systems matter, and yes, there are villains out there, but we’ve got to be way more honest and own our piece of this. Now, I can see somebody walking out of here and feeling some type of way. Saying, “Did you hear her? She up there talmbout I’m contributing to the pipeline! I am a drum major for justice!” But, I promise, I promise you, it’s all in love. It’s all in love, and I don’t have all the answers. I’ve just tried to learn from my mistakes. 

Just this past Christmas Eve, I ran into one of the only students that I ever referred to for expulsion when I was a principal on the West Side of Chicago. I was on an elevator, headed to dinner, scrolling through my Instagram timeline. The bell rang. The doors opened, and I heard a raspy but warm voice say, “Hello Miss Hanks.” My eyes lifted from the screen, and I saw this tall and familiar frame standing before me. 

I remember the incident quite clearly. He brought a BB gun to school; a very realistic looking BB gun, and I was livid at the time. I wasn’t angry because I thought he wanted to hurt somebody. I actually didn’t believe that he did. I was angry because I had busted my behind for two years at that point to turn that school around, and establish community, and to repair the climate, and to make kids feel safe. Him bringing that BB gun wasn’t just a threat to safety. It was a threat to me, and my reputation that I was building for myself and for the school – and nobody was going to compromise that. 

At the time, I couldn’t separate the child from the act. I couldn’t find that powerful, just mercy that Bryan Stevenson so passionately writes about. So, I went to my code of conduct, and I referred him for an expulsion.

I greeted him with a, “Hey, sweetie! How are you?” It was all I could manage to get out at the time. My heart was pounding, and at that moment, I could feel the full weight of my decision rushing at me all at once. Is he still in school? Has he been in trouble with the law? Did I toss this child into the pipeline? My mind was racing, and at the time, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. 

“I’m cool! I’m cool,” he replied. “You know, I’m at Phoenix, the military academy. My grades, I mean, they’re pretty good. I’m getting ready to take the ACT. I was actually going to come out and see if I can get some help with that.” 

I was selfishly relieved that – despite my lack of compassion, and understanding, and patience, and mercy – that he seemed to be thriving. By the grace of God, he hadn’t wound up in the juvenile justice system. We chatted for a few minutes. I fished a business card out of my bag. I gave him a hug, and told him to call me so I could make sure that he was well-prepared for the ACT. “Okay, cool. Merry Christmas, Miss Hanks,” were his parting words, and we both went our separate ways.

I cried as soon as I got in the car, and all the way to dinner. I prayed for forgiveness for that time, and any other time that I betrayed the privilege given to me to be a steward, a protector over children I served. For anytime I never just let kids be kids – goofy, care-free kids that make mistakes; sometimes big, sometimes small. And, for holding kids to standards that I don’t even hold myself to, quite honestly. I tried to pull it together, and I could hear my grandmother’s voice say, “Brand new mercies, baby; brand new mercies. We all get brand new mercy each day.” 

So today, I’m grateful. I’m grateful for the grace that someone extended that young man when I couldn’t muster it up myself. I’m grateful that I got a chance to get it right in my current role as the Chief of Schools in Madison, Wis. In 2014, under the leadership of my superintendent, we passed new policy that departed significantly from the district’s past code of conduct, which was based on zero-tolerance. It was a courageous and conscious choice that included the elimination of suspension in grades pre-K through third grade, and a drastic reduction in – [applause] thank you – in the number of infractions that could lead to suspension and expulsion in grades four-12. 

In our first year of implementation, we saw the suspensions decrease by more than 40% across the district, which restored 1,900 days of would have been lost instruction; 1,200 of which were for African American students. Each day, our team continues to refine both the policy and the implementation of this plan, and there’s still more work to be done – but that’s my contribution. When you know better, you do better. Thankfully, that applies to all of us, and we all have access to those new mercies; a chance each day to walk out of here, to do over, to try another way, and to own our own power to dismantle the pipeline. 

Thank you.”

[Video ends] 

BETHY: All right. Before we throw some questions at you to reflect on, I just want to offer in the chat: What are you sitting with? What feelings are coming up around leading? Around different pipelines that exist? So, what are you sitting with, feeling-wise?

Yeah, thank you. All right. So, Hanks recognizes that there are complex and powerful institutional forces out there that affect the ways in which equity is distributed. In her case, that created a context for the school-to-prison pipeline. 

She calls on us to do some hard, internal work by making the pipeline personal, and admitting our own fault and contributions to contexts that create pipelines in the first place. She recognizes that our individual actions look a few different ways: unconscious bias, and the ways that we hold power and make decisions with that power, and the ways that we fail to change systems and structures when we know that they have disproportionate effects on some members of the community. She also honors the emotional labor involved in learning, and leading, and acknowledging our complicity in normativity. She offers the possibility of brand new mercies to recognize our humanity in all of this. 

