In December 2021, Dr. Jenn M. Jackson, assistant professor at Syracuse University, wrote a Twitter thread reflecting on her initial encounters with Brené Brown’s work around “courage” and “vulnerability.” Dr Jackson’s thread explains:
“Reflecting this morning on courage and vulnerability after encountering Brene Brown's work for the first time this week.”
“I really think we have to talk about race and gender every single time we talk about doing courageous things.”
“The other side of courage is considering the stakes. What are the stakes of being Black in public? What are the risks of Black courage?... When I talk to young Black people about courage, they tell me that they know that the costs are high… Courage to speak up against racism, courage to protest unjust killings of Black folx, courage to fight. The costs are too high for some.”
As Dr. Carey Yazeed’s follow-up article (and video), The Dangers of Courage Culture and Why Brene Brown Isn’t For Black Folk elaborates, white and middle class writers like Brown can only speak to people that have the same lived experiences. They cannot speak to or speak for people who do not relate to this lived experience. The reality is often that for people with “protected” or privileged identities, such as Brown, being courageous comes with less risks.
In Wong et al’s (2022) article Silent or silenced? Minority ethnic students and the battle against racism, the authors explore the experiences of minority ethnic students in higher education in the United Kingdom, in particular their approaches to dealing with racism and coping strategies. They explained that when the students in the study were asked, many said that reporting incidents of racism would be their last resort. This is because of:
- fears of retribution,
- the difficulty in proving or validating “less explicit” forms of racism, and
- the lack of trust and confidence from students in racial reporting, including the university’s grievance process.
Such findings highlight how diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work in educational institutions must involve creating environments where “honest” conversations are safe, and where it’s acknowledged that being courageous can mean different things for different people and comes with different risks.
The International Education Context:
In 2021, CIS, the ISS Diversity Collaborative, and George Mason University conducted research into diversity in international school teaching staff and leadership.
They found that:
- 84 percent of heads of school and 74 percent of those on leadership teams were white.
- 75 percent of heads of schools were male.
- Only 11 percent of heads of schools were from non-Western countries.
International schools have been, and still are white, western, and male spaces, at least that is where much of the power lies. Having identity markers different from the dominant group comes with increased risks, whether they seem visible or not, and we cannot fully understand the true lived experiences of all of the staff in our schools. However, as Audre Lorde writes, “You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other.”
The book, Becoming a Totally Inclusive School: A Guide for Teachers and School Leaders, explains that equitable and just schools need everyone in the school community to be advocates. The Seven Is of Total Inclusivity’s Advocacy Stance outlines the key characteristics that educators need to help sustain DEI-focused interventions and initiatives.
These Seven Is are:
- Intentional: Advocates engage with the intention to learn, reflect, grow, and take informed actions.
- Invitational: Advocates continually seek to include and value diverse voices and perspectives through creating spaces that foster psychological safety. Advocates recognize that failures and mistakes are a norm and invite imperfection to help drive and accelerate progress.
- Inquiry-driven: Advocates recognize that Totally Inclusive inquiry involves examining privilege, biases, and understanding gaps and diverse ways of knowing. This is done with the goal of co-constructing new ways of knowing and being.
- Interactive: Advocates recognize that learning is a social activity that gains meaning through transferring knowledge into practice.
- Intrepid: Advocates face inequities with fortitude and endurance, and recognize that taking courageous actions can require discomfort, risk management, and fearlessness.
- Impactful: Advocates acknowledge and take responsibility for past actions that have caused harm in order to promote healing and growth. They aspire to take actions that result in a Totally Inclusive impact.
- Interconnected: Advocates recognize that there are multiple entry points and tactics for learning, engagement, advocacy, and action. They embrace complexity and acknowledge that dismantling inequities requires interconnected and intersectional approaches at both individual and institutional levels.
What Does It Mean for Advocates To Be Intrepid?
As the landscape of international schools changes to become more inclusive, polarizing beliefs and backlash against DEI-related work has also grown. In relation to the critique on what it means to be “courageous,” it is crucial to recognize the vulnerabilities that different educators face when engaging in advocacy and action.
On one side, heads of schools and senior leaders are both powerful, yet also vulnerable to the wishes of governors. Jane Larsson, Executive Director of the Council of International Schools recently posted, “During the last few months, 3 caring, effective school leaders were fired with no notice & asked to sign non-disclosure agreements. Each had recently introduced dialogue on gender identity. How many more has this happened to?”
Given the statistics shared earlier in this article about the ethnicity, gender, and cultural heritage that reigns supremely at leadership levels, we must recognize the power that certain privileged demographics have. How are leaders and governors being intrepid and calculating risk? Are they leveraging their power to advocate for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice?
While we encourage advocates to face inequities with fortitude and endurance, we also acknowledge that on the other end people who hold historically marginalized identities, and who do not have the same power and privilege, sit in discomfort and engage in risk management regularly. Simply put, acting without fear is a privilege that not all of us have.
We believe that being intrepid is an exercise in risk-management, and this looks different for members of a school community depending on the identities and positions they embody and hold. We also believe that if we are not intrepid enough, we risk compromising our morals and upholding inequitable status quos.
If making social justice progress is what we want, then we must have critical awareness of the privileges and power we hold and speak for ourselves and others if we’re able to, even when it pushes us out of our comfort zones. We must understand when risks are harmful and work on creating conditions so that we can continue to push schools forward. We must also understand when the risk is simply too great, and work to safeguard those who are vulnerable from harm.
We must embody stances that propel us to continue to be advocates in all the ways that we can. After all, which side of history do we want to be on?
 Minority ethnic or ethnic minorities is a political classification used by the UK Government. The authors contend that this terminology is outdated for the global majority.
Angeline Aow is an international educator, learning and development specialist, workshop leader, school evaluator, pedagogical leader, and DEI advocate.
LinkedIn: Angeline Aow
Dr. Sadie Hollins is a former head of sixth form at an international school.
LinkedIn: Sadie Hollins