Ground in the Moment: An Interview with DEI Practitioner, Dr. Aaron Griffen
MBC: Thank you so much for your time to chat today, Dr. Griffen. We have a couple questions for the 100 Black Educators series for My Black Colorado to get to know you and the work you do. Can you talk about the one thing that has made you the most proud during your time as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, or even your work as a Director of DEI?
Dr. Griffen: So there’s been a few, but one of my proudest was when I had a student my last year as principal. I had a student that we had been working on for years to make sure he would graduate. He was a fifth year senior, and we had to find him all summer. Like we couldn’t find him. We had gotten word that he had decided he was not going to come back for his fifth year. So, if you know anything about graduation rates, bringing a student back goes against [a school’s] four year graduation rate. The hope was for him to enroll in one of the online schools and possibly graduate during the summer, because if he graduated in the summer at the end of his fourth year, it wouldn’t count against our graduation rate. However, if he did not do that, and we brought him back in the fall, it would count against us because at that point he would be a fifth year senior. I consider this one of my proudest moments because I was advised not to allow him back. I made a decision that I would get this young man back in school. I didn’t care about the graduation rate because I didn’t become a principal for graduation rates. I became a principal to graduate kids. I call this my highlight because again, it was my last year as a principal, and this young man in his fifth year, graduated-he ended up being on what we created in our school as a peer jury member […] and he was therefore a part of our restorative justice team for students. He was actually accepted to a local community college. The reason why that was the most proud moment of my career is because that was the step of my career for those eighteen or so years that was like a culmination of why I became an educator in the first place–to give a voice to those kids that people want to let go; I wanted to be the “crack filler” for those kids who fall through the cracks. So, he was like the culmination of everything that I had worked for to make sure that when I’m given a chance to go against the grain, to go against the status quo, to go against the norm, I say, no. I’m instead going to take a risk and risk all the data for one child- for just one child. I needed this young man to graduate because if he didn’t he would not have an opportunity for what his actions are going to be. Seeing that young man walk across the stage– that was the culmination of my time as an on-campus educator.
MBC: Wow. I really think this story speaks to the work that you do now in making sure that students are prepared for the 21st century and college. In what ways, then, are you working to take that experience in helping this one student be successful and building that all the way out to the school district that you work for now as Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?
Dr. Griffen: I tell that story frequently, and I actually have that picture in my presentations when I introduce myself to staff members. I always tell that story because I need staff members to ground in why I’m about to say the things I’m about to say, so I always start there. What I do in my organization, my school network has actually created space for me to enter into multiple conversations around practice, around policy, around programming and how we do things. So, what I tend to do is when I go and present before staff, I use very specific and explicit examples of how our failure to check our biases, our identities, our privilege, and now I’m starting to talk to people about their entitlement because we’re still stuck on privilege. I’m starting to realize that some of the things we’re dealing with is not merely privilege, but actually entitlement, so I talk to people about identity, bias, privilege, power, and entitlement, and I explain to them how those things resulted in this student that I just shared not graduating high school because of our bias-“He doesn’t deserve it”, our power- “I can make sure he doesn’t graduate”, our privilege- “Well, I’m telling you. He doesn’t deserve to graduate” or our entitlement– “as the senior whatever, whatever, whatever. I don’t think it’s fair for him to graduate.” What I do is go through these stages with staff and have them dive into the question on if they have students where biases, power, privilege or entitlement have unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) harmed a child. That’s how I engage staff on campuses. I have them do what we call “holding up the mirror” of self-reflection. Let’s just be honest. We all have biases and we’ve all done it; I give them examples of when I have done it as an assistant principal. I realize what I’ve done– hey, I realize where I messed up and go back and fix it. Don’t just let it keep going.
From the network level when I’m working at the home office, or I’m working with school leaders, it’s some of the same conversations, but now I’m talking to them about how the way they show up impacts the way the people they lead show up. So, if I am a principal, or a School Director, or an Executive Director, or Senior Manager, if I show up in a biased way towards you, and you observe me being biased or flexing my power, privilege, or entitlement towards others, then I would do the exact same thing (being your subordinate). So what I decided to do in development of our network as a whole is actually having our leaders to hold up the mirror: are you unintentionally or intentionally promoting this behavior on those you lead? We model based on how our leadership shows up; that affects how everyone else shows up. It will affect how we teach and interact with our kids. That is how I take the story with that student and try to make sure I exemplify and share that with everyone else like hey–you have a decision to make. You can focus on what makes you look good, or you can take a risk this one time and say let me do this for this one child who can make a difference in this world[…] those are the kinds of messages I hope to put out, and that’s the way I approach the work within my school network.
