Hiring for Diversity and the Challenges Involved: An interview with Antonio Williams

Editor’s note: Lisa Lovering is president of Educator’s Ally, an educators’ recruitment and placement agency based in New York City. She interviewed Antonio Williams, director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia. They talked about the hiring process at Penn Charter and how the school increases diversity among its faculty and staff. Below are some highlights from their conversation.

Who is involved in the hiring process at your school? It really depends on the level. If it’s a senior administrative position, generally the assistant head of school runs the search. If it’s a faculty search, the department chair along with the academic dean conduct the search.

As the institution’s director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, do you participate in every search? It’s not necessarily me but someone from our office, absolutely. When determining who on our team will be involved in a search, the goal is to really look at the office itself because in addition to me, there are five diversity coordinators. I think we do a good job of creating a diverse search committee. That’s really important. And when I say diversity, it’s a broad range of considerations. In addition to race, we look at gender, sexual orientation, age, and experience. We try to look at a variety of different things to ensure that everything is covered. When considering candidates, my job and the job of the diversity coordinators is to consistently view things through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Because while others on the committee may think about this issue, it’s not their main focus.

For a particular search, once you’ve identified the candidates, how do you ensure against implicit bias? Obviously, implicit bias is challenging. At the outset of a search, it’s important for the department to identify its specific needs and the skill set that they’re looking for with a particular hire, so we as a committee can remain focused on that throughout the process. 

For example, say you’re looking for a teacher who can teach high-level math, calculus, and AP calculus. When reviewing résumés, it’s very easy to get excited about someone who went to U Penn (University of Pennsylvania). This candidate took some math classes, so they should be able to handle the position because they went to U Penn, right? Meanwhile, you have another candidate, say a Howard University alum and someone who graduated with a degree in applied math. Clearly, they have a much more robust math background than the individual that took some math classes at U Penn, and they’re likely the better hire. At the end of the day, if you focus on the candidate’s skill set, you’re going to end up with the more qualified candidate.

How are you connecting to a pool of diverse candidates? You often hear people involved with hiring say that they just can’t find people of color. As a person of color, when I hear this or when my friends who are persons of color in the independent school world hear this, we laugh. We can immediately rattle off the names of 500 highly qualified individuals. Having said that, I do agree that there’s a problem in terms of the pool feeling limited. It’s sort of like you have a deck of cards, but there are only so many cards in the deck. You can shuffle the cards all you want, but at some point, you’re still just getting the same cards. At Penn Charter, we’re trying to combat that. I did a presentation recently with a few of our other school administrators, and one of the points I made was that we needed to start looking at different sources rather than the same old outlets. … The point is to be open to new sources, including new and untried search firms, so your pool can be as diverse as possible.

What about retention? You bring a new educator of color on board but how do you ensure that they’re happy, feel supported, and want to stay? Bottom line, you can recruit and recruit, and then hire … but what’s the point if you can’t keep these new hires on board for the long term? If you don’t allow people the opportunity to grow professionally, or make sure that they feel part of the community, you’ll lose them. Conversely, if you do all those things, there’s a greater likelihood that your new hire will stay. There’s residual benefit if that happens because that leads into your recruitment. The conversation becomes, “Hey, this is a great place to work.”

What advice would you have for schools who aren’t as far along on these issues, or who don’t have the staffing? How can they move the needle as far as doing a better job of diversifying their faculty and staff? I would say the first thing to do is to really address and identify where you are as a school. What I mean by that is take a look in the mirror and make an honest appraisal. Is your school set up to support faculty members of color? Because if you’re just starting out, and you’ve only got one or two educators of color, that’s going to be tough. It’s a lonely place to be. But if you do move forward, what are you doing to do to support these new hires? Are your students prepared to support them? Is your board prepared? How are you going to address microaggressions? Your school community needs to be prepared to be supportive.

Is there anything else you would like to share? A conversation on this topic would be incomplete without a mention of the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference (PoCC) and the importance of schools sending their educators of color. But schools shouldn’t make the mistake of making their educators of color feel like they have to fight, beg, and borrow to attend. PoCC was created and designed by and for people of color, so send them, and send them all.