SARA: Okay. Given the framework that we’ve built so far in the last hour of this session – so, taking a queer approach, questioning what counts as normal, and making the conversation around leading toward equity and diversity personal and implicating ourselves in it – these are the questions that we want y’all to reflect on. These are meaty questions. We don’t have a ton of time to spend here. So, maybe just zoom in on one or two, and really spend your five or six minutes of reflective time there. 

But, here are the questions we want to offer you: What sort of pipelines does your work and your leadership produce? What does complicity with or participation in creating those pipelines feel like? How might those pipelines be informed by your own biases, assumptions, relationship to normativity? How are they produced through your actions and inactions? What you say and don’t say. What you take for granted, as like, “Oh, I don’t have to do that because somebody else will.”

The second set of questions is this: What does leading toward equity and diversity do to you? In the beginning of this session, Bethy kind of pulled up this thread of taking a queer approach. It really means considering: What does learning do to us? What does unlearning do to us? What does leading do to us? So, really try to implicate yourself here. What does leading, what does this conversation – what’s it doing to you? 

What are some cringe-worthy moments that you’ve had? What are some cringe-worthy moments erased by narratives of good leadership that you’ve experienced? What do you tell yourself that good leaders must do, or not do, and why? What does it feel like to embody those imperatives? What makes it hard for particular folks, as individuals, to carry them out, or be on the receiving end, because of their bodies and identities? What does it feel like to listen and bear witness to those stories and experiences? Maybe, what can’t you bear to acknowledge or name? 

So, take about five or six minutes here. Just zoom in on a particular question or two. Then, we are going to invite you to have a conversation with us around what came up. So, be prepared for that. 

Okay, y’all. Let’s come back together. If you feel like turning your cameras on, getting your sharing guts ready. Let’s sit here for a minute. What came up around these questions? Talk to each other. John? 

JOHN KELLY: Yeah, I think the second part of the first question: What leading with equity and diversity does to you, and what’s an example of a good leader? I sort of embody – or, what I normally view as a good leader is – someone that does everything they can, given their own ability and biography, to disrupt these systems of oppression. Whether that’s the school-to-prison pipeline, whether that’s that cisheteronormative structure, or whether that’s racial injustice, I think what that does to you is incredibly vulnerable. Right? I think it normally sets you apart, and really sometimes makes you into a troublemaker; a lot of times, someone that is quite literally trying to disrupt the very systems that our entire society has. It’s sometimes isolating. It’s sometimes incredibly difficult. 

Yeah, to the last question on that: Why do people sometimes not do that? What identities prevent folks from doing that? I think that is a really revealing question. It’s a really difficult thing to disrupt major, oppressive systems, and fight for equity, and justice, and diversity in equity. It takes a lot of courage. It takes a lot of willingness to sacrifice, maybe, your professional and personal relationships. 

The thing about the very last question: What can I not bear to know? It’s just like, maybe for just myself: What good did I miss out on by staying silent and willing to protect my own privilege, and willing to protect my own personal and professional relationships by not speaking out on something of injustice? That I could’ve done some good, either in an individual’s life, or in the broader community, or just in my own coworkers, so that – I don’t know, it made me feel very emotional. It really spoke to me. 

SARA: Thank you.

BETHY: Yeah. Thank you so much for all of that. That’s so tender and critical. 

It’s just like what came up for me, in listening, it’s like the ways that, when you are trying to do the right thing – or the right things, that’s when you become a problem? You know? That’s when you become a “troublemaker.” It’s just so interesting, and I would say that’s a pretty normal thing that happens when people are stirring the pot of equity – which is just really deep to me. So, thank you. 

SARA: It reminds me of the Bayard Rustin quote that we like to lean on quite a bit. I think it goes something like, “in every bay, and every community, we need more angelic troublemakers.”  

BETHY: Yeah. Well, I’m going to put something in the chat right now that just reminds me of Andrea Gibson. Actually, I don’t have that on. Okay, I will put it in the chat in a minute.

Andrea Gibson, who is a Colorado and queer poet, has a blog called “Things That Don’t Suck,” and they’ve been putting out. It’s just really wonderful, actually. One of the things that they just put out today, it’s called “Mental Health Tips for Activists.” It just reminded me of listening to you talk. I’m going to put it in the chat so you can take a look at it. 

What else came up for the rest of you? 

CATHERINE: Can you hear me? I think some of those questions made me think about ways that, in trying to challenge the systems or do this kind of work, you can also worry about ways that you can inadvertently contribute to the problem as well, and subtly. So, I feel a tension that I worry about a lot.

I’m sorry for the loud siren in the background now, but because a lot of the work I do is with tech organizations, technical teams, and a lot of cis white men, often I feel like there’s tension between coming in and challenging people enough versus challenging them too much, so that they don’t even listen to you. Right? 