MBC: Let’s go a little deeper with this work that you do with diversity, equity, and inclusion as we look at returning to schools, and the issue that we’re facing in terms of what COVID-19 will create for our students: how will COVID-19 inform the work that you do in the fall?
Dr. Griffen: COVID-19 has already informed my work. So when COVID first came, the first thing I had to do was to ground myself in the moment. I try to tell people to ground themselves in the moment. I had to ground myself in what was happening because you know, I’m a husband and a dad, too. I have to worry about my family. I can only control what I can control, and what I can control is how I responded to this moment, and how I could start to think forward towards what my network, school directors, teachers and students were going to need from me. Luckily, I have done research already and have written about the “digital divide”. I knew that the first thing that was going to come up was some kids wouldn’t have access to laptops. Some kids wouldn’t have access to Wi-Fi. Once we got past that, then we had to think about what children’s home environments were like, so I started thinking through all of these issues. We have to keep children first. Then, we had to start thinking about staff.
Now, I am thinking more future-oriented in everything I am doing in order to anticipate what could possibly happen, so immediately my department did a training session on social distancing, racism, and xenophobia because my background in education studying history, segregation, and the Fourteenth Amendment informed me that what was going to happen with social distancing because we were eventually going to start having segregation happen where groups would start to point fingers at each other because this is historical in the United States of America. I did this session to help teachers begin to prepare for that because when kids come back, they’re going to feel that pain […] My work became peace oriented, and we started addressing trauma. Like how do we ensure equity using a culturally responsive lens? We had already planned to do a training with new staff on trauma and social-emotional work, but then all of a sudden, we started dealing with racial trauma. The way my work is being informed now is making sure that as our student services, curriculum, and social emotional teams starts to devise ways that we set up schools for success in August. I’m making sure that I am supporting them by providing that lens making sure we are being culturally responsive, and being equitable, and are we focusing in this moment where we should be looking at trauma– racial, sexual, and addressing mental health. We need to make sure that we’re not painting trauma with a broad stroke and not making it intersectional because it will be very important for us to recognize that our kids are going to show up in unique ways. Our teachers and leaders are going to show up in very unique ways. I have been looking forward towards ways that every single session has takeaways for staff to know how to self-care. School staff must know how to do self-care when a student brings a racial crisis to me?
My fear is we’re not doing enough to think through what’s going to happen to teachers who experience depression when their kids have been experiencing racial trauma or even financial trauma when kids know that they’re about to be evicted. This is real. So, every session we’re doing we are literally planning for some type of self-care at the end now as we dive into the DEI work. Our staff is going to hold a mirror up and own how they respond. We have to prepare staff for kids and their families.
MBC: Your expertise definitely spills out in your exuberance in speaking of the work that you’re doing right now, but let’s talk about some of your personal projects that you’re engaged in. Could you share what Prosperity Educators, LLC does and some of the research projects you have going on?
Dr. Griffen: Absolutely–Prosperity Educators, LLC is a business that my wife and I own that we started back in 2018. What we do is diversity, equity, and inclusion leadership coaching and things like that. When I work with organizations or schools in particular, we teach them that diversity, equity, and inclusion are three unique things that all come together, but you can’t have one without the other. I see spaces where people may reach out and say they want to do inclusion work, and I ask them what they have done with their diversity work? Because we can’t do inclusion if you’re not willing to diversify what you’re already doing. What we tend to do is actually conduct a consulting interview, and we find out where organizations are and then from there we work with clients who actually build what they want to occur. What we don’t do is walk in with a program and say this is what we’re going to do for you. That’s colonizing. What we do is we build the program with organizations using some of the expertise I have. My wife, on the other hand, is an expert in professional learning communities for teaching planning and work with teachers on how to be peer coaches with other teachers. We do our individual work, but we also do the organizational work through Prosperity Educators; we co-authored an article on teachers of color retention in urban and suburban schools […] called “Sustaining Our Diminishing Teachers of Color in Urban and Suburban Schools”.
