Equity as a Way of Life: Introducing a Compassionate Systems Approach

By Tiffany Gipson, Shirley Giroux, Neeni Lomborg and Troy Selvey

Edited by Art Kleiner and Peter Senge

July 27, 2023

The four authors of this article decided to write it together after a series of conversations about equity convened by the Center for Systems Awareness. The article’s purpose is to identify and describe the common practice that is emerging in many different locations about equity as a way of life in education. 

The authors are: 

Tiffany Gipson, program director of Equity and Quality Initiatives for the California AfterSchool Network, and author of the related article “Context Matters;” 

Shirley Giroux, school counselor at Valemount Elementary and Secondary Schools in Valemount, British Columbia, whose Ph.D. in Health Sciences involved studying the sources of resilience of self-identified female teachers who managed multiple caregiving demands in their daily work; 

Neeni Lomborg, educational specialist and consultant on Compassionate Systems Thinking and Sustainable Development Goals and Equity in the educational sector, in organizations and at corporate-level. She is also the co-founder of YOUNG, the UN City’s national education center on the Sustainable Development Goals in Copenhagen, Denmark, and former education manager at UNICEF Denmark, where she founded the Rights Respecting Schools. 

Troy Selvey, manager for equity and quality initiatives at the California AfterSchool Network and author of the related article, “On-Ramps to the Equity Highway.” 


What do we want to grow?

This is the first question to ask when introducing the concept of equity to students, educators and community leaders. Equity is the principle that all human beings have equal value and ought to be treated with respect and care for their well-being. To achieve equity in education, we must develop leaders who can transform our institutions, by eliminating inequitable practices and cultivating the unique gifts, talents and interests of every child. 

You can tell when an education system is a place of equity. It demonstrates care for all children, students and adults associated with it, and provides them all with abundant opportunities that fit their needs. When people connect, there is a high level of mutual respect, openness and support. Success and failure are not predictable by a person’s social identity: by race, cultural background, economic status, or any other similar factor. Instead, each student is seen as an asset, with potential for growth. Educators – and the students themselves, as well as their families – are accountable for making the most of that potential. When we see ourselves and each other as assets, and we think about what we want to grow, the barriers related to oppression and equity begin to fall.

Unfortunately, many schools do not meet that description. Nor do many other organizations that interact with children, such as youth groups, juvenile legal systems and child welfare systems. They are influenced by deeply embedded structures, practices, policies, and procedures, with roots in oppressive systems. These forces, often active beneath the surface, make children (and often staff and other adults) feel as if they don’t have value, remove their dignity, and restrict opportunities for them. 

Many school leaders recognize that inequity has become a way of life. They see that there are oppressive forces at play, and they sincerely want to reorient the schools in a more positive direction. But they don’t know how to start. 

As a starting point, the question “What do we want to grow?” shifts us to an aspirational frame of mind. All people have dignity and need to experience that dignity to truly learn and grow. Schools should be places where students can explore and develop their talents as their first priority – and where they can learn how to be contributors in building their community. Education at its best is about connecting with our humanness. mutual respect and inquiry – not a win-lose competition that subtly favors a pre-selected group.


Problem-solving and the deficit model

This aspirational frame of mind helps us avoid one of the most common pitfalls in educational change: the problem-solving orientation. This is the temptation to treat the existing system as “broken,” so that outsiders must come in and fix it. 

The problem-solving orientation fits with the “deficit” model that prevails generally in education – a model that regards the schools, the teachers, and the students as deficient in significant ways. The purpose of school is to address the deficiencies: in particular, to give the students  what they’re lacking. Since most people working on equity and related issues are traditionally trained to follow this deficit model, it is easy to fall into it, and then into the problem-solving frame of mind, without realizing its subtle, pervasive limitations.  

From an equity perspective, neither the system nor the people are broken. The existing school system may make people miserable, but it is producing exactly what it was designed to produce: 

  1. Education, defined in terms of imparting academic and technical skills, aimed at establishing qualifications; 
  2. Power dynamics and control, exemplified by the set curriculum, the bureaucratic checks and balances, and the expectation that students should perform to specific outcomes; 
  3. and an ongoing win-lose competition that subtly favors a few people at the expense of the rest.  

The system does not naturally produce personal and social development for everyone, or mutual respect and inquiry among adults and students, because that is not its purpose. 

The real question is not how to fix the system. It’s what we want the system to produce.  

Until we consider this question – What do we want to grow? – we will continue to address the symptoms of inequity without altering the underlying system at all. 


The youth development model

Gradually, educators have begun moving away from the deficit model and the problem-solving perspective. We see firsthand the damage they do to students, how they hold adults back as well, and ultimately how they diminish everyone involved. 

The alternative is a youth development model. Rather than trying to fix people or fill a gap, our goal is to help develop the talents and capabilities that are already here.

The youth development model is not easy to follow. But it is more natural and aligned with our true work as educators. Once kids know that the adults are there for them, they are much more able to learn.  Educators who live and breathe the youth development model naturally maintain classrooms and schools with a high level of equity. They don’t always know that they are doing something special, yet everyone can see how much they care about the students – and about one another. 

Many educators agree with the youth development model in principle. We may even have become educators in the first place because we share a vision of all children growing into their own potential. Yet under the pressure of the everyday school system, we tend to revert to the deficit model at times. It’s easier; it’s expedient. It’s common. 

We may ourselves have grown up being treated as broken, and internalized the resulting interactions as “the way things ought to be.” Or we may have become habituated to the idea of a problem-solving persona for ourselves. We may see ourselves as heroic professionals, armed with techniques, fighting the good fight, saving students – and implicitly assuming that those students lack the abilities and confidence to lead change themselves.


Troy Selvey, Program Manager, Equity and Quality Initiatives, California, AfterSchool Network, U.S, California Hub, North America

“A few years ago, I got a reality check that was like a gut punch. I was coaching a girl’s basketball team, and I said casually to them, “My job is to lift you up. I’m here so you can stand on my shoulders and get an assist.” 

“Why do I need to stand on your shoulders?” asked one of the girl students. “Your job is not to lift me up. It’s to move out of the way so I can stand in that space and lift myself.” 

This hurt because I saw myself as an advocate for women’s rights, particularly in sports. My mother and grandmother had raised me to regard women as equals to men. As a coach, I was actively involved in integrating girls into the sports teams, not just on the field but in our outreach and fundraising. 

I also remembered my own resentment as a basketball player in middle and high school. Some teachers had “lifted me up” by giving me passing grades so I could stay on the team. They thought they were doing me a favor, but I knew that ultimately they were setting me up for failure by not holding me accountable for gaining the skills and knowledge I needed.  

I asked myself whether I was actually providing support for these students or if I was causing more harm. I realized that I was trying to be a hero: doing something for them that everyone is capable of doing for themselves. Ultimately, I had to rework my wiring: my thought processes and my approach. In conversations with students (or, really, with anyone, and especially with women), my job is to stay curious, not to jump to solve problems. 

This realization affected me, not only in my workplace but in my personal life. Once the light was on, I couldn’t turn it off. Everywhere I looked, I saw examples of myself falling into the role of problem-solver. One example is training my daughters and niece, who are all in middle or high school. One plays softball, one plays volleyball, and one plays basketball. In the past, I would have brought them all to the gym at the same time and trained them with the same routines. Now, I tailor each one’s workout to fit their needs. 

I had always seen myself as a servant leader. Now I began to redefine what that term meant. The idea of leading and helping people from above was itself steeped in supremacist culture. So I began to be more deliberate about connecting with people directly.”Troy Selvey


To shift from the deficit and problem-solving models to the youth development model, we take several steps. We focus on developing more generative social fields in which we can talk safely about these complex and emotionally charged issues. In such a field, we can share perspectives, including our own experiences with equity, focus on developing key individual and collective capacities to nurture the field and focus on. We build the capacity we need to improve the current system. And we set a course for the future. 


