As Oak Park and River Forest work to come to grips with the concept of racial equity – both in our schools and in the wider community – here’s another term to factor into the complex conversation and consciousness-raising ahead of us.


What does it mean? It means recognizing all the points of identity that can contribute to inequitable outcomes for an individual or group. The new equity policy in Oak Park’s District 97 public elementary schools lists race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, national origin, foster status, involvement with the juvenile justice system, IEP status, disability, learning difference, immigration status, or language.

The new policy, titled “Ensuring Racial and Educational Equity,” is inclusionary says Terry Keleher. He is an Oak Park resident and director of Strategic Innovation at Race Forward, a national nonprofit racial justice organization, that works in partnership with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity. Keleher, who was instrumental in developing the D97 policy, says that while inclusionary policies work to address all types of identities and inequities, an intersectional approach does something different.

He points to Columbia Law School professor Kimberle Crenshaw who coined the term intersectionality to explain a unique kind of discrimination faced by African American women: a distinct combination of discrimination that is ignored or erased by taking in only the race component or the gender component. 

According to Keleher, District 97’s new policy intentionally has an inclusionary, as well as an intersectional, framework. He says use of the inclusionary characteristics allows the district to embrace, “the notion that each student matters and every student has the right to an excellent and equitable educational experience.”

He goes on to state, “Intersectionality recognizes that there are multiple power dimensions to our identities, and there are differences in how we are situated in relationship to multiple power dynamics that can have interacting and compounding impacts.”

Carrie Kamm, District 97 senior equity director, says that Crenshaw’s work informs her position at the district. “Using intersectionality as a framework, we can look at the whole person and their entire identity. From race, to gender to sexual identity, there are different biases. People have complex and overlapping experiences.”

D97’s newly-adopted policy will help guide the school board and administration, and Kamm says they are already trying to work with intersectionality as a guide. “Three times a year, we do data dives with our school district leaders. Information is aggregated by race, gender and other characteristics to better understand how our students are experiencing issues. We are trying to gain a sense of understanding and look for trends and then moving towards a root cause analysis.”

At the high school level, Jennifer Cassell, a school board member at Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200, notes that despite the best intentions of board members and school administration and staff, the community has long grappled with inequity. “There’s been an understanding for decades now that there are disparities when it comes to students’ academic success and discipline. It happens around the country and here in Oak Park and River Forest.”

Cassell says she is a firm believer in the idea that all oppression is inter-related, and says that research shows that it is a false choice to think that helping one group means that another group is not being helped. “If we are improving and having greater levels of success for our students of color, it will help all students.”

She points to research on two points the school has recently addressed to support the theory that focusing on racial equity provides good outcomes for all students. She says that the research shows that having more teachers of color provides a richer educational experience and better outcomes for all students and that creating more access for people of color to honors and AP classes does not water down the course content.

As the district works towards adopting an equity policy of its own, Cassell says it makes sense to start with a focus on racial equity.  “Our research has shown that the greatest predictor of a student’s success here is race. If the school’s goal is to have all students do their best, we’re not doing that. Even accounting for socio-economic status and family status, the racial divide still exists. It says to me that we’re still dealing with implicit bias in systems and that allows this to perpetuate.”

Keleher also sees implicit bias at work and says it translates beyond the schools to the community at large. “If you look at any of the major quality of life indicators in the U.S. – from infant mortality to life expectancy and everything in between, such as educational attainment, homeownership, employment, income, health care access and net wealth — there’s an overwhelming amount of evidence of deep and persistent racial disparities.”

He points to statistics provided by the Illinois Assets Building Group that shows that in 2011, the median white household had 16 times the wealth of African American households and 13 times the wealth of Latino households in the state. The wealth divide among white and African Americans in Illinois quadrupled between 1986 and 2011.

To Keleher, these statistics point to the structural racism at work in Illinois and here in Oak Park and River Forest. Embracing diversity is not enough, he says. “You can have diversity without equity. We have to go much further than diversity. We have to specifically center race even when we have an intersectional lens. A society that focuses on ‘color-blindness’ ignores our history with race. We need to look at all the dynamics. A lot of these are attached to systems of power that we really need to look at.”

Sidebar: A Glossary of terms

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