For rising leaders, one of the most important concepts in receiving responsibility is earning the right to be heard. I (Jeff) first learned of this concept through the ministry of Young Life—the need for a common ground of relationship for the gospel message of life in Christ to be communicated and received.
In regard to school leadership, this phrase “earning the right to be heard” takes on contours of meritocracy with the idea of “working your way up” to administration. Whereas most people who lead have indeed proven their capabilities for managing people, we would like to push back on the working-your-way-up model. Many leaders have begun to recognize the importance of identifying and elevating potential leaders who do not hold traditional leadership profiles. We propose that emerging leaders discern the right to be heard. This modification to our traditional leadership trajectory requires humility and a willingness to understand the gap between our own experiences and the experiences of underrepresented people, especially within the leadership of Christian schools.
Diverse Leadership in Christian Schools
Many private Christian schools were created and have existed without economically disadvantaged families in mind. During the early 1960s, white-flight schools became common in America as community schools became integrated. When suburban and private schools became more accessible to minorities and the underrepresented, the newcomers brought with them the fear that they may not culturally assimilate with the regularity or pace expected. Due to these factors, fewer opportunities for leadership positions among underrepresented students and faculty in private schools have arisen.
But some are promoted to leadership. Those few minority and underrepresentend leaders in Christ-centered schools can greatly impact their community. People of color who have had the opportunity to serve in a leadership role become especially significant to those communities from which they come. So, how does someone “earn the right to be heard”?
So much depends on leadership and whether or not they listen. As I (Ivan) accepted the role as Director of Diversity and Intercultural Engagement here at Brook Hill, I would visit with local community leaders, pastors, and families from underrepresented communities. I would ask the question, “Why not private school?” Without hesitation, the majority responded, “Cost.” Others expressed their fear that their children would not be treated equally with other students. Parents would explain: if there were an issue of “he said/she said,” would underrepresented people be heard? They continued, “If our kids needed to talk to someone, who would they talk to?”
These concerns are real and legitimate. For the most part, minority representation is weakly established in Christ-centered private schools. Yes, when minorities and the underrepresented begin to find leadership positions, we celebrate these incremental gains. However, when these populations are represented in rising leadership they deserve to be heard with honor, not contempt. Who can and will hear them? Current leadership could provide more access to potential leadership positions for the underrepresented in order to continue this important work towards diversity. But, the work is not complete unless those positions are heard and valued.
Conviction of the majority does not necessarily carry the day when perceived injustice is the narrative in our nation, community, or school. For the underrepresented to depend on the majority represented to defend, protect, and align with their voice, there must be trust in the leadership. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
In view of these concerns, those of us who have been given the opportunity to lead in the schools where we serve are entrusted with stewardship of the variety of people in our schools as well as in our communities. We have been asked to serve in new capacities, in part because we have applied for those positions, and in part because we have demonstrated our ability to tackle complex tasks. To what extent are we looking to elevate others even as we ourselves seek to lead well? How do you “discern the right to be heard” by identifying and elevating others?
We propose some answers to these questions. First, become a student of those around you. One of the remarkable things about Jesus’ calling of his disciples was his ability to see in people who they could become and to expose those qualities in them, even as they were growing in their knowledge of Him. Looking from the heart into the character, ability and interest of others is impactful.
Second, keep a special eye out for those people who demonstrate ability, especially if it is in fields that are outside your particular expertise; get to know those people and find out the things they do really well. For example, having students complete a survey gathering facts about their interest and hobbies would solidify like mindedness and connection with others. Asking colleagues who successfully create and use surveys could build new opportunities for conversation about their own lives and how they came to know so much about that type of information gathering.
Third, be willing to admit your own lack of knowledge about any number of things, and then take steps to learn. At times, there is great wisdom in being silent and listening. Do not confuse having an opinion with a need to speak it all the time. One of the burdens of leadership is knowing when to speak and when to keep silent. Be intentional when meeting with those students to monitor any shifts or changes in the culture.
“Discerning the right to be heard” may summarize the above qualities. As a leader, you should use your voice to advocate for marginalized students, faculty, and families in your school community. Keep in mind that true leadership follows Christ’s example, seeking to bring glory to the Father through humbly serving others, boldly proclaiming the Gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus, and graciously pointing others to God’s desire for His people to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly.