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Activist Principals: Leading for Social Justice in Ciudad Juárez, Baltimore, and Brazil

by David Edward DeMatthews & Rebecca Tarlau - 2019

Background/Context: A growing interest in how principals address issues of social justice in schools has emerged with an emphasis on critically interrogating school practices, policies, curriculum, and instructional approaches. Yet, many injustices, which prompt calls for social justice, are created outside of the school by larger socioeconomic arrangements and require greater consideration and collaboration between schools and communities. Given the interrelatedness of schools and communities, this study explores the principal’s role in addressing social injustices through activism and utilizing the community’s resources and emerging political opportunities to promote social justice.

Purpose: The purpose of this study is to examine how, if at all, do principals with social justice orientations engage in activism, particularly in relation to their school-community context and the networks and political opportunities that are available within and around the school.

Setting: Data were collected in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Baltimore, United States, and Ceará, Brazil.

Research Design: This qualitative multicase study used in-depth interviews and observations to explore the leadership actions of principals with social justice orientations.

Findings: Findings revealed the specific actions taken by principals to understand the social and political context in which they work. The principals in the study utilized their understanding of context to inform their avenues for organizing activity and how they lead to strategically position their schools as resources to support communities and families. Challenges to an activist approach to leadership were also identified, including (a) tensions associated with the multifaceted nature of social justice and the demands; (b) ethical obligations of being a principal within a system and needing to adhere to district policies and priorities; and (c) the unpredictability and uncertainty of outcomes in certain school-community contexts.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Major conclusions and recommendations for this study include the need to instill in principals a recognition that what happens in society impacts schools, and therefore, requires leadership to be attentive to community needs and activist-oriented. Preparing and supporting principals requires additional attention to how principals can lead for social justice with communities and in ways that are responsive to context. The potential constraints associated with being employed by a school district or connected to a social movement with predetermined priorities needs to be further explored and considered.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 4, 2019, p. 1-36
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22589, Date Accessed: 6/13/2021 1:56:28 AM

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About the Author
  • David DeMatthews
    University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    DAVID EDWARD DEMATTHEWS is an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Texas at Austin. His research explores issues related to school leadership, urban education, community engagement, and social justice. Recent publications include: DeMatthews, D. E. (2018). Community engaged leadership for social justice: A critical approach in urban schools. New York, NY: Routledge. DeMatthews, D. E., Carey, R. L., Olivarez, A., Moussavi-Saeedi, K. (2017). Guilty as charged? Principals’ perspectives and enactment of suspension and the racial discipline gap. Educational Administration Quarterly, 53(4), 519–555.
  • Rebecca Tarlau
    Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    REBECCA TARLAU is an assistant professor of education and labor and employment at the Pennsylvania State University. Her ethnographic research agenda has three broad areas of focus: (1) Theories of the state and state-society relations; (2) Social movements, critical pedagogy, and learning; (3) Latin American education and development. Her scholarship engages in debates in the fields of political sociology, international and comparative education, adult education, critical pedagogy, global and transnational sociology, and social theory.
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