This month’s Lead the Change (LtC) interview features Carrie Sampson’s discussion of her work on equity, research, school boards, and educational change. Sampson is an assistant professor in the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at Arizona State University. The LtC series is produced by the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association; Jennie Weiner, Chair; Olga O. Fellus, Program Chair; Corinne Brion, Secretary/Treasurer; Alexandra Lamb, Series Editor; Cynthia Wise, Social Media Coordinator. A pdf of the fully formatted interview is available on the LtC website.
Lead the Change: The 2022 AERA theme is Cultivating Equitable Education Systems for the 21st Century and charges researchers and practitioners with dismantling oppressive education systems and replacing them with anti-racist, equity, and justice-oriented systems. To achieve these goals, researchers must engage in new methodologies, cross-disciplinary thinking, global perspectives, and community partnerships to respond to the challenges of the 21st century including the COVID-19 Pandemic and systemic racism among other persistent inequities. Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems and reimagine new ways of thinking and doing in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?
Carrie Sampson: Many scholars come into the field of education because we hope to make a positive contribution. We have dedicated decades of our lives to learning and teaching. We read, listen, reflect, formulate questions, seek answers, write, and share knowledge. Trained to think critically about our field, most of us are excellent at finding flaws, issuing critiques, and pointing fingers. In doing this, we come to understand just how complex our educational system is, and we recognize that even if we fix one part, there’s still hundreds of moving parts that make it nearly impossible to fix an entire system. Sometimes we become disillusioned. At times, I have become disillusioned. Yet, as education researchers we have not come this far to sit in our disillusionment. It’s our responsibility to continue to find the best possible solutions to the many problems in our systems. It’s our responsibility to fight the good fight.
In building my good fight, I have focused on three major areas as a scholar. First, I constantly return to my “why” for the work I do. While it has always been rooted in the notion of “the personal is political,” my “why” has changed over the years. It has shifted from my own experiences as a mixed race, Black and Chicana, woman who grew up in poverty in both rural and urban communities. My success in education was too reliant on luck and cultural capital rather than a system that offered ample opportunities, a system that failed many of my peers and family members.
These days my “why” centers on what I have experienced and witnessed as a mother-scholar of two school-aged children—one who is 8 years old and skipped the first grade and one who completed his kindergarten year online due to COVID. Since the time they entered preschool, my kids have faced racism and gender discrimination. Navigating these isms when they happen to me is one thing, but when they happened to my babies, it lit a fire in my soul like no other. The urgency and clarity of my “why” both shifted and soared. In an article about coalition politics, we cited Bernice Johnson Reagon, a Black feminist and activist (Sampson, Demps, & Rodriguez-Martinez, 2020). Her emphasis on the importance of doing what we do for future generations resonated with my “why.” Reagon (1983) said, “…most of the things you do, if you do them right, are for the people who live long after you are long forgotten” (p. 365). This work is not about us. Just like our ancestors before us, we will likely not reap the benefits of our labor directly. Instead, my children, our children, and those children who are not yet born have the chance to be impacted by our work. I believe this must always be the center of our “why.”
My other two areas of focus are simple. I hold on to the notion that “all politics are local.” This means I try to engage in my local community as much as I can. These communities are my home. I seek to understand the history and context of where I live. I am on advisory councils, I engage in political campaigning, and I meet with local officials to advocate for change. Relatedly, and more recently, the final area of focus for me has been gaining the skills to translate my research for a broader audience. As school boards are increasingly part of the broader conversation among the media, decision makers, families, and even youth, I have been increasingly called on to offer a research-based perspective on school board governance. I pursued this career largely because I liked research. And like most of us, I spent many years learning to do research, not translate it. Sadly, we don’t often teach our future academics to talk about their research in a non-academic context. Yet, it’s our responsibility as education researchers to bring our research to broader audiences and that must begin with learning the skills to translate our scholarship in ways that all groups of people can understand and apply what we learn.
In sum, the three areas of responsibility that ground my work and I believe should ground our field’s work are a) a focus on future generations as a major part of our “why”; b) engaging in our local community; and c) translating our research to those outside of the academy.
“It’s our responsibility as education researchers to bring our research to broader audiences.”
LtC: Given some of your work using critical lenses to examine political coalitions, district reform, and equity (or a lack thereof), what are some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?
CS: I’ll share six things I’ve learned from my work and experience.
