portrait of Dr. Jennifer Grace against a black background featuring a multicolor word cloud, with the larger words "systemic" and "racism" in gold font.
Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Grace. Background: Getty Images

University of Houston-Clear Lake’s Dr. Jennifer Grace, an assistant professor and program director in the Department of Leadership and Policy Analysis, is guided by the belief that equity in education is a civil and human right. Thus, as she works on preparing future school leaders, especially in her role as program director for UHCL’s master’s degree in educational management, Grace not only leans on her vast experiences leading schools in curriculum, instruction and assessment, and in district and school strategic planning, but also critical race theory.

Thus, Grace, whose research areas include the school-to-prison pipeline, race and racism in education and equity-focused leadership, investigates how educational leaders can disrupt systemic racism and create school environments that help historically underserved students reach their full potential.

The Defender spoke with Grace about her anti-racism research, an upcoming international conference to which she will be presenting and her thoughts on the mischaracterization of critical race theory.

DEFENDER: What do your anti-racism conversations focus on? You mentioned getting people to look at themselves.

GRACE: That’s the first part that has to take place. But then also looking at the systems. You have to look at outcomes. And like I said, the numbers are the same across the country. Black students lag their white peers, their Asian peers, in academics, in discipline disparities, in graduation rates, all of those things. You have to look at those and get to the root causes of why that’s taking place. So, you start to have to look at curriculum. You have to look at instructional practices, disciplinary practices that negatively impact these students. Anti-racism is about action. We know the numbers. We’ve known them for decades and decades. It’s been the same. It goes beyond just acknowledging, “Oh, this is a thing. Black students are not graduating at the (same rate as others).” It’s not a reflection of the students, but it’s a reflection on the system that we’re educating them in. So, we need to make some changes.

DEFENDER: What are your thoughts and feelings on the mischaracterization of critical race theory?

GRACE: It is a cross between infuriating to a point where it becomes almost comical. It’s not a funny situation, but it’s just like, “Have you read a book or one research article about what it is?” It’s never been taught to students. It’s only ever been a legal framework or an academic framework that academics (use to) look at a problem through a lens, no differently than we use a lens of transformational leadership or a lens of feminism. It’s just a lens to look at pervasive issues. When it is constantly conflated with anything related to being Black, including Black people, including intersectional Black identities, including that in the curriculum or any trainings that allow us to look at our biases… it’s infuriating to see that constantly conflated and misconstrued as what it’s not. And it’s like, “Read.” It is very simple to educate yourself.

DEFENDER: What are you most looking forward to about the conference in Athens, Greece?

GRACE: First and foremost, anti-Blackness is global. So, I’m very excited to meet leaders from countries around the world, see how anti-Blackness might be impacting their students in their school systems. And just to broaden my own view. I only know what I’ve experienced in the US. So, to broaden my own view, but then also to share some experiences of some very brave and courageous leaders that I had the chance to interview, and how they’re attempting to address this thing. And it won’t happen overnight, but I’m hoping that some practice someone is doing in the US might positively impact discrimination and systemic racism that people are facing in other countries. I’m also hoping to learn what they might be doing that could impact us as leaders in the US also.

DEFENDER: Do you have a mantra, words to live by?

GRACE: So, in the last few years it’s been “equity, integrity and excellence.” That’s been my personal mantra.

DEFENDER: What are the one-to-three key things to do if educational leaders are going to disrupt systemic racism and create uplifting school environments for our children?

GRACE: It’s twofold. You can’t do systemic work if you don’t do personal work. That’s first and foremost. You have to be honest with yourself about your biases, your unconscious biases. And that doesn’t make you a bad person. I tell my students, we all have biases. So, it’s important to become aware of them and how they influence our decision-making. That’s first and foremost. That requires a deeper level of honesty and reflection that has to take place. You have to develop the courage to start to name these things and be able to call it out before you can change them. So, you have to build your racial literacy; really understanding truly what racism is, and particularly, systemic racism—what it is, what it looks like, how it manifests in schools — and then looking at your environments. Are you perpetuating these things.

