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Change Is Gonna Come

By Marsha Rutledge, Ph.D. | November 2021

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There is a familiar song in the Black culture, written and first performed by singer, songwriter and civil-rights activist Sam Cooke. On Feb. 7, 1964, Cooke debuted “A Change Is Gonna Come” on “The Tonight Show” to convey an urgent message to a national audience. I believe we have, once again, reached a stage of change in which this song speaks volumes.

As we continue to struggle through the COVID-19 pandemic, there are other pandemics Black people are subjected to daily – continued racism, discrimination, inequities and police brutality. In the last year, I am finding that educators of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are hungry for ways to make the system better and meet the unique needs of their Black students.

If not now, when? And if not you, who? The reality is that the when is now and the who is you. We all need to understand that this change begins in each of us. We must be ready for the knowingly uncomfortable social justice and advocacy work that lies ahead and be prepared to address some of the foundational issues that continue to plague educational systems.

As America re-imagines the structure of K–12 schools, its curriculum, academic processes and in-class experiences, it is time to focus on dismantling inequities and systemic policies and procedures that have negatively affected Black students and other students of color for too long. As schools are situated within communities that are struggling to recover, we must recognize and understand that what students are experiencing in their homes and their communities can and will manifest in our schools. Therefore, educators are tasked with implementing appropriate supports for student success.

School counselors, in particular, have to educate themselves on appropriate trauma responses in an effort to not cause further distress to their students. We must also keep in mind that the act of “doing nothing” leaves open the possibility for more trauma to develop or resurface. We must take a proactive approach to work with students after racial incidents occur. We cannot stop there. School counselors must put into action the ASCA themes of leadership, advocacy, collaboration and systemic change. If your efforts are not continuous and purposeful in addressing systemic issues, a process necessary for systemic change, then you are not working to solve many of the problems that have preceded and contributed to our current climate.

Where to Begin

Educate yourself: Know and understand the historical underpinnings behind racism.

Know yourself: Take time for reflection and introspection. Know how this work is affecting you. Acknowledge your beliefs and values regarding Black Lives Matter, and recognize the best way to support Black and Brown children.

Acknowledge the issues: Be respectful, thoughtful and intentional about that acknowledgment, and have a plan to move forward. Lifelong activist Dena Simmons, Ed.D., wrote, “When we see racism – whether at the individual or policy level – we must have the courage to act.”

Never stop advocating: This is not a one-time conversation but a series of discussions and interventions leading to change.

Now is the time to consider whether your school counseling program needs restructuring. The ASCA National Model provides a framework to guide you as you build a culturally responsive school counseling program. Begin with an audit of your program. In addition to the ASCA program assessment, I also recommend you find an equity inventory to identify possible gaps that may have gone unnoticed. As you meet with your school counseling advisory council, gather the necessary data and input. It is vital to the overhaul or refinement of your school counseling program to hear varying perspectives on school climate and the impact of the program on the students it serves.

During your annual administrative conference, talk with leadership about your focus and your goals toward social justice and dismantling inequitable practices and procedures. Think about holding focus groups to hear directly from your students about your program’s effectiveness in this area. Once you have valuable data, create a goal around school climate and/or cultural diversity; then create your interventions and programs with cultural responsiveness in mind. Several resources that can assist in that work include, “Making Diversity Work” (Grothaus & Johnson, 2012) and “Closing the Achievement Gap” (Holcomb-McCoy, 2007). Zaretta Hammond’s “The Culturally Responsive Brain” is another excellent resource.

Gather Others

Wondering how you can help others invest in this work? Unfortunately, some may never understand the gravity of the trauma inflicted by systemic racism and inequity. These individuals may also never understand the call for social justice and advocacy. However, as school counselors, we’re tasked with addressing inequities and advocating for all students, as detailed in the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors.

A.3.c.: Review school and student data to assess needs, including, but not limited to, data on disparities that may exist related to gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status and/or other relevant classifications.
B.2.i.: Advocate for equitable school counseling program policies and practices for all students and stakeholders.
B.3.i.: Monitor and expand personal multicultural and social-justice advocacy awareness knowledge and skills to be an effective culturally competent school counselor. Understand how prejudice, privilege and various forms of oppression based on ethnicity, racial identity, age, economic status, abilities/disabilities, language, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity expression, family type, religious/spiritual identity, appearance and living situations (e.g., foster care, homelessness, incarceration) affect students and stakeholders. 

These mandates and other ethical standards and professional competencies guide us in responsibly implementing school counseling programs to meet all students’ needs. Here are a few other vital tips.

Show the data: Some will never understand inequities until they hear it, see it, or live it, so seize your opportunity by showing the data. We often think of data in quantitative terms (numbers and statistics). However, qualitative data allows for stories and lived experiences to give powerful representations of why this work is essential. Support your cause with pictures, graphics and videos, such as the video of the 6-year-old scared for his life, footage of the young Black boy singing “I Just Want to Live,” a picture of the history of Black trauma. Explain the rationale and reasoning behind Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter. Conduct a needs assessment of students and faculty to hear from them directly and identify the specific needs within your building. Discuss responses in your school counseling advisory council meetings. It is important to know the perspective circulating in the community. 

Be prepared with your ask: What is it that you want from your administrators? Your leaders? Your allies? Be prepared with factual knowledge about students’ needs and with suggestions for support, but be flexible enough to hear ideas from others.

Anticipate pushback: Don’t take it personally. Not everyone is ready for the conversation. Be prepared with your response.

Identify your community: These are the allies, accomplices and co-conspirators willing and ready to work with you to make a real difference.

Don’t give up: Despite the hard conversations, the risks, and the paths you may walk alone, the end result will be worth the effort, for you and – more important – your students.

Social justice and advocacy work is uncomfortable and, at times, risky. School counselors have to move out of their comfort zones and do the work they have been called to do – improving outcomes for all students. In doing so, they can focus on the apparent and immediate needs of their students of color; otherwise, it’s as if they are saying that all lives don’t matter.

Marsha Rutledge, Ph.D., is a former school counselor and an assistant professor and coordinator of school counseling at Longwood University. She can be reached at