Dr. John Scott joined the Washington State Charter Schools Association (WA Charters) Team in June 2020 as the organization’s first Chief Equity Officer. In the interview, below, Dr. Scott reflects on his own anti-racism journey and what he envisions for the role in the months and years ahead.
WA Charters (WAC): Hi, John! It’s so great to have you onboard in your new role. You’ve been with WA Charters for just a few weeks, but I know you’ve been doing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work for a long time. What brought you to the work of anti-racism and engaging in organizational change around DEI?
John Scott (JS): I was raised in Carson, California and come from a family where I am one of eight children. My parents, both born and raised in New Orleans, LA, were part of the Great Migration that Isabel Wilkerson speaks about in her brilliant book, “The Warmth of Other Suns”, where millions of Black folks from the South left their homes, fleeing Jim Crow, brutal lynchings, and economic disparity, moving north to places like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Colorado, etc. (You can learn more about the Great Migration by watching Wilkerson’s TED talk.)
Like many other Black folks that fled the South between 1915 and 1970, my parents had no idea where they were going, but understood very clearly what hateful and bigoted systems they were leaving behind.
I was born in 1964, the year before the voter rights act was finally passed in America, systemically securing Black people’s right to vote—and my parents already had two sons before me!
Our everyday conversations and discourse were often focused on issues of equity, racism, poverty, and social justice. These consistent dialogues about power, privilege, and race were not meant to be ‘small talk’, but rather, integral engagement for my family and many other black families’ very survival and ability to thrive in an American system that was unjust and desperately needed change.
As children, we were also supported and challenged by my parents to read Black authors like James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, and, to also learn about our ancestors and history. We were taught that we owed a great and sacred debt to the ones who came before us and risked everything for our right to exist, live, and thrive.
This is a debt I continue to want to pay back, driving and inspiring the organizational, personal, and systemic work I still do related to equity and anti-racism.
When I moved up north from Carson to Seattle in my early twenties, I quickly realized, when going over to work colleagues’ homes for events like gatherings, holidays, and birthdays, that many families, in fact, did not discuss (or seem to value) topics of racism, bias, privilege, and power.
I would bring these topics of racism and bias up and would quickly get ‘the look’ from my peers (and sometimes their family members) that communicated ‘uh, that’s not dinner conversation’ or ‘we don’t discuss race in our home’ or even ‘stop!’.
The ‘living in two Americas’ my parents would speak about to us so often as kids, were now manifesting in my adult life, and painfully validated in these consistent experiences of ‘non conversations’ about race and equity in mostly white people’s homes. Not only did I experience this dynamic in my personal circles, but also in my work environments.
These problematic experiences inspired me to both challenge and support people and systems related to issues of social justice, anti-racism, and equity.
I quit my corporate job of 10 years, joined Americorps, and began the journey of supporting educational systems, communities of color, young people, and non-profits to delve more deeply into issues of equity, race, and bias.
I utilized arts-based approaches like social justice theater – namely, Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed approach – spoken word, and dialogic processes to explore, disrupt, and transform issues of racism, sexism, hetero-sexism, classism, able-ism, and more. For five years I performed a one-man show that focused on the civil rights movement in America, covering the years from 1955 to 1965 when the voters rights act was passed.
This early equity work paved the way for me to commit to an over 20-year social justice journey, facilitating intergenerational and intersected communities related to issues of anti-racism, and dismantling and transforming issues of systemic oppression.
I connected with and was mentored by elder civil rights activists like Dr. Grace Lee Boggs, founder of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, and Dr. Vincent Harding, founder of the Veterans of Hope Project
This journey also included me becoming increasingly interested in issues of generational trauma in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities and how mental health support needed to be in the same conversations about racial equity reparations, highlighting issues like post traumatic slave syndrome, as written about by Dr. Joy Degruy.
I’ve always valued narrative inquiry as an important tool in understanding our complex systems better, especially in Black, Brown, Indigenous, and communities of color where our stories, many times, have not been at the center of local, national, or global discourse.
