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Equity & Social Justice Transformation with Dr. Latoya Dixon (Ep 56)

/ Jason Sholl

Dr. Latoya Dixon had served as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and state level leader of school transformation. She currently serves as the Director of Early Childhood, Elementary, and Gifted Education in York School District One in South Carolina. Learn more about her work by following her on Twitter @latoyadixon5 and visiting her resource site Leadership With Latoya at https://latoyadixon5.com/.

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Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning with WeVideo Podcast. This is your host, Nathan Lang-Raad. And on today's podcast, we have Dr. Latoya Dixon. Dr. Dixon has served as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and state level leader of School Transformation. She currently serves as the director of early childhood, elementary and gifted education in York School District One in South Carolina. You can learn more about her work by visiting her website at latoyadixon5.com. In this episode, Latoya discusses equity, social justice, and her work in district strategic planning. I hope you enjoy the episode. Latoya, it is so great to see you, my friend, thanks for being on the podcast.

Dr. Latoya Dixon: Absolutely. Happy to be here.

Nathan Lang-Raad: You and I have been connected for a while now on Twitter, and it's such an honor to finally get to have a conversation with you in this manner. The pandemic has been such a challenging time but I will say the silver lining is that it's given me an opportunity to connect with leaders across the nation virtually. So I'm looking forward to our conversation today.

Dr. Latoya Dixon: Yeah, me too.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Before we started recording, you were telling me all the things that you are up to, which are a lot. I was joking about I don't know if you have a time machine or you just don't sleep, but you are involved in a lot. And I know one of the things that you have going on, you are going to be a keynote speaker at a virtual conference. So I'd love to hear more about that.

Dr. Latoya Dixon: Yeah. I'm really excited. On April 16, I'm going to be the keynote speaker for Edmentum, North Carolina and South Carolina, which is where I live, South Carolina, it's about 80 degrees today, it's beautiful outside, sunny, warm, for their second annual e-conference. And the keynote will focus on equity as it did last year. And I think, Nathan, the pandemic has really provided us with, I like to think of it as another chance, not the chance because we've had lots of chances to address inequity. And so I'm real hopeful that public education finds its way during this time to make sure we're doing what all of our kids need.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. It's such important work and congratulations by the way. And I know the conference attendees will be so privileged to have you speak to them about equity. Not to give away anything that you're going to talk about, but I loved to dive in more into your work around equity and what your major themes are whenever you address equity, because equity just sounds like a very broad... Well, we all know that work needs to be done in our schools, but it's also a very broad concept. And so I'm curious about what are some of those examples and concepts that you really dive into when you're speaking about it?

Dr. Latoya Dixon: So there are a couple of things that really come to mind for me. One is so often when folks think about equity, the first place they go to in their mind is usually about money, what does it mean in terms of folks having their equal share of funding to be able to make things happen. But I believe that equity is about access and opportunity and diversity and inclusion, and it's all of those things. And it's not just about race either, but diversity of experiences and we all bring different things to the table.

Dr. Latoya Dixon: And the second thing that I really try and highlight is so often after we make a determination in organizations that we're going to address equity, we go straight to our policies. We look for those policies that maybe have some blind spots in them that create or perpetuate inequity and try to fix those. I'm going to push folks to really look at their practices, to take the real work of equity off the paper out of the policy manual and make it real in what you do every day and challenge them to be voices for equity in that way, by living that work out rather than just creating policy that's in a book somewhere, or being able to recite the companies or organizations equity mission.

Nathan Lang-Raad: It's so interesting because I do believe that the equity work definitely needs to be... It has to start with the vision and create a purpose and obviously that informs local decision-making. I'm curious, all the work that's going to be put into re-establishing a vision or making sure that equity is a big part of the vision and a big part of policy, what is the next part of that? How do we get actual decision-makers all the way down to the local classroom to buy into and making sure that we're being really reflective about our practices and not just say, "Oh yep, we are an equitable school district. We put it in our policy, now we can check it off." How do we transform practice beyond the policy part of it?

Dr. Latoya Dixon: Well, I think we have to make some deliberate and intentional decisions and do things like gut check ourselves. So if we say that we want all of our students to have opportunities to experience the most rigorous coursework, then we have to look around at the enrollment of those courses and say, "Okay, do we have all students represented here?" And we have to ask our students and honor their voices when they tell us they don't feel included or they don't have choice. And so I think it starts with being intentional, not just with having a policy, but with making sure you are safeguarding your own practice, so to speak, and that way creating opportunities to be reflective. And that then becomes a natural way that we do things.

