Dr. Darnisa Amante-Jackson is an educational and racial equity strategist that is deeply committed to the studies of culture; innovation; equity and adult development. Since earning her master’s degree in Socio-cultural Anthropology from Brandeis University, and her doctorate from Harvard’s Educational Leadership Doctorate (Ed.L.D.), Dr. Amante-Jackson has honed her knowledge to transform organizations, nonprofits and schools on issues of equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

Dr. Amante-Jackson currently serves as the President/Founder of The Disruptive Equity Education Project (DEEP) and DCCP (DEEP Corporate Consulting Partners) where she supports superintendents, teachers, principals, non profit leaders, corporations, commercial real estate and boards to achieve equitable culture and to systematically dismantle oppression. Additionally, Dr. Amante-Jackson serves at the Tri-Chair to the RIDES Project, at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. With RIDES, Dr. Amante-Jackson supports systemic and school based cultural change and coaching for districts, nationally.

Daniel: Ruckus Maker, I'm sure you got the memo, but the role of the school principal has changed the need to create inclusive and equitable school. Cultures has never been more important than right now. When you look at that work, it could feel monumental. It can feel so big. How can we ever make progress? The key is what's the next smallest step today, right now. And those steps over time will add up to big results. In today's episode with Dr. Darnisa Amante-Jackson, she talks about the gap between diversity and inclusion being as wide as the grand Canyon, but a bridge does exist. It's a beautiful metaphor. The bridge, according to Dr. Darnisa Amante-Jackson is belonging. We'll spend some time today talking about how to create environments where everybody feels seen and heard and belongs. And that work is the right work. When you get that right, the rest follows. Hey, it's Daniel. And welcome to the better leaders, better schools, podcast, a show for Ruckus Makers, those out of the box leaders making change happen in education. We'll be right back after these messages from our sponsors.

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Daniel: Ruckus Makers, I am so excited to bring back Dr. Amante-Jackson. She was originally on the show. This was episode 121, back in November 17, a whole different world, but she's back and has so much to share with you today. Dr. Darnisa Amante-Jackson is an educational and racial equity strategist that is deeply committed to the studies of culture, innovation equity and adult development since earning her master's degree in social cultural anthropology from Brandeis University and her doctorate from Harvard Educational Leadership Doctorate. Dr. Darnisa Amante-Jackson has honed her knowledge to transform organizations, nonprofits, and schools on issues of equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging. Dr. Amante-Jackson currently serves as the president founder of the Disruptive Equity Education Project, DEEP and DCCP, which is Deep Corporate Consulting Partners, where she supports superintendents, teachers, principals, nonprofit leaders, corporations, commercial, real estate, and boards to achieve equitable culture and systematically dismantle oppression. Dr. Amante-Jackson, welcome back to the show, neighbor.

Dr. Darnisa: The bio's a paragraph longer. The name's got a hyphen. It's a joy. I'm really good.

Daniel: We want to create space for that type of value that you're about to bring, you have so much greatness to share with Ruckus Makers. It was really a pure joy to connect with you back in 2017. I'm looking forward to connecting, hearing how you've grown, how DEEP has grown. Why don't we start there. People may not have heard episode one 21, and I'll just say real quick that there is a season one archives you can go back and hear,, Dr. Amante-Jackson's first show here on better leaders, better schools. That's just in the season one archive. But for those that didn't hear it or need a refresher catch us up on the Disruptive Equity Education Project and what's happened since 2017.

Dr. Darnisa: To your point, 2017 feels like it was 15 years ago. The last time I was here, DEEP was really not just getting off the ground, but I think we were still understanding what the process was, what the roadmap was to reach equity over time in schools and with school community. Since then, that roadmap has become clear. We've built a ton of whole new frameworks and roadmaps, and we have inserted an entire data-driven process to really help us measure impact over time. I think last time I was here, I mentioned that the greatest challenge of equity is that most of the work is qualitative. It's not quantitative, and it's so much about cultural transformation and cultural change, and we've sort of, not figured out the only way, but there is a proven roadmap. And that's really what we've been excited about.

