by Kym Byrnes, photography by Nikola Tzenov

Judith Jones, Equity and Inclusion Officer, Carroll County Public Schools

The youngest of six children, Judith Jones was born and raised in Baltimore City. Her father was a pastor and her mother’s primary job was caring for the children and home. With the goal of becoming an attorney, Jones studied law in college and ultimately earned a master’s degree in legal and ethical studies. She took a job teaching in Baltimore City schools, anticipating it would tide her over until she could work in law, but the universe had other plans. She fell in love with teaching and helping students who had been written off or lost in the system. Eventually she took a leap, a leap cautioned against by her friends and family who were worried about a Black woman going to work in a county that is not known for its diversity. In 2006 she began working as an assistant principal at Century High School, and in 2016 she was asked to take on the role of equity and inclusion officer, a newly created position in Carroll County Public Schools. Jones said that while the job is complex and challenging, good things come from having hard conversations. “I come with the spirit of love, but I also have a job to do,” she said.

What did you want to be when you were young, and how did you end up in teaching? I thought I’d be a lawyer. My family thought that was a good choice because I talked a lot and I was good at debating. After college I needed a job with good benefits, and someone said Baltimore City schools needed teachers. In 1993 I was hired as a social studies teacher in Baltimore City. And I fell in love with teaching. I love teaching the law, and the relationship with students and inspiring them and helping students that may have been written off. 

Did you have any hesitations or concerns about working in Carroll County — joining a system that is not as diverse both in teacher and student populations? I started at Century in 2006 as an assistant principal then moved to Westminster High School, where I was an assistant principal from 2010-2016. Yes, there were other educators in Baltimore City who questioned if I really wanted to make that shift. Sometimes, the perception of Carroll County is that it is not very diverse, that there is racism here, and working here would be a totally different experience. I applied to several counties and Carroll responded quickly and made the onboarding process wonderful. In my mind I was thinking, “Hey, I’ve been the minority before, I’ve been in white spaces and places.” There were still those that warned, “It’s different, you better have your act together when you get out there — there’s no room as a woman of color to mess up.” And I knew that.

I did get my first smack in the face when I saw students wearing Confederate clothing. That was the first “You’re right, I’m not in Kansas anymore.” But I developed strong relationships with the students there and staff who I’m dear friends with to this day. Yes, I did have to deal with racist events, but my support system with administration and the openness of the students helped. It was the same at Westminster High School, but it was a little more diverse. I was fortunate to have great relationships with students. I was Ms. Feel Good Friday Jones — I played DJ on the morning announcements. I was thankful to have supportive communities — faculty and staff, and students, and that’s what made those incidents I was exposed to tolerable. Without those pieces in place I would have left.

What is your main focus as the equity and inclusion officer — what are you trying to achieve? I took on what is now known as the equity and inclusion officer position for CCPS in 2016. Equity is about assuring that all students receive the resources and supports that are needed in order to be successful. We have to keep in mind that equity requires us to focus on underserved students, those often marginalized — taking into account past prejudices which have been barriers to their success. We’re not talking about equality — we’re looking at equity, which means my individual needs might be different than the individual needs of others. 

Inclusion is about making everyone feel welcomed: How do we as a system include everyone and make sure that everyone feels included? Whether in regulations and policies, or curriculum, or community, how are they made to feel? Do they feel respected, seen, appreciated, supported and valued? I oversee all of that and make sure the appropriate trainings, discussions, activities, and opportunities are available, and support those initiatives. Right now, I work more with staff, but I’m making my way to work more with students. For the last four years we’ve created cultural proficiency training for adults. The whole purpose of this training is to build the capacity for our schools to be inclusive of teachers/employees of color, and that’s because our retention rate was terrible and something we still struggle with — it’s a nationwide issue. We can’t just say “it is what it is.” We should all be diligently finding a way to make sure our teaching population reflects our student population — that they see teachers and administrators of diversity in our schools. 

What do you love about your job — what gets you out of bed in the morning? I get to be a witness to transformation, I get to witness it every day. Over the summer when we had the George Floyd incident and we knew people were hurting in our schools, in our community, I said we need to talk about it. We had over eight sessions filled with people from throughout the school system who wanted to come together to talk about what they saw and what they were experiencing. People were vulnerable and transparent, people cried, people were trying to figure out how to even have conversations because their own family is so divided. People wanted a place to talk honestly and not be judged, to ask questions and to learn, to hear other people’s experiences that were different than their own, and to take some of these things back to their families. I got to have a front-row seat to change and transformation. It has been happening for four years, but this summer it was exceptionally powerful. I love the healing that takes place with this, I get to see relationships being built, stories being shared. 

