Soul Work and Social Justice: Exploring the Intersection of Race and Personal Growth for White School Leaders

I have spent this weekend reflecting on the keynote I gave on Friday at Lewisham Headteachers’ summer conference on “Navigating Race, Identity, and School Leadership.” It was one of the few times, since coming back from medical leave, that I have spoken about my own soul’s journey in relation to race work and the territories that I now find myself exploring due to the fact that the cancer I had, was one that predominantly affects women of colour.

This weekend, my reflections have caused me to consider the profound nature of race work in schools and, in particular, the soul work required not only of people of colour but also of white school leaders. An area of this work that is rarely spoken about but is vital if, here in the UK, our majority white school workforce and leaders are to claim their agency and engage confidently and wholeheartedly with what this work requires.

No matter where a school is located—whether in a diverse urban area such as Lewisham or a predominantly white rural community—issues of race and equity are present. In diverse communities, race and social justice work are often more visible, but it is equally critical in predominantly white schools. Issues of race permeate all areas of our lives, shaping who we are and influencing the actions we choose to take.

Embracing the Journey of Personal Growth

As I shared last week, I believe the core of effective anti-racist leadership lies in a willingness to engage in continuous self-reflection, no matter how painful and uncomfortable these enquiries are. We cannot bury our heads in academia and think that we can intellectualise ourselves out of racism and the insidious ways it has impacted our inner worlds. However, steadfastly engaging in inner work, although challenging, can lead to profound inter- and intrapersonal change. The key is to acknowledge that becoming anti-racist is not a one-time exercise but an ongoing process of learning and unlearning.

This means, particularly for white school leaders, developing an acute awareness of their own racial identity and how it influences interactions with students, staff, and the community. It’s an area that many are not cognisant of, yet it is an essential prerequisite for those who desire to be good ancestors, as we all should be.

The Centrality of Social Justice in Education

For all of us who seek to create a better tomorrow for our young people, we must understand that social justice is not an optional add-on to the role of a school leader; it is central to what education should be about. Education should not be about the blind upholding of patriarchal norms that maintain an uneven playing field and the status quo. Instead, it should be about cultivating the very soil out of which every child is supported to grow and become the fullness of who they are. This cannot happen without a commitment to deep inner work and the willingness to take action to dismantle systemic inequities.

Leading with Heart and Soul

Race work is about leading with heart and soul, bringing one’s whole self to the work of education, and committing to social justice. It involves making space for difficult conversations, standing up against injustice, and being a model of integrity and empathy. It’s a type of leadership that requires vulnerability and courage. It requires the ego to step aside, for defences to be let go of and for new sensibilities to arise within the leader and those they lead.

Creating a Better Tomorrow

The ultimate beneficiaries of this work are our young people. When school leaders prioritise social justice and personal growth, they create an environment where all young people feel seen, heard, and valued. Regardless of the context, the presence of a socially conscious leader sets a powerful example for our young people to follow. This is how we become good ancestors by not taking the easy route forward but by understanding our contexts, taking the time to understand what our context needs and then asking, “What is mine to do in this context?” and bravely taking action required to bring about deep, embedded, long-lasting change.

A Journey Worth Taking

I know from the work that we have done with white school leaders on our Race, Identity, and School Leadership programme that combining soul work with the struggle for race equity and social justice is challenging but necessary. It calls for a relationship with self that it would seem only a few are ever asked to review throughout their careers. It requires a deep commitment to personal growth, an unwavering dedication to equity, and the courage to lead race work with heart and soul.

All of us involved in race work know that the path is fraught with challenges and many hidden twists and turns. Still, it is also filled with opportunities for profound personal transformation within our schools and the communities of which we are a part.

Are you a White Senior School Leader Seeking to Claim Your Agency as an Anti-Racist Educator?

On Tuesday 1st October, Viv Grant, Director of Integrity Coaching, will host a webinar specifically for Heads who want to lead race work with greater confidence and self-assurance. Viv is passionate about race work in schools, and her PhD research focuses on ways to enable white school leaders to claim their agency as anti-racist educators. Viv will create a safe space for individuals to explore related themes and discuss collaborative opportunities for building on race work that some schools may have already started.

To book your place please reach out directly to Hannah, our Head of Client Relations or register your interest here

Places are limited and on a first come, first served basis.


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