Then, feeling like sometimes maybe we softball things too much and coddle; or, present it in diplomatic ways, polite ways, that don’t press hard enough against the system. But, we do that as a trade-off to meet them where they are and have them listen; to make sure, or up the chances, that they will listen. But what’s the cost in doing that, and how does that maybe hurt marginalized groups that are in the audience as well who, maybe, don’t appreciate that approach. That’s something that I wrestle with all the time.  

BETHY: Yeah. We do too.

SARA: We do too.

BETHY: Working in systems like schools, districts, we are not like a community organization. We are tied to the University, and we work with districts. So, it is hard. 

I think we came up to me listening to that is: Naming that! You know, like In the group, and saying exactly what you just said. 

CATHERINE: Yeah. Right.

BETHY: You know, like, “You know what I’m noticing? I am really hoping that we get people on board, and to do that, I feel like I am soft-balling some things. I really need to put that out there. Like, who am I taking care of here? I am taking care of the most privileged people in the space, and that’s a problem. What do y’all think about that? What if we, sometimes, just disrupt? Yeah! Put them, put people on the spot in the sense that I am doing this thing that’s perpetuating this thing that I’m actually here to disrupt. Yeah. 

CATHERINE: Yeah, a meta-level conversation. 

BETHY: Yeah. Yeah! Maybe let’s hear from a couple more folks? 


BETHY: Edie, yeah!

EDIE: This is something. These prompts bring up lots of different, deep reflections – both in the work we do and with Aspirations, but what I was going to mention and was just pondering about is a little bit more for my personal life. I have two teenage daughters. I think we have worked with you, and we have been working as a team, on being much more… you know, honing and improving our comfort level and ability to be more gender inclusive – in particular, our program, over the last couple of years. 

I think, maybe it is exactly this prompt you are giving us as an overall framework. You know, even the way I just said that, “getting more comfortable with this;” and getting more comfortable with gender-inclusive language, and using appropriate pronouns for people, and making sure that we’re addressing them the way they want to be addressed. I think I was talking about someone who uses they/them pronouns, and the way I said it wasn’t totally, exactly correct. So, my daughter, of course, corrected me, because teenagers. It was my reaction; my internal emotional reaction internally was kind of like, “Hey, I’m an older-generation person trying!  Why don’t you give me credit for that? Why don’t I get some points for being someone who is aware that you have friends that use other pronouns?” You know? 

But, you have really turned it around for me to think about. It’s not about getting points. I’m not trying to get a participation trophy or a ribbon for being someone who is trying. Right? That’s not enough. To really just think about, okay, maybe the me of 2022 is different than the me of 2018, but that doesn’t mean that the me of 2023 cannot be pushed further. 

BETHY: Yeah. I love that. I think, just bringing in the idea that – to call on Andrea Gibson again, actually – it hurts to become. You know? Like recognizing and being able to understand that feeling that you had, I think, is something that’s missing from a lot of this type of work. 

What we sort of really ground in, and we start with it, is: This is going to make you, this is going to be uncomfortable. You know, when we work with teachers or school leaders and they’ve been in the business for 30 years, and they figure out that some of the things that they are doing are disproportionately affecting certain students who they care about, that destroys them. So, how we come to this work is like, “Hey, no. We are holding you right here. Tomorrow, when you know better, do better.” Right? Brand new mercies, and that whole framing. 

Because I think that not understanding that feeling just leads to people really revolting; it’s like an emotional revolt, like, “I can’t bear to feel this.” I think one of the biggest things that I hope you take away from this, if you are in a leadership role, is to recognize that if you are trying to do this with your staffs, where there is a power differential, that you understand that that emotional peace is really key to kind of getting at, “You can’t just tell people, ‘Well, it’s because you’re a white man, and that means you’re a racist, and you benefit from a ton of privilege!’ and they’re like, ‘Thank you so much! I’ve been waiting for this.’” You know? It’s like, have a little critical grace, I guess. 


JACQUELINE: Hey. First of all, thank you all for everything that you’re sharing. You know, especially what you are speaking to in this, what you were just saying, is like for me – especially in the leadership that I have been in in my life at different times, and as an educator. It’s always starting with myself; creating awareness in myself. Right? 

As we do this work, where we put this label on it – DEI, you know all the ways we need to label these things, right? To create structures, to talk about it, to encourage, to invite, and I think the language is helpful sometimes. Then, it also does create barriers for people. It creates, perhaps, boxes around these things that might not be helpful, or might create obstacles for people to understand how they can personally relate to it. 

So, while I love using the language, I choose for myself to also dismantle the language. Say, “Okay, how can I come to understand any bias that I have in the course of any given day? How am I judging anyone at any time, including myself?  Making someone lesser than, or greater than, based on some physical appearance, or something I know about them – whether that’s socioeconomic, or education, or you name it; to just to be curious about it. 

