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Equity Leadership ‒The Truth, Not The Fantasy (Part 2)

Written by: Brandi P. Sheffield, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Hopefully in part 1, the truth about equity leadership didn’t sting too badly. We all recognize that equity leadership is not about our feelings solely. It is the acceptance of the reality of inequities that exist in our world, especially in education that widens the barriers to access.

Here are few grounding terms and definitions to help frame the absence of equity:

  • Structural Racism is a system in which public policies (like educational board policy, or federal and state education mandates), institutional practices (schools), cultural representation (those not represented in the community but makes decisions for them), and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. (Aspen Institute Staff, 2016)

  • Cultural Norms are unspoken rules driven by historical experiences and socialized “truth”.

  • Governing Structures are spoken rules that govern society

  • Unconscious Biases are what your actions reveal about your beliefs and mindset.

It is important to understand these terms as an equity leader. Understanding how to infuse and educate other adults on seeing themselves is a delicate balance.

As I stated in Part 1, we can not change people. The type of relationship required to change a person’s heart and mind, MOST people are not willing to develop. We can not force people to see things from our eyes, especially if they have never experienced the journey from our perspective.

BUT, we can change the systems that allow inequity to fester and foster, to significantly reduce those inequities that are targeted and hurdled at disenfranchised and underrepresented groups of people. It requires a leader to have 3 skills to execute systemic change: (1) a change management process, (2) systems thinking & design, and an (3) executive presence that transforms anyone to followers of your leadership.

In part 1 I introduced you to systems thinking and design. In this article, let’s jump into how I used change management to uproot and redesign the system to produce equity.

Here is a quick reminder of the context:

At the height of my executive leadership, I was 35 years old. In every space I went into, I was the “only” in at least 2 categories: the only person under 50, the only female, and the only person of color. So when I was hired to lead the central math and science department, I was volun-told to create a 2-year Algebra 1 program for every high school.

I vehemently disagreed with this approach. The background to the demand was that in this predominantly white community, children of color were “invading” the schools, pulling down their scores, and “they” needed a slower pace to understand, and in their “own” classrooms.

This was all driven by the school principals, who didn’t have any tools to push back on the teachers who were complaining. The complaints were driven up to the principals supervisors who also were clueless on what to do. Central office management became bombarded with complaints from schools and parents, because the teachers were friends with the parents in the community and used them to help drive their cause of “something has to be done about these kids.”

Change Management is about understanding the needs of people and ultimately shaping the culture through the people. An effective change manager understands that they must adapt the change, effect change, and control change. Each person within a system (institution, organization, on a team, etc…) all play a role in the impact towards the end goal of the change. This is why understanding what people need and understanding the culture (context of environment) are crucial for a leader to impact.

Here are the 7 components of change management I used to help set the course for change, which produced a 2-year Algebra 1 program (as requested) and required a new level of teacher leader accountability, drastic change in teaching practice, new grading structures, and required efficacy to implementation.

Note: The original change management process has 5 components. I adapted the process to include Gaining Commitment and Ownership, the people components.

  1. Action Plan: Without an action plan, people are tossed to and fro and experience false starts. This is frustrating for the people whom you need to influence to change. By creating a process that defined the results of our data, then collectively brainstorming students' needs, I was able to usher the team of teachers and principals to outline a draft action plan (order of process). This allowed me to expand the needs to the adults' needs of professional development in order to support the action plan.

  2. Ownership: The people in the system must hold ownership for the change, otherwise, there is a false expectation for the leader to ensure that change happens at every level, which is impossible. As we established the needs of change, the school teacher department leaders were charged with instituting the new practices in their classroom first, because they held great informal authority. This then allows them to practice the changes and give feedback on improvements or build the muscle to coach their colleagues. The transfer of ownership to the teacher department leaders provides a higher scale of transfer for the new practices.

  3. Gaining Commitment: Resistance from your team will ensue if a leader fails to take the initial steps to gain their commitment, BEFORE trying to transfer ownership. Commitment is a promise to openness and permission to lead the team through the initial steps, testing it out or offering greater clarity and assurance. With my team, who vehemently wanted a program I did not agree with, with great transparency I laid out the process, timeline and requirements for producing a district-wide math program change. Using the data to show all of the students whom this approach would support, not just “those kids” but all students, the team was willing to take the initial steps of their new learning and change in teaching practices to establish the foundation of the new Algebra program.