According to the Census, about 4 percent of Carroll County’s population is African-American. Do you believe Carroll has race issues? I think the reality is — and I’m not pinpointing just Carroll County — racism is here and it has always been here, it’s just been able to come to the forefront. Access to social media and technology has made it so we can see it more. As a person of color the last couple of years, I have seen an increase of people feeling emboldened to say what they want to say and post what they want to say. It’s been a tough couple years for people of color. To subtly and unsubtly be reminded that you don’t belong or we don’t want you here, that’s what we feel. That’s what we experience on a day-to-day basis. So much that we become numb to it. The murder of George Floyd really cut deep, and I think it did for a lot of Americans because it was so in your face and everyone was home watching their screens. 

As a country, we have to acknowledge that it exists and acknowledge the history of it. Nothing is more hurtful than the denial that it happens. We can’t really heal because we won’t acknowledge that it exists or it’s happening. Once that happens then we can begin coming together and finding ways to heal together. The issue with Carroll County is that because it lacks diversity there’s a lack of exposure to other experiences that are different. As we’re becoming more diverse, we have to ask, “Are we ready, is the county ready?” And how do you do that? We have to change mindsets. The work of equity is the work of the heart, and that means looking inside myself and asking myself what biases do I have, how does that impact or prevent me from having relationships with people different than me? It’s going to take people really willing to do this, to see this. It’s the early experiences that sometime formulate how we believe. We have to be willing to take that journey to have an inclusive county. Other counties, other systems are dealing with it, too.

 What do you have on your plate outside of your job with Carroll County Public Schools?  I’m a divorced mom with two daughters, Julian, 22, and Jada, 20. Both of them graduated from Westminster High School. They are my pride and joy. I’m the youngest of six kids, I have supportive siblings and an 89-year-old mom who I call every day. I have a wonderful church family in Catonsville, I’m a part of their music and arts ministry. I quote a lot of my what my dad said as a pastor, and he used to say you have to hurt without the hate. 

I have also partnered with Dr. Richard Smith, a professor at McDaniel, to start Jones and Smith Racial Healing Clinic. We met through engagements and events, and we are both members of Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality. We were both getting asked by businesses, organizations and government agencies to help them create inclusive environments. They were saying, “We need help, our teams are really struggling and we need help facilitating the discussions.” We focus on the transformative work of what we do — healing and reconciliation. 

With your background in education, leadership, inclusion, and your personal experience as a Black woman, what do you think needs to be happening in communities like Carroll to be moving in the right direction?  I know white people feel like people are looking at them like they’re racist, and that’s also a hard pill to swallow. We have to take the time to listen to each other’s stories. We’ve got to start with understanding and acknowledging the history. When we talk about history, people think, “Well I didn’t do that, that wasn’t me,” but it would help if you understand how life is different for me than it is for you. We don’t have empathy, just good old-fashioned human empathy. 

We have to bring back the love and the humanity. Sometimes it’s not a race issue, it’s just a human issue — treat others how you want to be treated. It doesn’t mean to change your mind, but the goal is to build the capacity to accept another perspective and to listen and to learn. 

Tell us more about the work of equity and inclusion in Carroll County Public Schools.

The goal of my office is to have consistent ongoing professional learning opportunities that will include and allow participants to share cultural narratives and experiences and have “courageous conversations” and talk openly, honestly and productively about race, cultural diversity, equity and other dimensions of differences. Building this capacity of our educators trickles down to the students so my job allows me to engage with the students and look at how they are impacted. In 2019, we did a student voice survey of all students of color.

We visited every high school and interviewed at least 10 students of color from each school and we found out what our racial climate was like for our students of color. It was jarring. Once we compiled all that data and information, we used it to lead all our professional learning last year. The training was based on the voices of our students. We created a performance academy with the goal of changing numbers into names. We found that our African-American students in particular had less access to a well-rounded curriculum. Why aren’t our African-American students thriving – we had to peel back the layers to find answers.

I’m excited to say today that every middle school and high school has a student advocacy group for students of color, and some even have student groups that want to support the change that needs to take place. They are getting a great education but it’s hard, and you understand why when you start unpacking those experiences that they go through daily, experiences that require them to turn their cheek every day. Last year we had our first summit for our students of color, we brought together students from different schools and taught them to have “courageous conversations” and effective advocacy and self-care strategies and empowered them to go back in to their schools and collaborate with student leaders to build diverse and welcoming environments in their schools. We’re hoping to have another one in the spring.

We are normalizing “courageous conversations”, normalizing being uncomfortable. We lost the ability to have differing perspectives, we don’t know how to sit still and listen with positive intent rather than listening to discredit someone else’s experience.

It’s easy to have relationships with people who are just like us, they live where we live, the same social economic status and I feel like we need – and I heard this term from someone else – differentiated compassion. What you may need at this moment might be different than what someone else needs. ◆