I am always leaning into, for me, the skills that I try to offer. Even in my workshops, it’s around awareness, curiosity, and kindness. I create awareness to notice where that bias is coming up in myself. Then, I ask questions of myself, and try to understand: well, where did I learn that? Then, I don’t beat myself up; I then bring kindness in, and say, “Okay, how can I shift that?” I think there’s a way when people can. 

Like you said at the beginning: How do we lean into this work, right? How do we create invitations that people can actually lean into, as opposed to feel defensive, or like something is wrong with them. Or, if they can’t relate to a feeling, like “I just don’t get this,” it’s like: We are all in it together; it touches everybody, and it just looks different. You know? 

I always appreciate Andrea Gibson, who is someone I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with quite a bit over the years. So, I value a lot they bring to their work and artistry. So, thank you for referencing them as well. 

BETHY: Yeah. Andrea is our kids’ godparent. Andrea is Moe’s “auncle;” uncle and aunt mixed. Yeah. 

So, I think too, you know it’s this work. Sometimes, there are certain spaces where I’m not going to have patience. You know what I mean?  As a queer person, as a person who is genderqueer, who is not in the binary, you know I get paid for this; you know, I get gay for pay. But, there are times I am not getting paid to do this, and I’m angry. Like, this is a freakin’ emergency right now. You know? Like, where are my allies? Where are my accomplices when all this legislation – like, what other group is being legislated against across the country? I am pissed about it! 

So, there are times when I just need to be around queer people. I can’t hear about people trying, you know what I mean? I think that we all need to make space for that too, given our identities. Anger is necessary; if not, it’s just going to eat us up. So, I think that when we are around people who do live minoritized identities, to recognize that they’re relating to this emergency differently. How do we make space for people who are the most affected in the room to engage in the learning too? Where, it’s not just for the people who have the most privileged identities, if that makes sense. 

All right, we are going to end with a… Is this you?  

SARA: I don’t know. 

BETHY: Let’s do it together. One, two, three…  So I — no, I’m just kidding. 

SARA: So, we’re not going to do that. 

BETHY: All right. So, I guess our hope is that this is the beginning of a conversation you can start with yourself and bring back to your colleagues and your contexts. We did want to leave you with some questions to consider as you continue to do this work. 

What internal work do I need to continue to do to recognize my contributions? Where or how can I continue to challenge my own assumptions, understanding of, and relationship to normativity? What will it look like for me to be proactive? Again, we can leave here, and be like, “this was such a good conversation,” but we really need to start doing stuff, y’all. The time is now. 

How does what counts as normal inform my leadership?  What might I be reinforcing and perpetuating, or how might stereotypes and normative thinking? What would it look like to challenge those norms? 

Let’s just end, in the chat, with this last question, just sharing out some responses to this: What would it look like to offer ourselves and each other “brand-new mercies?”  How might we leverage the possibility of brand-new mercies to deepen our communities, and to think and act creatively? 

Will you put those in the chat? I am going to put these questions in the chat so we can see that question in the chat so we can see each other as we leave today. Let’s take that question up. What would it look like? 

All right, y’all. Thank you so much for being here. One thing that we’ve been saying in our sessions because we have just been noticing: you know, related to the legislation and the discourses around anti-critical race theory initiatives, anti-trans, it feels like we are playing defense a lot. So, we want to challenge you to play some offense, do something proactive. And then tell somebody about it! Brag about it! Get a high five. 

Yeah. Thanks again for showing up. Reach out. I think Andrea is going to… 

ANDREA: Yes. I am here. Please join me in thanking Sara and Bethy for an inspiring, informative, thought-provoking session. You guys were awesome, so virtual handclaps or physical handclaps! I feel myself ready to challenge what I have even called norms, so thank you for that gift in today’s session. 

All right!  So as we wrap up another inspiring session today, I want to remind you to not forget to order your virtual NCWIT Summit swag bag, featuring an issue of our re:think magazine, and so many other great things. Make sure you go ahead and check the chat, click that link, and order that swag. 

Also, this is not the end! Please join us tomorrow for the celebration with the winner of the 2022 Pioneer in Tech Award: Poppy Northcutt. You can register at 

Also, save the date for the next Conversation for Change on August 24, 2022. That’s at 11 a.m. MT, with Dr. Maya Israel. She will lead an engaging conversation about her research on strategies for supporting academically diverse learners’ meaningful engagement in CS education. 

Finally, please take a moment to complete our survey by following the link that will appear on the screen. We read every single response and really appreciate you taking the time to provide us with feedback. The survey link will also be sent to you as a follow-up in the email. Thanks again! We appreciate your participation, and we look forward to seeing you at our next session!  Goodbye!

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