And again, that doesn’t make you a bad person. Because people get caught up in, “I don’t wanna have this conversation because I’m not a racist.” People get caught up in that. It’s not about that. It’s about being able to take an honest look at yourself, being able to take a honest look at your organization, your policies, your practices, and really looking at the outcomes of students, the subgroups of students, and saying, “Okay, we see these trends and these numbers, and so we have to move beyond just seeing them. What are we doing about it as leaders? What actions are we putting into place to really try and turn this thing around?”

DEFENDER: You talk about the link between the school-to-prison pipeline and the anti-racism conversation. Can you explain that link?

GRACE: So, when we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, we’re talking about really access and how we grant our students access. We’re talking about discipline and academics; how we push students out, how Black students are more likely to be suspended and expelled from school. In every city, in every state across the country, the numbers are the same. We’re talking about how they are less likely to be in advanced placement classes, to have high-quality certified teachers, to attend schools that are well-funded. All of that plays a role in the school-to-prison pipeline and pushing our students out. And so, [the school-to-prison pipeline] being my original research agenda, a logical next step is looking at the educational leaders. The people who are making, creating policy, who are designing best practices for students, and looking at how we can disrupt some of the same old, same old, the status quo, if you will.

So, what capacity do our leaders have? And sometimes they don’t have the capacity. Maybe there’s the will. Sometimes there isn’t a will, and that’s another conversation. But, what are we doing as programs that are supposed to be developing leaders to be able to produce leaders who can address these systemic issues that have been plaguing primarily Black children for decades?

DEFENDER: You talk about, ‘Look at the data, not the politics, and then at ourselves.’ But is that possible in this current socio-political climate?

GRACE: In a perfect world, I would hope that it’s possible. Critical race theory as a framework or as a lens has been around since the seventies. I think critical health reflection is important. Growth mindset is important. It requires those things, and I think that’s important for all of us to have as human beings. And just like it’s suddenly appeared in politics, at some point it’ll phase out. I don’t know when. Maybe not in the next two or three years. But it has to be possible because the disparities are there, and they’ve been there. And we can’t just keep looking at them on report after a report after a report, and not doing anything about it. And the willingness of people in humanity to be honest with themselves, that’s a good question. But it’s an ideal that I hope for. People need to understand, when we talk about racism and anti-racist, it’s not about a personal attack. It’s about, these might be some thoughts or some values we’ve had previously. And it’s okay to reflect on those. It’s okay to question those. It’s OK to question what we’ve been socialized to believe about each other. It’s okay to unpack our beliefs and our values, and to grow, and to think differently about things. Will that happen across humanity? That’s been a question of time, I would argue back in every society, in every civilization. That’s been a question. I hope that one day it’s possible, but I understand your reasoning for asking the question.

DEFENDER: Why is your anti-racism research needed now more than ever? And how is it going to be heard when folk look at your bio and see you focus on critical race theory and want to cancel you immediately?

GRACE: I’m gonna knock on wood . What I found is when you create a safe space for people to be curious, that they’re willing to at least grapple with new information. But why is it important now more than ever? We’re heading in a direction where sometimes it feels like we’re regressing as a society. And we don’t wanna do that. What I envision people to learn when they are looking at topics like critical race theory, is that it is not what some assume; a personal attack. It is not about that. It is about unity. It is about togetherness. It is about belonging. It’s about looking at addressing issues so that we can all belong and live harmoniously.

I’ve heard the debate: “It’s divisive.” It’s not intended to be divisive. It’s intended to be the opposite. It’s intended to make sure that we’re not divisive, that we’re going to a unified society, and that everyone has access to a high quality of life. It’s not intended to be divisive or negative or be a personal attack on anyone. I think that’s important for people to know. I think that’s why it’s important now more than ever, because sometimes it feels like we’re regressing as a society. How do you get them to listen? There will be some people who won’t listen no matter what you do. Right? And I can’t do anything about that. But what I can do is for people who might be secretly, or maybe not so secretly curious, is create a safe space for growth and to learn and for self-development. And that is within my control.

DEFENDER: What is an equity-focused leader?

GRACE: Educational leadership programs tend to produce instructional leaders, and we’re just looking at instruction and student achievement. And that’s critically important. But an equity-focused leader looks at the systemic pieces that cause the disparities that we see year after year in student achievement. As an equity-focused leader it’s not enough for me to look at a report and say, “Well, the Black students are not performing at the same rate as their peers” or “the Black special education student or the ELL student is not performing.” It’s not enough for me to just know that. But then what am I doing about it? An equity-focused leader is looking at policies that might impact teacher practices. How do students have access to high-quality educational instruction? The equity-focused leader is looking at systemic root causes of disparities in addition to being an instructional leader.

