Back to All Blog Posts

Becoming an Anti-racist School Board Member

People in a group of conference tables

It’s difficult to acknowledge, but it’s true. I taught and led in school systems with 95% kids of color for 15 years without ever having a conversation about racism. Don’t get me wrong, we talked about equity, diversity and inclusion, but never racism. Not once.

How is that possible? Probably because I’m white and led alongside mostly other white people. It’s easy for white people to talk about intellectual ideas like “diversity” and “equity” and “inclusion” and never have to wrestle with the realities of the racist and oppressive policies and practices our K-12 public schools uphold and perpetuate in every district across America. Racism is defined in different ways, but I think a useful definition in this context is when one group has the power to carry out systematic discrimination through the institutional policies and practices of the society and by shaping the cultural beliefs and values that support those racist policies and practices.

Our country began talking in earnest about the black-white achievement gap 50 years ago, with the release of what is colloquially known as the “Coleman Report.” In the ensuing 50 years, our country’s huge achievement gap hasn’t budged. Millions of dollars and hundreds of strategies have been tried with basically no impact.

Obviously, black and brown students are no less intelligent or capable than white students; so, how could all of this intervention lead to zero widespread impact?

I would argue that it is because white people, who still hold the vast majority of leadership positions at every level in education and government, have not truly grappled with the effects of long-term and compounding racist policies on communities of color across our country. Therefore, our education reforms have been vastly insufficient and misguided. Yes, there are many individual schools that have closed the achievement gap (because, again, the kids are not the problem); however, no system has made the decision to truly address the impact of long-term racism and oppression. We have not made the difficult tradeoffs and decisions required to undo centuries of harm on communities of color.

There are plenty of actions that teachers, principals and district administrators can and should take to address the impact of racism on our kids of color. However, there is arguably no seat better positioned to address this issue than elected school board members.

I was elected to my school board in May 2017. After years as a teacher, school leader, system leader, education philanthropist and national nonprofit leader, I was somehow still surprised to realize how much power school boards actually have to lead (or obstruct) change. I had spent years trying to advocate for change, and here I was, finally in a position to actually make decisions about budget priorities, curriculum, discipline policies, how our superintendent is evaluated, and so much more.

With four short years to try to lead change, I began to look around for resources for school board members who want to try to lead with an equity-focus. There isn’t much. And what little I did find danced around the edges of equity without dealing with racism head-on. There were a lot of buzz words to make you feel better, but not much impact.

So, together with my colleagues of color at School Board Partners, we are setting out to develop the first set of school board materials for Board members who want to move beyond an equity focus to being anti-racist. According to Wikipedia, “anti-racism can be defined as some form of focused and sustained action… with the intent to change a system or an institutional policy, practice, or procedure which has racist effects.” Personally, I’ve found that if you’re not intentionally anti-racist, you often risk a policy or practice being unintentionally racist due to the fact that racism runs so deeply through our nation’s governance history.

The first step is understanding the historical and modern day racist policies and practices that impact education, and their compounding impact on communities of color over the past several centuries. The second step is deciding as an individual board member, and eventually as a collective board, that you are committed to using your power to change your district’s policies and practices to be anti-racist. The third, and hardest step, is systematically reviewing and revising your policies and practices to be anti-racist, in partnership with the communities served by your district.

School Board Partners has developed a rubric to help School Board members self-assess how well they and their district are currently doing with an equity-focus, and what it could look like if their school board was anti-racist. The rubric is a work in process and will improve over time as it is put into practice and we receive your feedback. Now we are working to develop sample policies and other tools to supplement the rubric. If you are interested in accessing the rubric and joining a community of School Board members committed to being anti-racist, please email

— — — —

Carrie Douglass is a former educator and current elected School Board Co-Chair for Bend-La Pine Schools in Oregon. Carrie is the co-founder and CEO of School Board Partners, a new non-profit that works to connect, inspire and support diverse school board members to be bold leaders for change in communities across the country. Douglass is also co-Founder of The Haven, a coworking space focused on gender parity in entrepreneurship, with a focus on women of color, and co-Founder of Cascade Relays, a running race management company.