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A Message About Equity From Superintendent Gist

In 2015, we began a journey as a city to develop and implement a plan that became Destination Excellence. Five core values are at the heart of Destination Excellence—equity, character, excellence, team, and joy. We deliberately put equity first because it is our primary core value and the foundation of all of our decisions. We did that because equity is a priority of our Board of Education, and it is what we heard was important to Tulsans. Making equity a foundational priority mattered to me, because it is at the heart of my own leadership and personal values.

There are so many reasons that equity emerged as such a priority for all of us. Equity as a core value, and the actions required to live out that value, are imperative because for generations school systems in our country, including Tulsa’s, have failed to serve students of color well including those who are Black, Indigenous, and Latinx. In fact, school districts, and many public institutions, were not designed to serve students equitably. They were created during moments in history when education was reserved for white people--men specifically--and have matured through many decades when we have not been nearly as intentional and bold as we needed to be to disrupt these oppressive systems and structures.

In my career, including the 5 years I have served as the superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools, I have been public about my passion for making a difference to right the wrongs of centuries of oppression. That was how I was raised by my family here in Tulsa. I believe it is my purpose and my duty to dismantle practices, cultures, and systems that perpetuate inequities and to work toward justice and opportunity for all. I’ve learned so much over the years, and I have made many mistakes—big and small. Each time, I have tried to learn lessons and forge ahead with an open mind and a loving heart.

At times, the stances I have taken, statements I have shared, and decisions I have made or supported, have caused controversy. These include ensuring protection and support of our undocumented students and their families; being clear about my commitment to the rights and care for our students and team members who identify as LGBTQ; and stating clearly that Black lives matter. I truly do not understand why any of those are controversial--to love and care for fellow human beings and to make a commitment to serve them well as a leader.

What I see happening in our country is heartbreaking. We draw lines and decide who is on which side. We are too often immovable in our beliefs and fail to listen and learn. We have a binary view of issues to the point that we assign unkind or even cruel intent to those with a differing view. We too often make these decisions based on the talking points delivered to us from the pundits we choose to take our cues from each day. We fail to let others make mistakes or acknowledge our own, and we are too often unwilling or unable to learn.

Let’s take “Black lives matter” as an example. They do. Black lives do matter. Setting aside why the declaration is so important (simply put: because for too long in our country the lives of Black Americans have not mattered enough), the response is often, “All lives matter.” That reaction not only ignores the purpose and need for the statement; it makes no sense. If you believe all lives matter, then you do believe Black lives matter. Some even go further and ascribe political intent and make accusations against the “organization”—declarations that they fail to see are from the very same playbooks used historically against those leading for change including during the civil rights movement.

Another division that happens is the unnecessary, hurtful, and unproductive pitting of those who publicly state that Black lives matter against the belief that the vast majority of our police officers are public servants who entered their careers to help others and make a positive difference in their communities. I know that is true. I unwaveringly believe that. I rely on our police officers to help keep our community safer.

I am able to hold those beliefs and my personal gratitude for police officers at the same time I understand the mistrust, and even fear, that many members of the Black community have with law enforcement systems. My heart breaks, and my anger rises, when I see appalling injustices like those as egregious as the murder of George Floyd and by the use of force in other instances that I am confident would not have occurred had those who were killed, injured, or arrested not been Black, including Terence Crutcher in Tulsa. This goes beyond just a few officers who are “bad actors.” All professions have those who don’t represent them as a whole. I’m referring to something deeper though— the reality that Black people face regularly today and have, in horrific ways, faced historically.

For far too long, we have ignored the unhealthy cultures that are a part of too many organizations and public entities like police departments (and school systems). In fact, American education and American policing have similar historical roots to acknowledge, address and overcome. We have racism (explicit and implicit) in individuals, institutions, and societal structures. If we ignore that and fail to act to change it, we will do so at the detriment not only of people of color but also our society as a whole.

I will continue, personally and professionally, to be an ally to those who deserve my voice, my actions, and my leadership position to overcome these barriers. I will state that Black lives matter, and I will act on that accordingly. I will ensure that, while we have a long way to go, our school district continues to become an actively anti-racist, anti-oppression organization and a leader in the community for the same. I commit to my own growth, acknowledge my mistakes, and promise to always lead for change, progress, and equity.