Dr. Latoya Dixon: I think all of us bring a certain level of bias to any of the work we do. And so I think it's very easy and comfortable to be in a situation where you believe you're practicing all the things you say you stand on and you believe and what for children, but if we are intentional and deliberate and targeted in the way we check ourselves, then it's easy for us to have things in theory only, but not in practice.

Nathan Lang-Raad: You mentioned biases and implicit bias and you're exactly right, we all bring implicit bias with us wherever we go. And I'm curious, how do we get people to be reflective and not be defensive, because people automatically get defensive when they feel like they are being accused of something or are carrying a bias and we want people to listen and be open-minded so I'm curious how you have conversations with people and get them to be reflective and open and discover what those biases are?

Dr. Latoya Dixon: One of the things that I think a lot of folks would tell you who know me is that I never missed an opportunity to be courageous. And so those of us who want to make a difference and help bring folks along and help them see that the very thing that you're speaking about, we have to operate with courage and it's in those moments, where folks tend to feel uncomfortable or can be uncomfortable, that we have to continue to tell the truth because when we elevate their comfort over our courage for the truth, then we perpetuate that same level of misguided thinking or implicit bias. And so sometimes it means being very uncomfortable, not just for the person who carries the implicit bias, but also for the person who decides to be courageous and say, "Well, let me tell you how that really works. Did you know? Were you aware of?"

Dr. Latoya Dixon: And so I challenge myself and everyone that's around me to operate with courage. I can't tell you the number of people that I know who quietly will share what they agree or disagree with, especially around social justice movements, and I think about other movements in the civil rights era in our country and it was those folks who were willing say, in front of everyone, "Here's what I believe is the God-given human right for every person," that helped make progress possible for us as far as where we are today. So I think we get folks there by being honest, telling the truth and acting with courage all the time.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Thank you, Latoya. I mean, just listening to your words already inspires me so much to tap into my own courage. And I really want to hone in on this part about revealing the truth. I think so much of the systemic racism that's been embedded in our culture is because the truth has been almost covered up in many places. And so we have to really uncover what the truth is, and illuminate these inequities. And that's a lot of hard work to go through. I wonder how you did that for local level. We've seen at the systemic national level, we've seen racism and inequities, and I'm wondering at the local level, what does that look like? Are you meeting with the community to have open discussions? Are you meeting with your local teams at the school district level? I'm curious about what those conversations, how do those even start?

Dr. Latoya Dixon: Well, I believe that it all starts and ends with relationship and that when we enter into authentic relationship with others who are not just like us and who do not have the same experiences that we have, and maybe do not believe what we believe and perhaps don't live in the ways that we live, that we create an opportunity to have those conversations. So I'll tell you a quick story. So a now friend reached out to me over email, it was not a friend at the time, was just someone I knew and who knew me, and asked me to be a part of a group who wanted to tackle racism. And so I had a really difficult time deciding upon how I was going to reply to that email. And I decided not to reply to the email. I went and had a conversation with her.

Dr. Latoya Dixon: And I said, "Let me talk to you a little bit about how you go about this work." And I said, "First and foremost, it's not appropriate for you to send an email to me to ask me to be a part of your group to tackle racism. We have no friendship. We don't have a relationship and it's incredibly insensitive. And I I don't know that I want to be a part of your group right yet, but here's what I will do. I'll meet you for coffee." And so she and I have become friends and we have met several times for coffee. We've had several conversations, just getting to know one another.

Dr. Latoya Dixon: I don't think you put people in a conference room, sit them around a table and say, "Let's talk about racism." People don't want to do that. But what I do believe is that when we enter into authentic relationship and we began to love someone for the simple fact that they are a human being with a heart and a soul that we can break down those biases that you talk about. We can break through those assumptions we have about one another, and we can create a situation where love really is our guide. And that's what I believe in, I believe in that every day. So I pride myself on trying to make sure I'm living as authentic of a life as possible. And that can be really tough. And the older I get, the more important that is to me, but I believe that it starts and ends with relationship, having relationships with others who are different than yourself.

Nathan Lang-Raad: It's fascinating. And you display the exact courage that you were talking about earlier. That takes a lot of courage to tell someone that your approach is not the most effective approach, your approach is basically representative of the racism that's existing. You may not have said those words, but it takes a lot of courage to tell someone yes, you may have good intentions, but here's how we can work together in a more productive way, in a more effective way. I'm curious, do you feel because of that courage and just being direct and just being very truthful, did that open up more doors for more conversations to do a deep dive work, or was the person, was the friend receptive to hearing this?

Dr. Latoya Dixon: She was very receptive to it and it did open more doors to more conversation. I think we both learned something. I think initially when I said, "This approach isn't..." The first place she went is that was never my intention, I'm so sorry. She was mortified that I, in any way, felt the way I did about her approach. But the willingness to listen is important and the willingness, not only hear the truth, but to accept the truth, Nathan. I feel like there are folks who know the truth, they are aware of the truth, but the difficulty is in accepting the truth, because once we decide we want to accept the truth, then it can be very painful to deal with some of the harsh realities of our country and the things that have happened.

Dr. Latoya Dixon: But I believe in my heart and deep in my soul, that it is possible for us to move forward together if everyone's willing to hear the truth, accept the truth and act with courage. People like to think that peer pressure ends when you become an adult. But I can't tell you the number of people who quietly approached me when George Floyd was murdered and said, "How are you? I want to reach out to you. I want to know if you're okay." And I can tell you, there were a number of folks who did not, and it was really, really painful for me. Some folks that I consider to be pretty good friends. And so where that happened, I tried to reach out to those folks and say, "Let me tell you why this is a painful experience for me and why I expected to hear from you." And that too worked, but it's not easy. Making good relationships and maintaining them and being authentic, it's not easy, it's heavy stuff, but if that's not why we're here, I don't know what else we're here for.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Great. Thank you for being a role model for authenticity. It goes so much more beyond the platitude and you are a true example of that. So thank you Latoya for being exemplar.

Dr. Latoya Dixon: Thanks. I appreciate that.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, let's jump on into our lightning round questions. because we get to learn more about you through this process. And so I call it the lightning round. It's not going to be that super fast, but are you ready for the questions?

Dr. Latoya Dixon: I am. These are really hard questions too, by the way.

Nathan Lang-Raad: All right. Well, I have faith in you. I think I'm so excited to hear the answers.

Dr. Latoya Dixon: Thank you.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Okay. The first one is if you were stranded on a desert island, which three books would you have with you and why?

Dr. Latoya Dixon: Okay. Definitely, probably The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and definitely The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran and Berne Brown's Rising Strong. Those are probably my three books and all of those have different meanings to me. I read The Prophet when I was I think I was 21 and I've read it several times over and I didn't even know what I was reading when I was 21, but I just love the language and the simplicity at which he explains things like love and relationships and life and joy and pain and anger. And then I love James Baldwin, I think he was a genius and was well ahead of his time. And I would actually read anything that I could have by him would be perfect. I've learned so much from him. He helps me understand and make meaning of the world, especially in recent times.

Dr. Latoya Dixon: And then Berne Brown, I like to think of her as my personal therapist, even though she's not, and I've never met her, but I've read all of her books and I think they're incredible and I recommend them to everybody. And one of the things I've prided myself on is working on myself and as leaders, I think it's important that it's not just that we help other folks become leaders but we also have a responsibility to take care of ourselves. And so I try and use some of her work to take care of my social, emotional health.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Excellent. Thank you for sharing.

Dr. Latoya Dixon: No problem.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Okay. Next one. How do you recharge?

Dr. Latoya Dixon: Well, a lot of different ways, but a couple quick ways. One is I love to read. And so reading is a good relaxation technique for me. I don't watch a lot of television. So my friends tease me about that because I probably won't know the latest thing on Netflix or Hulu or anything because I just don't watch a lot of television. I do watch television, but not a lot of it. I like to exercise as well. I've been trying to get myself back into a good routine. When the pandemic hit I got off track, so to speak, but this week I've exercised three days. And so I'm really, really proud of myself. I'm going to keep that up because it makes me a better person. And the other thing I do, Nathan, that's a secret but not anymore is I like to rap. And so I make music. And so I buy beats and I'm on SoundCloud and I make music for fun. It's a great way for me to relax my mind. I think sometimes when we think about recharging and relaxing, we think physically only, but in recent years it's become incredibly important to me to not only rest my body, but to also rest my brain, if I don't take time to do that, it literally never stops. So, that's important.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Right. What is the biggest challenge in education?

Dr. Latoya Dixon: Well, I think there are two and I think they're tied together, but one is equity, obviously. I think we still have lots of work to do in that regard. And I think the pandemic showed us how important it was for broadband access to be available for every person in our country, no matter where they are, where they live, where they come from. And the second one is how do we shift the narrative in education, especially in the United States, that we are not so committed to this standardized testing mania and how do we create a sense of urgency around how important it is for us to move as a country, to competency-based education and demonstration by mastery. Very passionate about that.

Dr. Latoya Dixon: I think we have really over tested kids for such a long time now. It makes me so sad to listen to high school students talk about how they're gaming the system, so to speak, to boost their GPA's, to get into college and to leave without any idea of what they're passionate about. And I believe life is about finding the intersection of what you're really passionate about and what you do really well. And when you can find that intersection, you can have purpose. And so I think that's a big challenge for us in education.

