Ashford Hughes, Executive Officer for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Metro Nashville Public Schools, shares how building a foundation of equity can create a brighter future for all of Nashville’s children.
Ashford Hughes knows that when students are equipped to succeed, it can transform entire cities.
“As our K-12 education goes, so does our community,” argued the Executive Officer for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion with Metro Nashville Public Schools. “We are here to teach young people math, reading, learning, but we are also in the business of creating the critical thinkers to lead us in the next generation. We are creating the next John Lewis, the next John F. Kennedy, the next Diane Nash.”
In this episode of Speak Up for Equity, Tennessee Diversity Consortium Executive Director Robert Lawrence Wilson talks with Hughes about the work MNPS is doing to help create equity for its students, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Role of History in Today’s Struggles
As he works to create policies that address the academic and social needs of the diverse populations within MNPS, Hughes believes Nashvillians need to acknowledge the history of racism and inequality that still influences their city today.
“Oftentimes we — unfortunately, in our city and in our country — have amnesia. And we think the situations that are occurring now just automatically happened, and that people just need to overcome them. But if we take a continuum and look back, Nashville’s history is steeped in civil rights history,” Hughes argued. “The inequalities that we see today have been long standing.”
Nashville’s history of segregation and resistance to civil rights continued up until the 90s, and policies like redlining still affect the makeup of Nashville’s schools today, Hughes explained.
Education is also directly influenced by politics, and in Nashville, that means that the Black community doesn’t have the same access to policymakers as many white families do. This can be traced back to the consolidation of Nashville’s government, which led to a loss of political power for the African-American community.
The Importance of Equity for Students
That historical lack of access to policymakers is one of the largest sources of inequity in Nashville’s schools today. Parents who live in wealthier school districts tend to feel more comfortable making their opinions heard, while lower income, less educated communities don’t feel as empowered, Hughes explained.
“It’s going to take a strong climb for us to alleviate that, to make certain that the playing field is leveled, so that families that traditionally have been marginalized and don't have access understand that they have power and can reach out to their school board members,” he shared.
As MNPS seeks to build trust with traditionally marginalized families, they’re also working to make sure that students have everything they need to succeed. Hughes believes it’s important for the school to focus on equity, rather than settling for equality, because the playing field is far from level for many students.
“Equality says that every student deserves a pair of shoes. Equity says that every student deserves a pair of shoes that’s the size to fit their feet,” he explained.
In practice, this looks like acknowledging that some students will need more support or resources in order to be successful. Right now, there’s a correlation between success and race, class or gender identity, and only by pursuing equity will the school district be able to change that.
Inequity and the COVID-19 Pandemic
With 84,000 students learning digitally during the COVID-19 pandemic, MNPS has had to address old challenges with a new urgency.
“People say [the pandemic] exposed inequities, but no, that is wrong. What the pandemic did is amplify the inequities that many communities, particularly the Black community, the Latinx and immigrant communities, have been speaking of for years,” Hughes argued.
For example, MNPS started providing devices and hotspots so that students could learn virtually, but they then realized that many families didn’t know how to use the technology. In response, they set up six satellite community help centers where families can receive tech help.
“Our north star is to make certain that the success rate of every student will not be based on race, gender or zip code,” Hughes shared. “We all have a shared responsibility to ensure that every student in every neighborhood in Nashville has access to a high quality education.”
To learn more about the ways you can get involved with the Tennessee Diversity Consortium, visit tennesseediversityconsortium.org/join-tdc. And be sure to subscribe to Speak Up for Equity wherever you listen to podcasts so you never miss an episode.