Nonprofit Elevating Equity facilitates examination of race in the classroom, workplace

Elevating Equity founder Rachel Willis.

About six-in-ten Americans say race relations in the U.S. are bad, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. Yet it’s a topic often avoided in schools, despite being a factor in how students are treated. That’s where Elevating Equity comes in. Award-winning-educator-turned-entrepreneur Rachel Wills works to create spaces for educators and community members to examine race and ensure every child receives an equitable education.

“Every single day – whether we realize it or not – we are making a decision to dismantle or reinforce systems of racism in our country,” Willis said. “It is our responsibility as educators or community members to make sure we are learning how racism reinforces itself and actively choosing to be anti-racist. Elevating Equity is an organization that makes that easy for educators to do that work.”

Educators turn to Elevating Equity to receive professional development focused on how to be anti-racist personally and professionally. In addition to designing and facilitating workshops, the organization conducts equity audits to provide recommendations on how schools and education-based companies can implement equitable practices.

Willis has more than a decade of teaching experience. A product of Atlanta Public Schools, Willis was named the 2009 APS Elementary Teacher of the Year as a 3rd grade Morningside Elementary School teacher. At age 28, Willis received the prestigious Milken Educator Award, known as the “Oscars for Teaching,” for her innovation and impact.

“I’d been given a platform. I asked myself, how can I be an ambassador and make sure that education is truly respected?” Willis recalled.

She pledged to earn that honor every single day. After serving as a 2004 Metro Atlanta corps member, Willis returned to Teach For America in 2012. This time she joined their staff in Washington, D.C. to share her “secret sauce” with new members teaching in Title 1 schools.

“My task was to break down how to be a culturally responsive teacher – how to build relationships, create content relevant to students and use teachable moments,” Willis said.

As those teachers realized, ‘I might need to stop math to have a conversation about the George Zimmerman verdict because this is where my students’ minds are,’ their principals worried about being “too political.”

This inspired Willis to return to another alma mater – Columbia University, Teachers College. There she led a pilot program for principals to become racial justice leaders around issues from hiring practices to interactions with parents and staff.  The culmination of this educator and principal work created a spark.

“It led me to become an entrepreneur and start Elevating Equity in 2016. I wondered, what would it look like if we were helping districts, systems and organizations?” Willis said.

Willis works with national groups with a presence in Atlanta, as she breaks into the local market. She helped Food Corps, whose service members teach students in classroom and garden spaces about healthy food and lifestyles, with lesson development and member training.

“Rachel provided valuable feedback about how each lesson could reflect the lived experience of students, and how our service members could empower students to make change in their communities,” FoodCorps Director of Education Erica Curry said.

“Instead of simply telling service members what they should do, Rachel modeled the tools and techniques, emphasizing the importance of building strong relationships with students,” FoodCorps Associate Director of Training Olivia Webster said.

Willis designed her training around comments service members might hear and how to handle them, like this one: “A service member was building a rock wall garden bed with students, when one said, ‘We’re building Donald Trump’s wall to keep out the crazy Mexicans.’ Then a girl responded, ‘I am a Mexican.’ All of the students nervously looked at the service member for a response.”

Willis’ response: “If you don’t say anything, you are implying that this is something you agree with or that it is an acceptable comment. So, it has to be publicly addressed in that moment. How you address it depends on your own style. This service member said, ‘We don’t put people down in this space. Everyone is welcome in this classroom.’”

An Elevating Equity workshop.

Elevating Equity’s trainings teach educators how to respond to this scenario and other racial incidents that may occur in their classroom or broader community. Educators also are given the space to reflect on their own history with race and racism, identify their unconscious biases, and understand how this influences their mindsets and actions towards students.

This year, Willis was awarded a seed investment from The Sara Blakley Foundation, in partnership with the Center for Civic Innovation. As a CCI fellow, she is formulating how Elevating Equity can best support the needs of the Atlanta community to answer the question, “How can we create a generation of racial justice leaders?”

For more information about the organization, visit elevatingequity.org.

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