Nathan Lang-Raad: What subject did you love in school?

Dr. Latoya Dixon: Well, obviously English, that was my favorite subject. And I loved reading from a very early age, and writing. I grew up poor. My mother was a single parent. I was raised in a housing project and my mother would always take us to the county library and there were books there and there was no cost. And so we prided ourselves on reading a lot in our house. And so I loved English Language Arts. That was my favorite subject in school.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Who was your favorite teacher and why?

Dr. Latoya Dixon: My favorite teacher was my third grade teacher, Janet West. We still keep in touch. We are Facebook friends. We are friends on all social media and she was my favorite teacher because she recognized very early that I had a talent for writing and reading. And she sent me to a young writers conference at the local college in our town the summer after third grade.

Dr. Latoya Dixon: And it was there I decided I must be good at writing if I'm here and it changed my life. I became an English teacher and I still very much love to write. So I love Ms. West very much.

Nathan Lang-Raad: What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Dr. Latoya Dixon: Well, there was a time when I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I can't remember what grade. I think it was fifth grade, but my teacher would let folks, if they got in trouble and were going to lose their recess, she would let you plead your case and you could get a classmate to represent you and present your arguments. So I served as several folks attorneys in fifth grade and got them their recess back. So there was a time. And then as I went into middle and high school, I knew I wanted to be a teacher and I just didn't know what subject I wanted to teach, but I had Danny Forest as my high school English teacher, sophomore and junior year. And he submitted it for me that I wanted to teach English.

Nathan Lang-Raad: It's fantastic. I love the lawyer concept.

Dr. Latoya Dixon: I don't know if that was because I was really good at it or because I talked a lot. I'm going to say it's probably the latter of the two.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Who had the biggest impact on who you have become?

Dr. Latoya Dixon: Most definitely my mom. My mother is the smartest person I know, and she's incredible and wise and kind and nurturing and she makes things that can seem rather complicated, very simple. She can get to the root of anything. I would not be where I am today without her. She's awesome.

Nathan Lang-Raad: All right. What's the most positive change you've noticed in education?

Dr. Latoya Dixon: The welcoming of technology and how it can be used to leverage... Helping us to enhance our teaching practices in student learning. I can remember growing up and we had one Apple IIe computer in my elementary school, and you sometimes got the go to it maybe a couple of times a year and play Oregon Trail. So I think technology, when accessible, can be a real game changer for kids and really expose them to experiences outside of their everyday lives. I'm appreciative of that change.

Nathan Lang-Raad: But what's the worst advice you've ever received?

Dr. Latoya Dixon: Oh, the worst advice I've ever received? Well, this is not anything life changing, but as I was saying earlier, I grew up in a housing project and I can remember it being summer and we didn't have any air conditioning. And my oldest sister, I have two older sisters, my oldest sister, Tonya, informed me that I would be really cool if and less hot if I took a cold bath. And so I ran a cold bath and that was bad advice. I was more than cool, I was cold. So, that's the only thing I can think of in terms of worst advice. I believe in protecting my psyche and so I'm very careful about who I allow to influence my thinking.

Nathan Lang-Raad: And then what about the best advice you ever received?

Dr. Latoya Dixon: I would say the best advice I've ever received is probably from, again, my mom and growing up she always told us, "Whatever you do, don't allow fear to stop you from doing anything." And so I have used that as a platform to believe that we are either held hostage by our fear or made free by our courage. And it's the best advice I've ever received. I've never regretted being courageous.

Nathan Lang-Raad: And what a perfect place to end our conversation today, with courage, the epitome of a courageous leader, Dr. Latoya Dixon. So thank you. Hey Latoya, how can we all stay connected with you through social media or through your website?

Dr. Latoya Dixon: Absolutely. So you can check out all my work at latoyadixon5.com. That's my name, L-A-T-O-Y-A, D-I-X-O-N, the number five, .com. There you can find all my resources, read my blog and listen to my podcast, which is available on iTunes and several other platforms called Leadership With Latoya. And you can follow me on Twitter, @latoyadixon5. I love making new Twitter friends and learning from everybody in the education community.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Fantastic. Latoya, I had a wonderful time today. Thanks again for being on the podcast.

Dr. Latoya Dixon: Thank you Nathan. I appreciate it.

Nathan Lang-Raad: I want to invite you to our second annual WeVideo Creator Community Summit, July 20th to the 22nd. We will have educators from around the globe presenting on topics like personalized learning, social emotional learning, and blended learning. The summit is free of charge and you'll receive a PD certificate for attending. For more information visit www.wevideo.com/wccs21. I hope to see you there.