Dr. Darnisa: Taking leaders and schools and teachers through this roadmap to achieve equity over time. And that spectrum that was created is called the diversity, belonging, inclusion and equity spectrum. We often talk about the work as DEI, and we only say that because it's in alphabetical order, but if you really put it in alphabetical order, it's D I E and nobody wants to do die work. We realized that when you put it in order, something was missing, which was belonging. Belonging has been our big work for three years, which is creating belonging for a staff and leaders and supporting students in feeling belonging, which is them feeling championed for. And all belonging is folks making sure that students and adults feel welcomed and in relationshiped that they can actually communicate the areas of marginalization they are experiencing. But the greater good is.

Dr. Darnisa: We're not saying that to shame you or saying that to hold the system accountable, to changing the culture that is negatively impacting a good amount of adults and students. And so that's been like this fascinating work, seeing belonging across the country. We expanded that because we realized a lot of corporations, a lot of corporate partners wanted to be on this spectrum as well. I created DCCP, which uses that spectrum to enacted fully in corporate space, because what is education, but nothing more than the overlap of multiple sectors. So it felt really important to start asking which sectors can we be disrupting that are external to schools that are very much impacting schools.

Daniel: There is so much to unpack there. A real quick question, since I'm not the expert, you are. The spectrum you talk about, is that the same as the roadmap or are those two different things?

Dr. Darnisa: Thank you for that. The spectrum and the roadmap are the same thing, but I think what's important is the markers on the roadmap are the same, but the journey that a school organization will take to hit them are different. So that roadmap again is starting with diversity and it ends in equity. The two big milestones in between are belonging and inclusion. The distance between diversity and inclusion is like leaping the grand Canyon. There has to be something there to build real relationship, or when we do start incorporating student voice, when we do start incorporating parent voice, are we tokenizing folks? If they don't get filled welcome in the culture? Inclusion calls us to changing who's in the room, but if the folks in the room don't yet feel welcome, then we have tokenized them. It was just really being able to name what's going to be the glue that's going to sustain us and prevent harm from happening as people are moving up into more inclusive pipelines or more inclusive processes. So that's been a really, really wonderful thing to just see how belonging has changed. A lot of our school space communities.

Daniel: If I'm hearing you right, this gap between diversity and inclusion can be like the grand Canyon, right? I think that's a good image or metaphor because that's a massive gap and it could feel incredibly overwhelming. I'm sure for leaders, how do we bridge this? But if I'm hearing you correctly, the belonging is the bridge, the key. Can we dive deeper into what does that look like? What are some things that school leaders can be thinking about to create this belonging environment?

Dr. Darnisa: Yeah. I'll start here, right? We are in really uncertain times. We're at a moment when the school schedule is completely different than we've ever imagined. We're still trying to figure out how to support students across different needs. We're trying to figure out how to engage in self care for the greater support of our students and the adults in our system. Belonging is actually the sweet spot for this pandemic. And for the work of equity. Belonging is the thing that really impacts the closing of the opportunity gap because if you think about it, usually the same students in the same type of populations are always on the other side of this gap, belonging for students makes them feel championed for. You know you're doing it well because you are creating space to build relationship with your students beyond a screen, beyond a hybrid model.

Dr. Darnisa: So this is asking them about stories around their own experiences, their own ethnicity, their own identities. And the assumption here is when you create a space for every student to feel seen and acknowledged the way in which they feel championed for, they rise to that curriculum differently. They feel invested in because you have invested in them, right? And that's why it matters for students. For adults. What's really important to know is adults cannot manifest belonging with students if they don't feel it themselves. And so for adults, it's, we have to know each other beyond our work function. You can't just come in and call me, Miss A or miss AAJ. And that's not going to make a community, right. If you don't know what I value, if you don't know my why, if you don't know why I'm here and what is driving me to be an educator and what I love outside of being an educator, I'm never going to show up in my full self.

Dr. Darnisa: And if I haven't experienced that as an adult, how can I manifest something that I haven't ever experienced with students? And for my leaders out there who are going, "This, I need this." You have probably been doing some pieces of belonging before. Belonging is really the combination of social, emotional learning. Plus culturally responsive teaching practices paired with implicit bias training. So a lot of you have done the pieces of it. Just think about it, any strategy that you have taught in your buildings or provided as professional development that supports folks in checking their biases and partnering with students and parents and family. Those are all strategies in and around belonging. So you don't have to recreate the wheel, but it is important to cohere all those moving strategies to support educators and knowing they already have the tools. When the pandemic people can't learn too many new things. Many of you have brought this learning to them before and it's a great time to remind educators or put it right back in front of us. That those concepts we learned two or three school years ago are fully going to be able to support us in creating belonging, which will help us to impact students differently during this uncertain time.