How do we set the social field?

Another simple truth comes to the surface when we tap this aspirational energy. People do not live in isolation. We live in relationships with one another. Humans are a social species. Wherever we interact, there is a social field at play, shaped by and shaping that interaction. 

The term “social field” refers to the interiority of the conversation, individually and together: the shared sense of thoughts and emotions that we develop together through our ongoing interactions. The social field is the glue that holds our individual attitudes together. If people feel aspirational and creative, the social field will amplify those feelings. If people feel anxious or defensive, the social field will take on that flavor. 

Therefore, in talking about equity and anti-oppression, it is important to pay close attention to the quality of the social fields – the invisible but tangible atmosphere that underlies our conversations. We do this by setting “containers”: strategies and practices that set a tone of human dignity, so that people feel they can talk openly and with mutual respect. 

Our goal in developing a social field is not to relieve discomfort, but to foster psychological, emotional, and physical safety,  in which we can talk about what is real to us about race, gender, and other emotionally charged topics. 

We have learned that there is a delicate balance in creating the safety and caring that allows a person to talk about difficult personal experience. We deepen a social field by accepting and honoring the intrinsic validity of each person’s experience. 

These conversations require time; they can’t be rushed. They also require some basic ground rules: the willingness to not interrupt each other, and to listen fully before responding. In emotionally complex territory like this, neglecting the quality of the field will lead to conversations that invoke defensiveness instead of vulnerability, and little or no real progress will occur.

Our ability to do this in education is especially important, because young people are very sensitive to the quality of the social fields around them. If anything, students are more sensitive today than in years past, because they are surrounded by examples of disrespect and polarized objectification of “the other.” 

Adults in positions of authority, including the school- and community-based educators and administrators, thus have a special responsibility in setting containers and establishing social fields. That is why the way they show up personally can be a great lever for change. 

We thus have to pay attention to the way we treat adults. For students to care about learning, the adults in a school must care about the students. For adults to care, they must experience being cared for. 


“I’ve used the social field concept to illustrate the changes I’ve made in my own thinking and presence. 

When I was a math and science teacher, I became aware of social fields when I recognized that the most important conversations with young people always happened after the bell rang. That’s when I had the flexibility to meet them where they were. During the class period, we were rushed to cover quantum mechanics. But afterwards, we entered a generative space, grounded in compassion, where we talked more openly. 

Today, I try to give all my conversations about equity the same sense of connection that I experienced after class. If you’re in a conversation with me, I accept that your experiences are as important as my own. In that sense, I am you. The minute I hold that as a truth, the things that I create will be for you as well. I will not only think of me when I’m creating; I will think of you, and of how I’m holding the field for both of us.” – Tiffany Gipson


What is our personal experience with equity? 

It’s important to open a discussion about equity by inviting participants to talk about their own experience. None of us can be sure what the other people will say. Equity means different things to different individuals. In the United States, it often involves  racism. In other countries, race is less obvious, but ethnic groups or immigrants may be systematically marginalized or exploited. There are also issues of equity, nearly everywhere, related to gender and sexual orientation. 

Neeeni Lomborg, Independent Consultant, Denmark Hub, Europe “As an educational specialist on issues of equity and sustainability, I find that the conversation on equity is often influenced by its context. Issues of racial or ethnic equity have a lot in common with issues of gender equity. Both share many of the same social power dynamics that cause inequity. 

However, issues of racial or ethnic equity in Denmark can appear to be a more unknown and unpleasant territory to move around in – at least compared to the US, where these issues are more articulated even though they are not resolved. In Denmark, there seems to be a language better developed to talk about gender equity, than that of talking about racial and ethnic equity. The language of talking about racial and ethnic equity seems to be in the process of being developed,  

In my experience when working with students and professionals, the approach to equity is based on how we understand not only our own being but also how we relate to others. Agreeing that we are all equal as beings is one thing; actually practicing equity is quite another. Practicing equity has to do with how we understand ourselves and how we interact with others. Equity comes first and foremost from an intention to perceive oneself as the other and from the courage to lose part of oneself in the “we” that is essentially equity. 

