Educators Share Lessons From the NC Conference for Educational Equity

In Feb. 2020, Patricia Hilliard, Ph.D., had an idea to hold a small conference in spring 2021 about educational equity. Then the coronavirus came to the United States and forced schools to move instruction online, where the inequities in education were magnified. Simultaneously, more and more Black lives were being taken by the police, Black Lives Matter protests increased around the world, and racial equity was pushed to the forefront of the national conversation. In response, Hilliard and her colleagues decided this educational equity conference needed to happen immediately.

“Our intention was to provide North Carolina educators, especially those who generally do not have access or the financial means to attend conferences outside of their districts, the opportunity to examine equity while remaining in the comfort of their own homes,” said Hilliard, conference organizer and a research scholar at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation. “We wanted to provide a space for educators to exchange ideas, challenge prevailing ideals and walk away with a new perspective and ready to take action. This free virtual conference provided an equitable means for each and every educator to expand their knowledge of educational equity.”

Retweet from Hiller A. Spires: Thank you @HilliardPhd for your leadership! @FridayInstitute #NCEdEquity @NCStateCED. Original tweet features image of Dr. Hilliard with the text: Great panel introduction from our very own @HilliardPHd, who asks educators to "transfer power and elevate the talented individuals in your districts that have been overlooked, marginalized or ignored." #NCEdEquity

Inequities abound in education, from suspension rates to test scores. For example, looking at race alone, Black students make up 25% of children enrolled in North Carolina public schools but receive 55.2% of short-term suspensions. Also, while 70% of white students earn an ACT score of 17 or higher, only 32% of Black students and 40% of Hispanic students earn the same score, according to data from the Public School Forum of North Carolina

In order to address these inequities, the NC Conference for Educational Equity, a two-day virtual conference for K-12 North Carolina educators, was focused on rethinking the current educational system, disrupting a broken system, and developing innovative practices, policies and processes that create equitable outcomes for every student in North Carolina. More than 2,600 people from public schools, businesses and community organizations registered for the conference. Participants could choose from 19 sessions focusing on equity for multiple facets of student identities, such as race, gender and culture. Presenters represented organizations from across North Carolina, including Appalachian State University, Best NC, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, Juntos, Legal Aid of NC, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, the Public School Forum and RTI International.


Tru Pettigrew, the founder and president of Tru Access, delivered the opening keynote presentation. Tru Access serves organizations by helping them bridge gaps across racial, generational and relational divides. During his presentation, Pettigrew explained the importance of first understanding diversity as it relates to equity and inclusion and then going beyond it into actions such as examining unconscious biases and having important conversations with colleagues.

Tweet from Friday Institute: Tru Pettigrew of @truaccess explains the relationship between diversity, equity and inclusion as well as the importance of going beyond diversity so "we can all experience the power of inclusion." #NCEdEquity. Includes image of Tru Pettigrew.
Tweet from Friday Institute: "As long as we avoid the difficult conversations about race, generation, culture, gender and sexual orientation, the less we’ll be equipped with the necessary tools to create the most inclusive environments." @truaccess #NCEdEquity
Retweet from Anne Berryhill: Yes! We have to examine ourselves and our own biases to make change in ourselves and ultimately in society! Great keynote this morning at the #ncedequity Conference! Original tweet from Lisa Godwin: "We all have unconscious bias. We must accept this fact and do the heavy lifting to uncover them and work towards creating positive change within ourselves." Tru Pettigrew

These conversations are hard but necessary. #NCEdEquity

The keynote was just one of many sessions that addressed the need to rethink and reexamine current educational practices, whether by looking at the intersectional impact of trauma or listening to lesser known student narratives about their educational experiences.

Tweet from Kayce Smith: Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful & vulnerable personal narratives shared by @MrDpasion & Trilce Marquez @FridayInstitute #NCEdEquity conference to help us understand Latinx perspectives of students & educators.
Tweet from Shelena Chavis: Great analogy using a dollar bill to describe how we need to provide equity and access to all students regardless of appearance @JermaineLPorter @FridayInstitute #ncedequity
Tweet from Lessie Anderson: This is why Patrice Hardy @mchsequity is Middle Creek’s TEACHER OF THE YEAR. Ensuring equitable practices for our students is not an option. Sharing her knowledge/instructional practices on how she rethinks core instruction for Black Males. @mchsmustangs #NCEdEquity @HilliardPhd
Tweet from Angela Hill: Enjoying the #NCEdEquity Conference from the comfort of my home! First session hits home because I have a SOC going to 8th grade and taking Math I this fall. Thanks @BrendaBerg  and @LeahSuttonNC for an informative session about this vital policy. An image of the session shows a slide that says: Early Impacts. During the first year of implementation, more than 2,100 students were placed up in 8th grade alone. Thousands more were impacted in grades 4-10.

Educators were very interested and engaged in these sessions. Based on responses from the conference’s evaluation survey, 89.4% had been interested in learning more about equity and African American students and 52.8% of participants registered for five or more sessions. During each session, educators shared their lessons, resources and ideas with each other online, amazed with what they learned about their students and a system they thought they knew so well.


Repeatedly throughout the conference, the point was made that disrupting the current educational system wasn’t going to be easy, but it was going to be necessary to create a more equitable system.