With that, I have my own book that’s coming out called The Power of a Praying Principal that will hopefully be out in August. I have a project called “Challenges to Implementing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Programming in Organizations”, and I just started a call when a colleague of mine Dr. Raphael Crawford for R.A.C.E. Mentoring in P-12 educational practitioners contributing to the scholarship. The goal of that book is specific to 4-12 practitioners, principals, teachers, counselors, superintendents of P-12 to become scholars and to publish because my push right now is that as P-12 practitioners, we have the knowledge base to contribute to educational research. We may not always have the training to write academically, but if you work with us and train us, we can, so my goal is to teach P-12 practitioners how to access the ability to write academically and use their experiences like I use my experiences to write academically. My experiences are very valid. I need P-12 practitioners to recognize that their experiences are valid and can contribute to educational research. Lastly, I’m working with a principal in Waco, Texas on a book called Fighting The Good Fight: National Narratives of the African-American Principalship. We’ve invited principals and assistant principals who are African-American to give us a 1000-3000 word personal narrative on their experiences as administrators because it’s important for people to know what we experience because our experiences as administrators is very unique and different than other administrators of other races and ethnicities.
MBC: That’s awesome. Your work is just so inspiring, and I’m excited that we’ve got an opportunity to really peel back the layers and just see what makes Dr. Griffen amazing. Can you tell people how they can get in touch with you on social media or other platforms?
Dr. Griffen: Absolutely. I’m on Twitter @draaronjgriffen. I’m also on LinkedIn as Aaron J Griffen, PhD. Our website is http://www.prosperityeducators.com and my website is http://www.aaronjgriffen.com, or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Self Submission Bio (Below)
I am a P-12 practitioner scholar with 21 years experience in public and charter schools as a middle school English teacher and assistant principal in Houston, Texas and as a high school principal in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Throughout my career, I have worked exclusively and purposefully in Urban defined schools and districts, serving a culturally, linguistically, economically, educationally, emotionally and diverse population of learners. As an author, speaker, guest lecturer, panelist, and educational consultant I sustain an active research interest and a publishing agenda in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
I currently serve as the Director of Diversity Equity and Inclusion at DSST Public Schools, a large public charter in Denver, Colorado. As Director of Diversity Equity and Inclusion at DSST Public Schools, my role is to support and facilitate the network’s mission to transform Urban public education by “eliminating educational inequity and preparing all students for success in college and the 21st century”. This is accomplished by partnering with the talent acquisition team to recruit, train and retain staff of color to our teaching pools while also facilitating the development of leaders of color. Through our integrated schools model, serving students from all walks of life, I am a thought partner with schools, Home Office (Central Office) departments and stakeholders to identify, analyze and diagnose all disproportionalities and gaps in our policy, practice, and programs. Our thought partnerships lead to cross functional collaborations. These collaborations result in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion development sessions geared towards individual school need, network needs, and Home Office needs. It is my intent to ensure that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and any identified gaps are daily dialogue norms across the entire network.
I am also the Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder of Prosperity Educators, LLC, where our services include leadership coaching, professional, personal, and organizational development, and principal intern coaching with Teachers College – Columbia University. In addition to development, I work with organizations and schools to plan, design, and implement Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programming and practices for leadership teams, personnel, parents, and students. Despite moving to the Greater Denver area two years ago, I serve multiple organizations as a committee member and/or reviewer in Colorado Springs. They include the programming committee for the Educating Children of Color Summit and African American Youth Leadership Conference of Colorado Springs.
Nationally, my work as a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion P-12 Practitioner has afforded me the opportunity to engage in scholarship as a RM Conference Committee member for R.A.C.E Mentoring through Social Media; an Editorial Board Reviewer for the Journal of African American Males in Education; and as an Editorial Manager for the Journal of Minority Achievement, Creativity, and Leadership. My work has been presented at major conferences, including the American Educational Research Association (AERA), the Association for Teaching and Curriculum (AATC), and the Texas Oral History Association (TOHA). My work on African American Educational Lobbying, Teacher of Color Retention in Urban and Suburban Schools, and on Student Advocacy and Civic Engagement via Oral History and Study Abroad Courses has been published in the American Journal of Qualitative Research, the National Journal of Urban Education and Practice, Intersections: Critical Issues in Education, and the Journal of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies (JELPS). I currently have multiple book projects coming out in 2021 on Diversity Equity and Inclusion, P-12 Practitioner Scholarship, and the African American Principalship. Lastly, my first solo authored book The Power of a Praying Principal: An Attitude of Faith, Hope, Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality in Schools is due out this year.