(1) The notion I mentioned above about “all politics is local” is from the fact that I’ve seen time and time again that local politics matter. Democracy and justice happen locally first. Without political players and policies that make sense at the local level, educational change for the better will never happen.
(2) We need to work on being more proactive. From my dissertation research that explored school board policymaking for English learners, two of the school board members I interviewed said that they, as board members, were always putting out fires and never got a chance to work ahead of the fires to prevent them (Sampson, 2016). While reacting to the inequitable experiences voiced by minoritized communities is critical as a school board member, the idea of being proactive about ensuring that our children have equitable educational opportunities (and not just reactive) always stuck with me. Consequently, I carefully consider what it means to be proactive in terms of my research implications toward educational equity.
(3) Building critically conscious coalitions is needed to sustain the work. As someone with several minoritized identities, I have come to realize that groups are too often in competition mode. Moreover, as one of my research findings illustrates (Sampson, Demps, & Rodriguez-Martinez, 2020), competition can water down the end result for all groups. Instead, coalitions that are rooted in the unique needs of the communities these coalitions intend to serve have a better chance of achieving more relevant and adequate outcomes.
(4) While I center race in much of my work, knowing and acknowledging how race intersects with other identities is critical to how I shape my scholarship. Aligned with Crenshaw’s (2017) concept of intersectionality, I gained significant insight on why this concept and reality matter from my studies in feminist theory and research. While pursuing my graduate certificate in Women’s Studies, I was assisting on a study examining the history of school desegregation in Southern Nevada (Horsford, Sampson, & Forletta, 2013). As I learned about feminism, I began to ask deeper questions aimed at exploring why a group of mostly White women from The League of Women Voters became one of the leading organizations to advocate for racially desegregated schools (Sampson, 2017). I learned that their efforts were often largely informed and shaped by their racialized, gendered, and classed experiences, and more importantly, their efforts influenced the outcome for Black children who were bussed from their neighborhood schools for nearly two decades.
(5) As frustrating as it might be, change is often incremental. Maybe it was my economics degree that trained me to believe that when systems change quickly and drastically (for good and bad), these systems often experience push back aiming to disrupt those changes creating little to no real change. My studies on school boards taught me the same thing (e.g., Sampson, 2019; Sampson, 2019b).
(6) Specific to my research on school boards, I have learned that school governance matters to educational change, and yet, many states and localities have fallen short when it comes to electing and training strong candidates for these positions. Nonetheless, district leaders (i.e., superintendents, other board members) who can help create a heathy foundation on which a school board can grow and develop cohesively can contribute to setting a vision for positive change. I’ve seen board members who clearly don’t understand issues of race and racism shift their thinking and be willing to compromise once they understand the stakes of their decisions, and that usually happens through both training and developing a trust among district leadership. We must do a better job at creating pathways and training for board members so they are equipped to govern toward positive change (Sampson, 2019a, 2019c).
“As frustrating as it might be, change is often incremental.”
LtC: In some of your recent work examining district reorganization in Nevada using a critical lens, you find that marginalized communities are excluded from the policy process, resulting in anti-democratic and inequitable processes and outcomes. You explain that other efforts to decentralize districts in Chicago, New York City, and Houston, seem to have similar results. Is there a way for districts to restructure in an equitable and democratic fashion given the current political climate?
SC: This is a tough question. Our political climate is highly divisive. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I still think many local communities, when given the opportunity to really engage in open and honest dialogue, can agree on some fundamental areas of education that can move school districts in the right direction to improve educational opportunities for all children. The problem in these districts mentioned is that the push to reorganize typically came from outside
of the district, often from the state-level, not from within or at the local level (Sampson & Diem, 2020). While it might take longer to make change from within, informed by those most impacted by the change, I think it’s the only way to prompt the change necessary particularly with the aim of improving educational equity.
LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?
SC: We must be in conversation not only with those directly in schools but also those connected to schooling. One thing I hope we all learned from COVID-19 is that schooling happens beyond the walls of classrooms. Not only do teachers, staff, and school leaders matter but without the families and youth they serve, schooling is nothing. And yet, as my coauthors and I noted in a blog we wrote during the beginning of COVID (later published in a book), school systems often overlook and dismiss families (Sampson, Wong, Cervantes-Soon, Estrella, & Demps, 2020).