“This conference is not for the faint of heart,” said Dana M. Ellison, conference participant and a fourth grade teacher in the Wake County Public School System. “It deals with and talks about the real issues facing society, which directly affects us as educators. We have to be willing to address white privilege and become educated ourselves so that we can reach all children and be inclusive of all marginalized groups. We have to be willing to have the hard conversations, and these sessions gave us ideas, tools and resources to help us in doing just that! Powerful and transformational things happening here! So glad I decided to do this!”

A tweet from the Friday Institute: "People shouldn’t have to get murdered to be interested in equity," says @PCS_NC teacher @MrsMSouthworth. She says teachers need to continue to be passionate against inequity even when it isn't a hot topic anymore. #NCEdEquity. Includes a photo of Meredith Southworth.
Tweet from Rachel McBroom: This is unacceptable - we need change. @FridayInstitute #ncedequity. Image shows pie charts of 2018-2019 NC Student Demographics and 2018-2019 Student Suspension Demographics. The pie charts show that 47% of students in NC are white and 26.7% of suspensions are of white students. 25% of students in NC are Black and 54.1% of suspensions are of Black students. 18.5% of students in NC are Hispanic and 10.9% of suspensions are of Hispanic students. 4.5% of students in NC are multi-racial and 5.51% of suspensions are of multi-racial students.
Tweet from Stephanie Wacek: “Status quo is no longer acceptable; we have to disrupt the systems.” - 
 & “The solution to ignorance is education, not condemnation.” - 
 Looking forward to the #NCEdEquity conference to provide the education and conversations to start disrupting.
Tweet from the Friday Institute: "Attach guilt to the feelings, biases and assumptions we’ve been conditioned to make. For white educators, change has to start inside of ourselves,” says @MrsMSouthworth

The conference also disrupted the prevailing thought that equity is exclusively associated with race. It gave voice to inequities experienced by many students, whether through race, gender, sexual orientation, or gifted or special education, something that many attendees noted in their conference evaluation surveys. Attendees said that not exclusively focusing on race made their conference experiences special.

Tweet from Melissa Barnhouse: What affirmations are we building into our school culture and building to allow our LGBTQ+ students to feel safe? @ALSBulldogs @mrhickson120 #NCEdEquity. Displaying images of session slides during the Zoom presentation featuring a slide titled Analyzing elements of (structural) heterosexism.
Tweet from Kailey Hill: In the #NCEDEquity session on Strategies to Keep Students with Disabilities on a Path to Success.  The content is so good.  I am walking away with a better understanding of SPED and how the court system may not be best suited to help our students in crisis.


According to conference evaluation survey responses, participants found the conference provided them time for awareness about equity issues, as well as information they could share with their colleagues to start conversations. These conversations could lead to changes to create more equitable environments in their schools.

Tweet from Lori Khan: Great strategies! Thanks @DPS_Equity  and @JermaineLPorter . Questioning is a great way to reset. This helps clarify and more forward for an open conversation and then echo. Love the slot machine analogy!!! #ncedequity. Includes image of a presentation slide titled Teaching Tolerance Strategies to Address Implicit Bias. Includes a list of items: Interrupt, Question, Educate and Echo.
Tweet from Rebecca Dillard: #NCEdEquity I am making a commitment to reflect on my unconscious biases daily, and take steps to include & encourage multiple perspectives and voices in my classroom. I will have courageous conversations and respect student voices! INCREDIBLE day 1, can’t wait for tomorrow!!
Tweet from Christina Rose: So what can schools and districts do? #NCEdEquity @FridayInstitute. Includes screenshot of Zoom session featuring a slide titled What Schools/Districts Can Do.

With many new strategies and resources shared to create equitable outcomes for every student in North Carolina, Hilliard is hopeful she will see its impact over the next year.

“The impact of this conference is still unknown,” said Hilliard. “It takes the average person between 66 and 254 days to establish a new habit or behavior; I surmise even longer if that habit was formed under an education system that has systematically marginalized students because of their ethnicity, disability, race, orientation and/or socioeconomic status. I am willing to wait the full 254 days or longer to see the suspension rates of Black boys decrease, LGBTQ+ students feel safe at schools, complete dismantling of a school-to-prison pipeline for exceptional children, and Latinx students experience an inclusive culturally responsive education.”

Although the conference’s impact is still unclear, many shared how valuable their experiences were and how it shifted their mindsets.

Tweet from Sandy Bravo-Boyd: Thank you @FridayInstitute for Day 2! Teachers want to learn about Equity. Our role is so important in the classroom. Knowledge, Courage, Intentional Work, Action and Change is needed! I’m in!! @HilliardPhd #NCEdEquity #Equity @TabariWallace. Includes a screenshot of the day 2 panel.
Tweet from Jen Matthews: Thank you, @HilliardPhd, for organizing some of the best and most relevant workshops I’ve ever attended. I hope that this can be offered again and/or become continuous professional learning through @FridayInstitute
#NCEdEquity. Includes retweet of Patricia Hilliard: I’m still trying to process the magnitude of today. We came together in mass for one mission, KNOWLEDGE on how to make our school systems more equitable. I’m excited for Day 2. I pray that knowledge leads to ACTION!
Tweet from Bobbie Lynch: Not only is this one of the best virtual conferences/PD’s I’ve ever experienced, but it’s truly been one of the best conferences overall that I’ve experienced! #NCEdEquity had been phenomenal! Thank you, @FridayInstitute and all the presenters and facilitators!