DEFENDER: I’m sure you know the new head of the University of Houston main campus’ African American Studies Department is also from New Orleans. So, what’s in the water in New Orleans that is producing all these pro-Black soul sisters?

GRACE: I can’t speak from my good sis, but, growing up in the projects and during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the racial disparities there, being in the school system in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and there’s really some deeply rooted systemic racism that I’ve seen, and I think that’s shaped who I am and what I’m passionate about, and wanting better for the students I’ve encountered, and the students that haven’t even met yet. It’s wanting better for them. That’s shaped a lot of who I am and why I do this work. And I’m guessing she may have witnessed some of the same issues. I haven’t met her yet, but I’m gonna have to reach out now that you’ve mentioned that.


DEFENDER: How did you make your way to Houston?

GRACE: I was a principal in Louisiana. I really fell in love with the research part and studying the school-to-prison pipeline. So, I knew I wanted to shift into higher ed to do more research and just broaden in working with more school districts. And so, I ended up in Indianapolis first, because in higher ed you kind of have to go where the job is. But, when UHCL was advertising and I saw that they were more closely aligned with my beliefs, being a Hispanic serving institution, being an institution that values diversity and work with communities, that felt in line with what I wanted to study, how I wanted to teach courses, how I wanted to work to develop future leaders. And so that’s kind of what drew me to Houston.

DEFENDER: How did you get in this work? I read one of the things that inspired you was the fact that you were suspended from high school?

GRACE: I was expelled from high school, actually. Kicked out. I had no reference for any of this at the time, but just as I’m educating myself and learning through my master’s degree, through the doctoral degree and doing this research, I’m able to put a name to some of the things that I experienced. I’m able to look at how race and class impacted how I grew up, and resources and things I’ve had access to. I have a brother who is on the autism spectrum, and looking at the resources he has not had, and we’re just starting to get access to while he’s an adult now. The school system didn’t provide that. Now I’m being able to look at how my personal lived experiences has been affected by systemic oppression and racism and all of those things. So, that’s truly shaped why I do this work. It really drives why I do this work.

DEFENDER: What’s your favorite thing or things about Houston?

GRACE: I am enjoying the food a lot more than I thought I would. No shade to Houston . But, I feel comfortable in Houston in terms of the culture and the diversity. It feels similar to home, and part of that could be because we have a lot of people from New Orleans here in Houston. But I feel comfortable to be myself, if that makes any sense. Where I didn’t necessarily feel that in the Midwest. But [Houston] reminds me of home and it reminds me of a place where people just embrace each other and they’re free to be themselves.

DEFENDER: What are you reading these days?

GRACE: Hmm. So, I always try to do a non-fiction piece and then a fiction piece, for my own sanity. The fiction piece I’m reading is a set of short stories by a colleague called “When Trying to Return Home.” And actually, it’s highlighting the experiences of the Afro-Latinx community. So, just educating myself, because I’m not of that community. Just really learning their lived experiences, I think is important.

And I try to stay abreast in my field. So, I’ve been reading intersectional qualitative research, which may not sound interesting, but it’s interesting to me. And it’s really digging deep into doing research with people with intersectional identities, like being Black and having a disability or being Black and being part of the LGBTQ community, et cetera.

DEFENDER: What’s on your playlist right now?

GRACE: Raheem Devaughn is always on playlist no matter what. Nineties music. It’s constantly on my playlist.

DEFENDER: Do you have a mantra, words to live by?

GRACE: So, in the last few years it’s been “equity, integrity and excellence.” That’s been my personal mantra. So, I’ve had to really sit and think about what my core values are, and I’m more intentional about those three driving everything that I do. And even if I fall short, really coming back to that and being self-reflective about equity and integrity is very important. And then just operating in excellence.

I'm originally from Cincinnati. I'm a husband and father to six children. I'm an associate pastor for the Shrine of Black Madonna (Houston). I am a lecturer (adjunct professor) in the University of Houston...