Moreover, as researchers, being in conversation with communities impacted by schooling can make our scholarship better. This shapes our research methods, including the questions we ask and how we make sense of the problem we are studying. As an example, one recent study I co-conducted was heavily influenced because my colleague and I were in conversation with a
community-based organization advocating for change. We began by thinking that maybe we could help them. But more so, they helped us develop a keenly relevant study by offering us deeper context and helping shape our overarching research questions and the purpose of this specific study on school board meetings (Bertrand & Sampson, 2020; Sampson & Bertrand, 2020, 2021). Without these conversations, our work can miss the mark of being applicable toward any positive change.
“Being in conversation with communities impacted by schooling can make our scholarship better.”
LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?
SC: I think we are at a crossroads. COVID-19 and the many uprisings prompted by racism and white supremacy have brought to the surface several deep-seated problems in education. To sit in optimism and hope that educational change can offer improvements to these problems keep many of us motivated to fight the good fight. Yet, those of us whose work is rooted in critical theory and who have lived in marginalized spaces, know that the systems holding these problems hostage are too complex and unjust to adequately change without being completely dismantled. I think what the future holds is much of what the author Octavia Butler wrote about in Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. After the world as they knew it fell apart, she envisioned change as the opportunity to plant new seeds, using their talents to create a community rooted in a collective vision of liberation. Although these texts paint a bleak picture in some ways, I think they also show that change is inevitable. Our crossroads is figuring out how change can offer us the opportunity to collectively envision and engage in efforts that result in an educational system or systems that can support future generations to solve our most pressing problems, such as racism and climate change, that will continue to haunt us for years to come.
Bertrand, M., & Sampson, C. (2020). Challenging systemic racism in school board meetings through intertextual co-optation. Critical Studies in Education, 00(00), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/17508487.2020.1765823
Butler, O. E. (1995). Parable of the sower. New York: Warner Books. Butler, O.E. (1998). Parable of the talents: A novel. New York: Seven Stories Press.
Crenshaw, K. W. (2017). On intersectionality: Essential writings. The New Press.
Horsford, S.D. Sampson, C., & Forletta, F.M. (2013). School resegregation in the Mississippi of the West: Community counternarratives on the return to neighborhood schools in Las Vegas, 1968-1994. Teachers College Record, 115 (11). 1-28.
Reagon, B. (1983). “Coalition politics: Turning the century.” in Smith, B. (Ed.) Home girls (p. 356-368). New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.
Sampson, C. (2016). The role of school boards in addressing opportunity and equity for English
learners in the U.S. Mountain West (Dissertation). University of Nevada Las Vegas.
Sampson, C. (2017). So it ‘‘became White activists fighting for integration?’’ Community
organizations, intersectional identities, and education reform. The Urban Review, 49(1), 72-
Sampson, C. (2019a). (Im)Possibilities of Latinx school board members’ educational leadership toward equity. Educational Administration Quarterly, 55(2), 296–327. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013161X18799482
Sampson, C. (2019b). From a lighthouse to a foghorn: A school board’ s navigation toward equity for English learners. American Journal of Education, 125(4), 521–546.
Sampson, C. (2019c, August 26). In school boards we trust? The potential for educational equity in public education. Equity Alliance Blog. Retrieved from https://equityalliance.stanford.edu/content/school-boards-we-trust-potential-educational-equity-
Sampson, C., & Bertrand, M. (2020). “This is civil disobedience. I’ll continue.”: The racialization of school board meeting rules. Journal of Education Policy. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2020.1778795
Sampson, C., & Bertrand, M. (2021). Counter-storytelling, metaphors, and rhetorical questioning: Discursive strategies of advocacy toward racial equity in school board meetings. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 0(0), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/01596306.2021.2002268
Sampson, C. & Diem, S. (online first, 2020). Democratic (dis)engagement in school district decentralization: A critical analysis of actors and coalitions. Leadership and Policy in Schools.
Sampson, C., Demps, D., & Rodriguez-Martinez, S. (2020). Engaging (or not) in coalition politics: A case study of Black and Latinx community advocacy toward educational equity. Race Ethnicity and Education, 00(00), 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2020.1842346
Sampson, C., Wong, L.-S., Cervantes-Soon, C. G., Estrella, A., & Demps, D. (2020, May 13). A Call from Black and Brown mothers for true family engagement. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/a-call-from-black-and-brown-mothers-for-true/a-call-from-black-and-brown-mothers-for-true-family-engagement-bbfda3e7f72d