In this sense, working with and for equity becomes the basis for sustainability. Social, economic and environmental sustainability cannot happen if we continue to perceive some people to matter more than others. To ensure equity and sustainability we must start with working on ourselves, our inner sustainability and the intention with which we relate to the world around us.”  – Neeni Lomborg 

Many forms of inequity may seem small and insignificant at first, but can have major effects on the culture of an organization. For example, when international groups communicate over Zoom, it is often in the English language, and at a time convenient to the United States or UK. English is a dominant language, in ways that native English speakers do not typically see. 

Meeting leaders may not fully consider that they are regularly asking some colleagues to be at their best, in a non-native language, at 2 AM their time. When non-native speakers search for the words to express complex thoughts, it is valuable to slow down the conversation and invite them to take the time they need to think it through in their own language first, and then translate it into English.  

Some forms of inequity are close to serious oppression, with deeper roots and more lasting effects. When people talk about harsh experiences with inequity – being judged by the way they look, being afraid to leave their house without ID, or experiencing sexual harassment or assault – they may tap into past trauma.

That is why we should make time for each person, allowing each person to speak at his or her own pace. The beauty of the collective is that people can take part as themselves, but in a safe container. Gradually, they recognize their own agency. At any time, they can calibrate their ability and willingness to take a stand: “What is the level of change that I can safely ask for at this moment, and how do I hold the space for that change to occur?” They can feel secure that as they continue to work with these issues, their capabilities will continue to get stronger. 

The language we use to address our experience with equity is important. It has a lot more to do with our mindset – or our heartset – than we may think. The move toward equity comes first and foremost from the intent to perceive the “other” as one would perceive oneself, and oneself as one would perceive the other. Basically we all have the same need to feel recognized, worthy and loved. No one is better or worse than the other. If we adopt this view we can talk about equity as an aspiration, something to which we can aspire and grow into. This gives the whole issue energy, related to our common aspiration for growth and our common values.


What capacity are we building? 

Many people who enthusiastically support a strategy for improving equity do not yet have the skills to follow through. Given that most educators sincerely espouse ideals like “all children have value” and “they should have equal opportunities,” then why is it that few of us have experienced being in a school or community environment that lived up to these ideals?  We believe the answer is that few appreciate the ongoing developmental work needed to build such an environment, and what is required to sustain this work. . 

For our work on equity to thrive, we must build our capacity in three broad developmental areas. The first is self: we engage in reflection on our own aspirations and explore our mental models and thinking. The second takes place in connection with others: we develop stronger relationships, become more aware of one anothers’ aspirations and perspectives, and improve our capabilities for reflective conversation. Third, we explore the complexity of the broader system, including the underlying structures that favor oppression over equity and ways to shift those structures over time.

We have adapted the three-legged stool metaphor used in systems thinking and organizational learning to illustrate that all three domains of capacity-building are essential – the stool will not stand if any leg is missing.  For example, many of us feel the need to address the broad structural underpinnings of inequity, first and foremost. But we may then neglect the inner work, or overlook the need to create a social field to nurture trust.  While it is often comfortable to focus on one facet of capacity building – the one we are best at, or that matches our mental model of how change happens – we need all three to build lasting momentum.

Three legged stool for equity in schools: 1) self: aspiration and contemplation; 2) connection: reflective conversations; 3) complexity: the larger system structures as relates to equity


Self: What Does Equity Mean for Me? 

The contemplative inner work of equity takes many forms, with two major elements in common. 