Instead of looking at things in polarities, like, black or white, male or female, etc., narratives challenge us to understand the intersectionality and complexity (and brilliance) of ourselves, our multiple lived identities, communities.
My Ph.D. dissertation focused on narratives from BIPOC as they relate to our human relationship with water and complex issues of environmental racism and genocide..
After completing my graduate work in counseling psychology and drama therapy, I partnered with World Trust Organization, founded by Dr. Shakti Butler, as the artistic director of two documentary films that focused on issues of privilege, power, and internalized and externalized racism/oppression.
Before coming onboard with WA Charters, I served as the director of DEI for Washington State with Seneca Family of Agencies, supporting them in creating and strengthening a systemic infostructure for integrating DEI theory and a sustained practice in every aspect of the organization.
WAC: Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. As you reflect on this history and where you are now, how does this new role at WA Charters help you continue your journey? What are you bringing to this role and what is it bringing to you?
JS: My new chief equity role at WA Charters will support me in continuing the equity work I’ve begun by allowing me the privilege of supporting our organization and charter public school sector in strengthening their capacity to not only understand equity on an intellectual level, but in addition, build in and sustain intentional anti-racist/anti-biased systems and an embodied practice of this vital work.
This work includes specifically looking at issues of racism, especially with the current uptick of police violence and attacks on Black lives, through the lens of education, administration, policy, recruitment, hiring, and retention of BIPOC.
Committing to this requires us to ask important critical questions like, “Do our educators and leaders reflect and represent the communities they’re serving?” and “If they do not reflect the communities they’re serving, do they have skill sets, social justice consciousness, and culturally responsive pedagogy to address these significant gaps?”
My new role will support and help move forward conversations and intentional action related to strengthening practices of equitable funding and policy-making within the sector that takes into consideration issues of race, class, and actively supporting global majority leadership and systems.
This role will also provide ongoing professional development for educators, leaders, and staff in the sector, supporting them to increase their awareness and ability to act related to issues of intersectionality, that include but are not limited to forms of oppression such as; sexism, racism, classism, able-ism, adult-ism, hetero-sexism, etc.
After having the privilege of working closely with some fierce civil rights elders in the past, I take the concept of Beloved Community very seriously. Dr. King knew and often spoke of creating beloved communities not just as a ‘concept’, but rather, as an intentional, active, and ethical practice. It takes rigorous and consistent work to create and sustain equitable and sustainable communities.
I envision my role with WA Charters and charter public schools as an intentional building of a more beloved community, where we specifically name what’s ‘in the way’ – that is, issues of racism, bias, ignorance, etc. – all with the intention of transforming our sector into a more equitable and ethical system.
Over the past 20 years of doing this work, it’s been clear that I’m not just doing it ‘for’ others’ transformation and growth, but I am also doing this work because it always makes me a better, more activated and conscious human being.
Deeply examining and shifting my own issues of privilege and power move me from being just an ‘ally’ in my communities to an abolitionist, with a clearer lens and fierce ability to interrupt issues of bias and oppression.
WAC: Finally, what is one thing you’re really enjoying right now that the folks reading this should check out? What’s bringing you joy?
JS: I continue to read, view, listen to any books, films, podcasts I can get my hands on related to issues of equity for my own personal/professional development. There’s a good list of resources on our website’s anti-racist resource page if folks want some ideas.
It’s important for me, as a Black person that also leads this complex equity work, to build in healthy practices of self-care (and I encourage support this practice for other folks doing the same).
I’m an avid swimmer and recently, because of Covid-19, all the pools have been shut for everyone’s safety. I was swimming 1-2 miles a day about 5 days a week for over 10 years before the pool shutdowns.
I have now officially become, by necessity, an open water swimmer, getting my exercise in local lakes and in frigid Puget sound waters! Water and movement both bring me joy so swimming is a ‘win-win’ for me.