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When it comes to racial equity, Dr. Heather Hackman believes that many of us get the terminology wrong. That is, we tend to use the words “diversity,” “cultural competency” and “social justice/equity” interchangeably, when in fact they all have distinctly different meanings.

Heather Hackman

This is important, Hackman says, because we live in an increasingly complex society when it comes to race, a fact that is reflected in classrooms and schools nationwide. To help students, particularly Native students and students of color, reach their fullest potential, it has become essential that educators address racial issues to examine the personal and institutional biases that block this goal.

“Racial realities in the United States are what they are because of long-standing systems, structures and policies that have given or denied resources based on skin color and racial characterization,” says Hackman, a trainer and consultant on diversity, equity and social justice issues who has also been an educator. To effect real systemic change in racial equity, “simply focusing on diversity and awareness is too tepid of a response.”

Hackman’s work helps individuals and groups move beyond basic diversity and inclusion efforts to develop a critical racial equity lens. This lens lets us look at the big picture, including systems and history, and focus on access to resources, power and privilege. What we learn has the power to transform and foster real change. “Diversity work is an easy approach, and educators who start with it can get stuck in it. Equity and social justice are a much harder body of work — it’s challenging emotionally, and profound in its impact,” Hackman says.

Hackman and co-trainer Erin Jones, M.Ed., are working with CTA to begin this racial equity work. They led CTA’s Board of Directors and a group of diverse leaders through a four-day session, and will continue working with them and many others in the organization in the coming months.

“As educators, it’s important that we lead these discussions in our classrooms and within our union,” said CTA President Eric Heins. “We must do more than acknowledge that many of us come from a place of privilege. We need to recognize institutional racism and the impact it has on the system. We need to listen and seek understanding in order to better reach all of our students.”

Here Hackman suggests ways educators can use this lens to gain and teach perspectives that can help students succeed. 

Why did you leave a tenured university position, where you were teaching and researching the social justice issues you now consult on?

I felt that I could have a greater impact outside of teacher education than within it. Very few teacher education programs give the right level of attention to social justice and equity issues, and as a result are often many years behind what is happening in our classrooms today.

This leaves teachers able to design a basic lesson plan, but without the awareness or skills to adeptly respond to racially complex educational spaces. It made more sense for me to do more concrete, long-term and potentially more effective work outside of teacher education than within it.

Why should educators care about teaching with a racial equity perspective?

Our job is to prepare students to be effective, skillful and useful in a complex society. We all need information that is conveyed through a racial equity lens to function well in society. This lens cuts across the needs of all students and their families. Students of color and Native students need their voices and stories heard. White students need to hear them. We all need this information to be successful.

How does it help educators do their job and be better teachers?

Teaching through a racial equity lens expands educators’ pedagogy — it broadens our view, it deepens our knowledge and our practice, it gives greater access to tools and resources for all students. For example, if I’m a physics teacher, it’s beneficial for me to pursue individual learning and reading. But it’s quite a bit more beneficial to engage in collective, symbiotic learning in the classroom and lab, where ideas are shared, tested and studied, along with engaging in dialogue with my peers.

How can educators start?

This is such a complicated issue — it’s one of the most challenging and central issues to our society over last 400 years. We must commit to lifelong learning and increasing our knowledge, skill and capacity.

There are a few programs and trainings that educators and schools can use, such as the Pacific Educational Group’s Courageous Conversation ( The protocol engages, sustains and deepens interracial dialogue, and lets participants practice using strategies to identify and address policies, programs and practices that prevent students from receiving a quality education.

There’s also the SEED program, which are classroom or school projects that address climate justice work from a racial justice — and class and gender justice — lens ( Creating educational spaces where those who have a racial equity lens are encouraged to express themselves and utilize it in their teaching can allow those who don’t have it to learn more.

What should be the goal of teaching with a racial equity lens?

Three main things:

Teachers need to support students in thinking critically, about how justice works, how to discern along lines of power when looking from multiple perspectives. This is one of the fundamental needs of a democratic society, an indispensable element for equity in education and building community.  

We need to center compassion and empathy in our curriculum. Notions of compassion and empathy are not stressed enough in educational settings. Students don’t have to be best friends, but they can be kind, thoughtful, and can engage with others.

We need to help students learn to contribute to society as a whole, how to engage in larger society. Education is the practice of freedom. We have to remember that.

What should drive us in racial justice work? What is most important?

We need to remember that our relationships — not any one relationship but our relational societal ethos — should be imbued with love and accountability. They are at the heart of racial justice work.

Start Your Journey

Dr. Heather Hackman believes no one resource, book or course has all the answers to what is a lifelong commitment to learn and use a racial equity lens. But the books below can serve as the start of an educator’s journey.

Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, Warren J. Blumenfeld et al., Routledge, 4th edition, 2018

The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys, Eddie Moore et al., Corwin, 2017

Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools, Glenn E. Singleton, Corwin, 2014

For more resources, go to

Diversity, Cultural Competency and Social Justice/Equity 

  • Awareness and appreciation of difference
  • Not about access to resources, power and privilege
  • Not about systems
  • (Vaguely used)
Cultural Competency
  • Skill development for work across cultural lines
  • Not about access to resources, power and privilege
  • Not about systems
Social Justice/Equity
  • Big picture and daily lives
  • Examines systems and history and how they impact individuals
  • Looks squarely at access to resources, power and privilege
  • Is hopeful — a steward of our best values


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