First is moment-by-moment awareness of our own thinking and feeling. This work involves exploration of our thoughts and emotional reactions to events. Our brains are continually sending us signals, influenced by deep-seated attitudes and opinions. Are we aware of our thoughts? Can we stop, in the middle of an emotional response, and observe it taking place within ourselves? The practice of learning to do this  is akin to the self-awareness and self-management components of Social and Emotional Learning. 

Second is reflection on your own aspirations: your vision for yourself, your organization and community, and the journey you must take to realize that vision. In the Center’s work, this includes exercises related to personal mastery: articulating a personal vision. 

This type of work involves emotional resonance, hope, and intangibles. Some people mistrust it, or think that it is “soft.” But in many cases, this type of inner development is the hardest work we will ever do. We tend to be mostly unaware of the mental models that affect our behavior. They must be brought to the surface before we pay attention to them, and before we see how they are reinforced by what we do. We are often unintentionally generating the same harmful outcome that we are trying to avoid.

The more inner work we can manage, the easier it is to show up in the world authentically. The only thing in this world we can really change is our attitudes and beliefs. If we want things around us to shift, we have to show up differently. This then creates space for other things around us to be different. 

Questions for work on the self: 
  • What are my beliefs about the challenge of equity in education? 
  • Am I aware of the signals my mind and body are sending me during these conversations? 
  • Am I reacting without thinking? What might the unintended consequences of my reaction be?
  • What really matters to me? If anything were possible, what would be a good outcome – for me and for others? 
  • What is the shared vision of equity that matters to this school or community?

Connection: What Does Equity Mean for Us? 

In this leg of the stool, we learn to build relationships that strengthen social fields. The challenge is to honor ourselves and other people in conversation, giving them the respect and acceptance that we give ourselves or wish to receive from others. 

When we can do this, we can see the factors below the surface of what people are saying. We recognize what it took, in their past, to get to the place they are now.  If they are describing pain, we can see below the surface. We don’t get hung up on other peoples’ “deficits.” We start working with their strengths and assets. 

In this leg of the stool, we learn to pay attention to our own mental models and those of other people. We may not talk about the theory of mental models explicitly, but we begin elevating general awareness of them in practice. We point out, for example, where people are falling into the deficit model or the problem-solving perspective. 

To truly open ourselves to one another is a deeply valuable capacity. We can not only hear each others’ words but sense the lived experience behind the words, and the thought processes that brought them there. To maintain a stance of neutral awareness – simply being present to the other person and to whatever their words may trigger in ourselves  – is a gift. Our goal is to own our own life experience, while still meeting one another’s humanity wholeheartedly. To do this we must learn to honor one another as they are, perceive them to be our equal, and make a commitment to relating to one another as equals. 

Questions for work on connection: 
  • Who can I talk with for other perspectives and more information? 
  • What mental models do they hold, and how are they similar to or different from mine? 
  • How can I create a safe space for difficult conversations? 


Complexity: What Does Equity Mean for the System Around Us? 

The classroom, school, out-of-school learning environment, community, family, broader-scale educational infrastructure and larger cultural context are all interrelated. The elements of these systems interact over time, with patterns of cause and effect. Many school systems have generated oppressive organizational structures, practices, policies and procedures. If we want to change those oppressive elements we need to understand the systemic forces that keep them in place. 

For example, we often have to map power relationships in complex situations. We identify the people who are making decisions about people and priorities. How do they feel about establishing equity as a value? Are they interested in the kinds of change that are involved? If we create momentum for change at middle management levels, but upper management isn’t genuinely interested, we put those middle management people at risk.

Similarly, if we are involved in working with students to help them develop more agency, we must first partner with the adults who oversee them. Ideally, both groups evolve in parallel. The adults come to terms with reality: These young people will hold them accountable for not giving them the space to grow into their full selves. The young people start to grow their own ability: to find their own path, and to demand the help they need. After three or four weeks, they might meet together – to decide how they will move forward collectively. The adults will recraft their expectations for the kids: how brilliant can they be? They will move out of the way. The kids will stand in a place from which they can lift themselves.

This type of collaborative learning can take place even in systems that are not used to it. One example involved a 12-week program for students who had been released from juvenile detention, and were now on probation. The goal of the program was to teach them equity. About halfway through the workshop, the adult staff called a meeting. They were angry. “The kids don’t want to listen to us any more,” they said. 

The problem was that the adults were still treating the students like prisoners. The kids had moved past that; they were trying to show up and learn, but the adults were not creating the right conditions for this. For this to work, the adult staff and the students had to come together, talk about their misunderstandings, and design the next moves together. 


Shirley Giro

One thing that drew me into this work on equity is the student response. Once students are included, they don’t want to be told what to do. They try to work out for themselves how to bring questions about equity to the table. The same holds true for teachers and other staff working directly with students. If we wish to have equity centered within our systems, then we need to engage with the people involved, so that their voices and needs are heard, valued, and honored in meaningful and tangible ways.  

We always need to increase our awareness of how this system is presenting itself through the people involved – including ourselves. Often, there’s a disconnect between the statements of leaders and their actions: between what they say about their values and intentions and how they make people carry that workload. Sometimes there is a lot of work put into an equity effort: engaging motivational speakers, making appeals to “experts,” and writing policy documents. Then the initiative fizzles out, because we haven’t translated it into meaningful changes for people within the system. 

I’ve learned to include all stakeholders in decision making, so that the resulting decisions are just, inclusive, and equitable, because of the diversity of perspectives that informed them. The work involved in leading change efforts – recruiting, respecting, and relying upon a multitude of voices from within the system – might be revisited several times during any major decision-making process. The value of doing this is clearly evident in the resulting direction of the work.”  – Shirley Giroux


Every large system has its own dynamics. In mapping possible leverage for change, we consider a wide range of factors: the communities connected to your school, the diversity of the people in the area, the role models for adults, students and community members, and the available resources, including the inner resources of the students and staff. If we are leading the move to greater equity, we also must look at our own position, power and influence. We are part of the system as well. 

“What role do I play,” we ask ourselves, “in making this system the way it is?” How is the larger system moving and presenting itself in us? And how might we change that? 

Questions for work on complexity: 
  • What structures favor equity? 
  • What structures favor oppression? 
  • How do these structures interact over time? 
  • How is the system moving and presenting itself in me? 
  • What role do I play in making the system the way it is? 
  • How might we change this? 
  • How might we tap into other capacities and resources to help grow the system toward our aspirations for it? 

How do we broaden the work?

Typically, work on equity may begin with a small group of people – a group of school or district administrators, teachers, community workers, parents, or students. As engagement builds, horizons expand. For example, a district administrator will want to bring in more schools. People start to talk about “rolling the program out” broadly and rapidly. Since the issues are deeply felt and pressing, everyone needs to gain awareness. 

This is the time to slow down. 

Just as we have to avoid the deficit model, we also have to avoid designing for rapid, programmatic  diffusion. We should not scale up too quickly. Sponsors can be very insistent: they want to prove they have reached their goals, and show measurable results as rapidly as possible. But such programmatic interventions are the antithesis of systemic change. They mandate a one-size-fits-all approach for an enormously complex problem that manifests in diverse behaviors and artifacts. While rapidly scaled-up programs may produce tangible performance indicators, like large numbers of people who participate, they rarely change hearts and minds. After a while, the numbers return to the mean, and the district soon moves on to the next program. 

That demanding pace, and the push for rapid roll-out and tangible results, are expressions of the same oppressive systems that lead to inequity in the first place. 

Rather than expand by force or focus on numbers, we prefer to make the programs resonate. We do this through inner work and reflection, through generative conversation, and through systems awareness. We try to make the projects relevant, so people are eager to return. We can’t predict how much better students will do. We can anticipate how the relationship between caring and outcomes will hold. If students know people are watching out for them, they will learn. If adults know people are watching out for them, they will create a better context for the students. If we can accomplish this, then the levels of equity will improve. 


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