As the United States experiences mass racial unrest and nationwide protests, equity issues have become elevated in the American consciousness. And according to Erin McHenry-Sorber, an associate professor of higher education in the West Virginia University College of Education and Human Services, this reckoning with racial and economic inequity isn’t just happening in urban areas.
“I think it’s really important to elevate the work that’s being done in rural communities as well,” McHenry-Sorber said. “Protests are happening in small towns and rural communities across the United States. Those movements don’t get as much media attention, but they’re just as significant, not just for rural communities in general, but in influencing the need for rural leaders to engage in equity work.”
McHenry-Sorber and her colleague Daniella Sutherland, an assistant professor in the Clemson University College of Education, have recently been funded by a $50,000 Spencer Foundation Small Research Grant to investigate the challenges school leaders in rural communities face when working to implement equity policies. The project, We’ll Be Fired: A Critical Examination of the Equity Work of Rural Educational Leaders, will examine rural communities in West Virginia, South Carolina and Vermont with the ultimate goal of designing professional resources and training to improve rural school leaders’ implementation of educational equity.
McHenry-Sorber and Sutherland will study three rural communities in each state to account for different state policy contexts. In each community, they plan to conduct focus groups with community members and leaders, interviews with educational leaders, and interviews with rural leaders who are engaging with equity work.
“We want to get a full picture of the local and regional contexts in which rural leaders are doing this work, and we to talk to these leaders about how they’re navigating these waters,” McHenry-Sorber said. “These are really different types of rural communities. In South Carolina, we’re looking at issues of racial equity, and in West Virginia and Vermont, we’re more focused on economic equity because many of these communities tend to have less racially diverse populations.”
McHenry-Sorber said that one of the specific challenges that rural leaders face is the increased public attention that their decisions receive. They operate in what researchers call a “fishbowl,” because they’re usually in smaller communities, so everyone knows who the leaders are and what they’re doing.
“It creates some difficulties when the leaders have to work around issues of equity and inclusion, particularly because people who are elected – for example, the school boards – tend to represent the most powerful interests of the community,” McHenry-Sorber said. “We know that people in power are often hesitant or reluctant to give up that power, even if it means creating more inclusive spaces.”
In these environments, rural leaders must navigate the power differentials and the factional values and interests of their communities when they’re thinking about how they might implement equity policies designed to create more equitable schools and school systems.
One of McHenry-Sorber and Sutherland’s goals in completing this project is to fill a void in the research regarding how equity policies are implemented in schools — though scholars have studied this issue in urban areas, there has been no research done in rural areas.
“In some ways this isn’t surprising, because for quite some time Americans believed in this myth that rural places were homogenous, that everybody shared the same values, looked demographically similar and had the same interests regarding schooling,” McHenry-Sorber said. “Rural communities are just like any other kind of community. They are diverse in different ways, whether that’s racially diverse or economically diverse, and the people living and working there have different interests and values.”
McHenry-Sorber and Sutherland’s study will run through August 2023.