Daniel: I'm hearing you say one thing, correct me if I'm wrong of course, but if you take care of adults and create that belonging atmosphere for them, they in turn will be more likely, and naturally potentially do that with students. That's one thing I'm hearing the second thing too, again, correct me. If I'm wrong leaders might be, or probably are doing some things too, that they don't have to reinvent the wheel. Maybe they just have to be more explicit in naming that this is the reason we're doing it. Here's how it creates a belonging environment is how we close the gap between diversity inclusion.

Daniel: Well, one thing I do want to say to Ruckus Makers, if you go to the better leaders website and just in the search bar type in a bucket list or culture builder bucket lists, that's a very practical tool you can take action on to help create a belonging atmosphere within your school or district. I know that the listeners probably doing a lot of things that are already creating a belonging environment. Do you have a go-to strategy or have you seen something done in a school or district that really blew you away, that you just want to highlight? That could be practical, that they can take action on right after they listened to this show?

Dr. Darnisa: Well, there are a few different things, but I don't know if I can say a whole process, but I can highlight some of the amazing best practices I've seen, which granted during a pandemic we've had to get creative, but I'll name them and how it could potentially be done. Virtually. The first thing that I think is really important are sort the low hanging fruits of belonging. We know that one of the best ways to start belonging work is through the proper pronunciation of students' names and adults names. When I think about the fact of how many students and adults feel so dehumanized right now, meeting folks in their name story, right? I think it does a few things. So there's a really great protocol that I love from school reform initiative called What's In a Name, and it's an icebreaker activity that encourages adults and students.

Dr. Darnisa: You can do this with adults and students together. You can do it just with students, or you can do it just with adults Where you share your name, story. What's really wonderful about that is there's so much that you learn through someone's name. You learn about history, you learn about their experiences, you learn about their oppressions. It's a really great way to get people comfortable talking about something that's really intimate. It doesn't feel as intimate as tell me about what your biases are. Right? So what's in the name is great because it supports folks in remembering how to say people's names correctly, which goes a long way. Also, thinking about different student representations and cultural days. A lot of times we have some schools and this is no judgment, but we have some schools who sort of lean into the we're going to exclude everyone to the exclusion of no one, right?

Dr. Darnisa: So we don't have any cultural days. We don't have any cultural representation and that actually is non belonging. So it's thinking about opportunities to have students represent their world culture, its activities and events, or at this point, zoom breakout, zoom meetings, a zoom party around particular. If we're using zoom, Google Hangout or whatever district approved vendor you get to use, I'm not in here plugins. I know most of us are on hangout and whatever approved vendor you have to support your virtual support. It's going to be really important for students to gather from moments that have nothing to do with academics. They have to really feel a whole school community type of wrap around. School is such a safe space for many of our students. And they need to continue to feel that safety, which continues to foster their belonging.

Dr. Darnisa: So creating activities where they can just talk or creating parties that are around particular groups and ethnicities and just rotating. I'm not talking about only lifting up one to the exclusion of others, but these are things I've seen folks do like cultural celebrations, cultural dance, virtual parties, What's in a name as an icebreaker for each class to help students get to know each other. I've also seen folks do reading groups for students. It's choosing someone's culture ethnicity and then we read a book around it as a part of our literacy thread. So these are all various things that I've seen. And like I said, most of the belonging based practice we can see in a classroom, but these are things that you can do virtually as well.

Daniel: I appreciate the name, protocol and activity hits home because my wife's surname is right. It's, Mutambudzi, Zimbabwean from Ashana background and I can pronounce it. I always could, but something that really became very aware for me when we've been moving around here in Scotland, when the post DB column, when they drop off the package or the envelope, they'll say Dr. Mutambudzi and she's like, they can say my name here because her experience sometimes in the US they will say say Dr. Moon and they'll just not even try, right. Like just skip over it. I know from her experience how that feels, but on the opposite, just attempting and then getting it right, how that feels too. All about that belonging piece. So thank you for sharing that and highlighting that very practical thing we can do.