  4. Resources: No one does their jobs well without the proper resources. When a leader changes anything, they need to plan every detail, including the resources (tools, training, equipment, technology, etc..) that the team will need, prioritize, and align funding to those resources. In the case of the school district, many items were needed. I rewrote board policy to allow for the change in the grading system district wide. I led a team of teacher leaders to rewrite a curriculum plan that included grade weights, unit plans, 3 common assessments per unit, intervention math software guidance, and in-classroom rotation modules. I also wrote multiple pathways for students learning that allowed them to move at their pace and not be stuck or held back. The lift and learning was extensive but the team saw the investment in leveraging their ideas to produce the resources as an incentive.

  5. Incentives: Teams need to know what’s in it for them. Long gone are the days of “just do your job and collect your check”. Many people want a sense of purpose. In education, in itself it is a job of care and self-sacrifice. Without an incentive, teams will be passive if there is nothing to be excited for, care about or work towards. In addition to the incentive noted in item 4 above, I also created incentives for their pay. Teams who took on the learning and leading for developing the new Algebra program, were allowed to choose University units that are transferrable or district units towards their pay rank. To be eligible, team members must have attended 98% of all professional learnings (could only miss 1 and must inform before absent), regardless of attendance, complete all required practice lesson plans and demo student exemplars for each unit, and complete 100% of the online learning platform on student mindset and conceptual math.

  6. Skills: Teams receive skills through practice, not just training. When teams don’t have the skills, great anxiety of performance thwarts any attempts to produce an outcome. The root is confidence with practice. By setting the frame of practice, practice, practice (without evaluation), a leader allows the team to truly embrace failure which produces the learning. In addition, I held professional training every 3 weeks on new skills and spiraled or stacked prior learned skills. By the end of 4 months, the team felt a renewed sense of skills and confidence to train their teacher colleagues at the school site as well as teach their own classes more effectively.

  7. Vision: Simply put, a lack of vision creates confusion. The higher district leaders, principals and teachers had a vision, but it was not one that I was willing to produce. I was determined to create a new 2-year Algebra 1 program that removed the stigmatism, systemic barriers, diluted the unconscious bias and structural racist practices that plagued this district. I was clear about the vision: We will produce a 2-year Algebra 1 program that is open to every student as qualified for or opt-ed in, designated by a scoring matrix that weighs a variety of metrix, and defines multiple pathways for the students acceleration based on their needs and performance.

The result of utilizing change management with systems thinking (defined in the first article) and the skill I will discuss in the next article, was that in less than 2 years, district-wide, we accomplished:

  • Increased Algebra 1 passage rates from 37% to 89%

  • 99% removal of remedial classes from every site

  • New pathways of access to advanced classes that required Algebra 1 completion

  • Restructure of the middle school instructional systems to: a. Increase the number of students allowed to enter Algebra 1 in 8th grade b. A process to pre-identify gap areas with a process to fill-in student gaps without holding them back or remediation.

That is the power of skilled and trained leadership. I call them an Outlier Leader


An OUTLIER LEADER is someone who has developed their knowledge and execution of change management, systems thinking & design, and executive presence.

Leadership is not about a title. It is persons’ charisma, swagger, magnetism, confidence, composure and ability.

As a person develops their leadership, they must develop their understanding and use of change management for self-reflection and systems change, systems thinking for designing a system, and executive presence to lead opposition into change.

The great news!

Anyone can learn it!

It is not something you are born with. The myth of “some people are just born with it” is a lie.

Every person who has demonstrated impact through leadership, learned it or it was directly taught to them.

Follow me on LinkedIn, for weekly leadership strategies and tips. Visit my YouTube channel for weekly leadership training videos. Interested in exploring how Learning Associates can support your organizational needs, contact us here or visit my website for more info!


Brandi P. Sheffield, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Brandi P. Sheffield, CEO, has served as a senior level district administrator, principal supervisor, co-principal, university professor and teacher. In her 20+ years in education, she has led teams of 100+ people, built the capacity of leaders, design organizational systems and produced significant student gains for disenfranchised youth, low-income students, English learners, migrant students, and foster youth.

As a Sr. Executive Director, Brandi has built a legacy of leaders by coaching executive colleagues and lower management to transform their leadership using executive presence, systems thinking development, and change management to orient a strategic approach to leadership. By designing coherent processes and structures for adult learning, leadership development and efficacy to ownership, Brandi has consistently impacted the lives of the adults and students she has served. An avid implementer of systems thinking models & processes, Mrs. Sheffield has realized her legacy of impact gains for communities and instituted systems for the districts she served, in which those systems are still in operation to date.

Mrs. Sheffield is also a certified master facilitator.



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