Dr. Darnisa: Not a problem.

Daniel: Well, I think there's a good spot just to pause for a moment, for a message from our sponsors. When we come back I'd love to talk about digging in the trenches with superintendents and principals. Personally, I'd like to hear, too about how your organization has grown and what it's like to lead a growing organization as well. Today's show is brought to you by Organized Binder. Organized binder develops the skills and habits. All students need for success. During these uncertain times of distance learning and hybrid education settings, organized binder, equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning routines so that all students have an opportunity to succeed. whether at home or in the classroom. Learn more at organizedbinder.com.

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Daniel: We're back with Dr. Darnisa Amante-Jackson, the president founder of the Disruptive Equity Education Project and the DEEP corporate consulting partners. Dr. Amante-Jackson tell us about being in the trenches with superintendents and principals, maybe how the role has changed a bit, what kind of support you see leaders needing

Dr. Darnisa: That's right. I would say before the support was really how do I create accountability, right. How do I create sustained learning around all of this stuff that my school community is learning, whether it's implicit bias, social, emotional learning, culturally relevant teaching, and culturally relevant practice and all of our book groups. I felt like the call to action before the pandemic was how do we prioritize and deprioritize so that our leaders and our teachers can be in integrity with one to two strategies and then COVID-19 hit. March through August was blurry. I think we were all just trying to figure out how to respond to student's need virtually. I think the biggest thing that principals and superintendents have been wondering has been like, how do I create certainty in a moment when everything feels uncertain? How can I create structures that are equitable while virtual knowing that the very nature of the virtual structure makes this process potentially inequitable for some students?

Dr. Darnisa: And then it's, how do I continue to keep my school community as safe as possible, knowing that there's still a task of learning to be done in those are three big questions and I hear them swirling. The first one that I will say around certainty is there will always be uncertain times. What makes this different right? Is we just don't know when the certainty will return, but there are ways to create certainty and uncertainty. The first one is rallying together with an instructional leadership team, a district cabinet team, and trying to build a roadmap. Now, this roadmap will be different than in the past because we can't exactly say when we're going to hit the milestones, but there are key things that people need to sit in uncertainty. One of them is tell me as much as you know with as much specificity as you can, when you can and as soon as you can, people can be in uncertainty folks. It's okay to not know. What is not okay. Is if we don't know where we're trying to go, a listiclly. No one can tell us when COVID-19 will be over, but you can tell us what vision you have for this district or this building. As we wade through it, you don't have to control it all. You don't control it all. You don't know when the vaccines are coming. You don't know when you're going to be able to do, if all one-to-one support, you don't even some of our leaders didn't even know their budgets. At the beginning of the school year, governors haven't even approved budgets for States. Yet you don't control that folks. You can control who you hire or when you hire them because you didn't know when you were going to have the money.

Dr. Darnisa: You can control defining a vision. People need that and that's where you start. So a vision should have a few key pieces in it, right? Which is through the lens of DNI or DBIE right? Diversity, belonging, inclusion, and equity, DBIE has to be the table. It has to be the table and you sit everything on top of that. So instead of us asking, how can we do a reopening plan and a hybrid plan and a dismissal plan, a school plan, the question should be, how can we create an equitable reopening plan? How are we creating diverse and belonging based experiences in our reopening? And those questions can provide certainty for people that they are craving, right? The second one, manage your expectations. You can't do it all. And I know you want to do it all. I know you want to do it all, but you can.

Dr. Darnisa: We can really only do one to two things well this school year. I think if that is creating a space where adults and students can engage in care and feel enveloped by community with as little microaggressions happening as possible, that is great work folks. That is great work and that kind of work is still done to contribute to your opportunity. Gap. Belonging is the greatest thing that closes the gap. Please know that gap didn't arrive in one school year and it's not going to go away in one school year, but your commitment to belonging will continue to bring your community together, which is what you will need to close the gap one day to do culturally responsive teaching. Lastly, perfection is a construct. It doesn't exist. That is a part of our own internalized depression. I need my listeners to relinquish it now, there is no such thing as a perfect reopening plan. There is no such thing as a perfect equity vision. There's no such thing as a perfect state of belonging. And there's no such thing as a perfect you and your leadership. We are imperfect people doing imperfect work and perfectly. So create a culture where you iterate. This is a year and this may be the next two school years where we're going to have to get real comfortable with failure.

Dr. Darnisa: The plan's not going to be right the first time you don't know who all the community is. So relinquish the adjective, needing to know those things and just commit yourself to be willing, to engage in iteration, incorporating as many voices as you can to help you iterate over time.

Daniel: That's good. That's a great message to hear, because that gives me permission to not have it all together. I want to show up and give my best, be committed to growing and learning from mistakes, but I don't have to be perfect. So that was one. I love the managing expectations and then the piece about vision, having a destination where you're hoping to arrive, understanding you're not going to potentially get there in one school year, communicating consistently, specifically infrequently such great advice. So thank you for sharing that with the Ruckus Maker listening. So the last question I really have, and then I want to ask you about the marguee, which I know you're looking forward to that one. So I mean, things have grown for you over the last few years. I would just like to hear you riff on some ways you've leveled up as a leader. What you've been learning about leadership just by leading your organization.

Dr. Darnisa: Yeah. I think the biggest things that I've been leading last time, I was here, folks that talked about Sisyphus versus Atlas, right? So I talked about feeling like having to sit with the world on my shoulders and then realizing with team you don't have to push the Boulder up the Hill yourself. Like there can be a group of collective people supporting the world with you I still very much have that perspective. And I think the other way that I've really grown the most has been owning, right? My own managing of expectations. I spend so much time like taking educational systems, corporations through change. I'm doing one-to-one coaching as well as our team with superintendents and CEOs. I'm always telling them, you need to manage your expectations. This is you heard me even say it here and I had to take that advice myself, right?

Dr. Darnisa: So it's been not so much managing expectations on the vision. It's been managing our expectations on the pace of change. For me, I'm such a big picture, visionary. I often joke there are two types of people in the world. There are forest people and there are tree people, the forest people don't need to see the trees. Like they are here to tell you what the forest is, where it is, how big it is, what its impact is. And then the tree folks are like, this is the soil and this is the minutia that is actually making up the parts, but they can't always see the forest. As a forest person, a big picture, visionary. Sometimes I feel like the vision is so big. The dreams are so huge, but because I don't always know what all the trees are. Sometimes you can pace a team too fast to achieve the forest.

Dr. Darnisa: And so even though deep has been growing, our team has been growing. Our impact has been growing. One of the things we did last year was I paused the team. I paused us so we could cohere the forest and the trees. Like I wanted to really know like all the smaller minutia and its parts that it was going to take to achieve the forest because I can see the forest. So clearly I might not realize that all the trees in this forest are going to take us six years to manifest it. I'm like, I see the forest now. Right? It's so the pacing of your organization, and it's not like, I didn't know this before, but I tell you, I feel it now your teams are following your pace and I'm a go hard or go home type of person. this, okay. If we dismantling I'm here for it, I'm here for all pieces of it to its innermost parts.

Dr. Darnisa: But that required me managing my own expectations around pace, around my own self care. And they're like, what is that? Right? This feels like this ongoing question. I keep asking myself. And because of that, I was able to really, I think be empathetic to my organizations differently and be able to slow us down so that we could really process and talk about both the forest and the trees. I feel really blessed for that. I feel blessed for that awareness and for teams that can call it out right when the pace is feeling too paced. And so while I'm still always going to have huge, huge dreams, I think I'm significantly better leader at pacing, those dreams at a pace that doesn't burn out myself or the team beause that's important. I often say this thing like urgency. Urgency is a really great thing, but urgency and absence of competency is harm.

Dr. Darnisa: I often tell that to superintendents and leaders because there's knowledge that has to happen. And for me, it's been urgency, an absence, like the competency for me is like how to pace your team through that kind of urgency. That's what I've learned over the three years and we're still learning, but I am excited to be learning that skill around pacing internally so that we can be here to continue to externally support this work and it's important. So that's been great. Things feel a lot more calmer, in terms of pace, but still massive in terms of impact, which has been wonderful.

Daniel: The marquee question, and yes, we talked about the pre-check you could have to internal external. So what message would you put on all school marguess across the globe, if you could do so for a day,

Dr. Darnisa: This is a tough one. Folks I've been thinking about this one for a while. I asked that there could be multiple marquees. So yes. Thank you. In advance for multiple marquees. I think the first marquee for me is "this is bigger than grades.This is about our humanity." I think especially in the US, school has become something that you do to get to the next level. I feel like we've lost our connection to humanity along the way. The stories that to be told the histories need to be told they're not there. I feel like school has become this place where you try to get really good grades to get to the next level and schools is bigger than grades. It's about learning how to be humane to each other, learning how to be with each other gaining skills, yes, to be a successful contributor to the world.

Dr. Darnisa: But the best contributors to this world don't necessarily have grades in that way. Some of the biggest thinkers in this world don't even have high school diplomas. This is bigger than a diploma. There'll be need them, right? For many communities, we can't get jobs without them, but that's what I would put for on the schools outside. And then I'd have a marquee inside. I'd want to put a marquee for every superintendent and principal law in this country and in the world and just put it on your desk, right? So this is a baby marquee for your desk. And I think that one would say, it's okay to be imperfect. You were doing the best you can. Manage your expectations and we love you. I just don't know if our superintendents and principals are feeling loved right now, I am watching superintendents get belittled by communities for not having plans when they would never prepared for this.

Dr. Darnisa: This is not something that you ever get prepared for and the emotional toll, the emotional stress on our teachers. Matter of fact, I put this on a teacher's desk. To teachers, superintendents, and principals that's your message. And for the students outside, it's like, this is bigger than grades. This is about deepening our humanity to each other. But inside, we love you. We see you manage your expectations, your own perfect, and you don't control it all, don't control it all. I am worried that the mental health of our teachers and principals and superintendents is on the line and this is not to undermine students at all but I work mostly with adults. We see students in school space, but I see adults and coach them I'm concerned that we've forgotten that these are people leading these movements and that they can only do what they can do. I just want some care to be inserted back into school communities because schools are being tasked with being the teachers, the leaders, the historians, the racial equity facilitators. I mean, these are just so many conditions when our educators are fully being traumatized too. So those are the marquees and those are why.

Daniel: It's a beautiful message. That's an important internal facing marquee to have. I think I've shared this on the podcast before. It came from my soul, right. Came out of my heart. It just felt like the right thing to do, but maybe a bit risky, but in the Mastermind, way back 2016, I just decided then to end, the gathering, I love you all, you need to know that. And so that's become routine every end of our gathering. It's like, I love you all. If you need anything between now and next week, please reach out and that's how we end. And that's important. That's important for educators for leaders to hear. Darnisa, thank you so much for being a part of the better leaders, better schools, podcasts of all the things we talked about today. What's the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember.

Dr. Darnisa: Belonging can take you the distance.

Daniel: Thanks for listening to the better leaders, better schools podcast for Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel F better leaders, better schools.com or hit me up on Twitter @alienearbud. If the better leaders better schools, podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway. From the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at alien earbud and using the #BLBS. Level up your leadership at better leaders, better schools.com and talk to you next time until then class dismissed.

Daniel: [inaudible].

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Show Highlights

  • The gap between diversity and inclusion is as wide as the Grand Canyon, but a bridge exists
  • Proven frameworks, roadmaps and data to measure impact paired with implicit bias training 
  • Make your learning community feel championed for and communicate areas of marginalization they experience
  • “Belonging” is actually the sweet spot for this pandemic
  • Sit successfully in the uncertainty with these practical tools that work both virtually and in person
  • Diversity, belonging, inclusion, and equity, DBIE has to be the table and you sit everything on top of
  • Why urgency with the absence of competency is harmful
Dr. Darnisa Amante-Jackson:Creating an environment for belonging

“Belonging is the greatest thing that closes the gap. Please know that gap didn’t arrive in one school year and it’s not going to go away in one school year. Your commitment to belonging will continue to bring your community together, which is what you will need to close the gap one day to do culturally responsive teaching. “

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