WASHINGTON TERRACE — Lillian Tsosie-Jensen describes her new role as director of equity, justice and inclusion in Weber School District as her “dream job.”
“I really feel like all my years in education have led me to this work and led me here,” Tsosie-Jensen said. “It’s a unique opportunity that I have not seen in any of the other school districts, and I say that with a statewide vision and a national vision from previous work that I’ve done.”
In the role, she will be responsible for helping to “create a safe and inclusive climate throughout the district wherein diversity/differences are embraced and celebrated, every student and employee is inspired to achieve, thrive and grow, and where each is empowered to act against any form of intolerance, bigotry and/or injustice,” according to the district’s equity, justice and inclusion purpose statement.
While other districts have equity positions, Tsosie-Jensen said most have not been developed in the same way that the position in Weber School District has.
Before the district created and filled this position, it convened an equity, justice and inclusion committee, which Tsosie-Jensen participated in while working for the office of the Utah State Board of Education.
Gina Butters, director of secondary education for Weber School District, said that the committee was comprised of leaders inside the district as well as community advisors, including Tsosie-Jensen, Forrest Crawford, professor of diversity in teacher education at Weber State University, Jackie Thompson, former equity director at Davis School District, Kathleen Christy, a former equity director at Salt Lake City School District, and Barb Whitman, Ogden-Weber UniServ director for the Utah Education Association.
The committee worked with Robert Kilo Zamora, a social change consultant and lecturer at the University of Utah, to learn how to run focus groups to gather feedback. The district also gathered survey data from parents, students and teachers, which Zamora analyzed on behalf of the district.
The conversation about these issues and the process of addressing them began in spring 2017, the committee was made official in October 2017 and the committee’s work with focus groups began in January 2019, Butters said.
The main themes in student responses in surveys and focus groups were that students wanted to better understand how to report harassment, and they wanted a more comfortable way to report than walking into an administrator’s office. This was especially true for transgender, non-binary, and African American students.
Students also wanted a decrease in harassment of all types, an increase in schools checking on the mental well-being of students, and they wanted the district to find ways to analyze the frequency and severity of identity-based harassment in schools and in students’ social media feeds.
Butters said that teachers report recognizing incidents of harassment and discrimination, but asked for more resources for responding to such incidents.
“We’re really proud of the process we went through,” Butters said. “It was comprehensive ... and look what it yielded. I don’t think we would have been able to pull Lillian our way without having gone through that process.”
Tsosie-Jensen said that one of her most significant professional experiences connecting to this new role was working with a College Board project called The Educational Experience of Young Men of Color. She served as an advisor representing the American Indian Alaskan Native population.
“This (project’s) research was talking about adult burdens (young men of color face), the need of always putting someone first, financial worries, feeling like they were an outsider and walking this social-life tightrope — just not fitting in,” Tsosie-Jensen said.
She said the data in this research mirrored the life of a young man she worked with when she was a counselor.
This student was a sophomore in high school when he sought out her help. She said he wasn’t sure of his identity as a black, Latino and Navajo man. He felt disconnected because of the color of his skin and other life circumstances. He also had a learning disability and was significantly behind in earning credits to graduate.
“He had many barriers in his life to be successful ... (but) some of the ‘catalysts for change’ for him made all the difference in the world,” she said, “and it took a school community, and he graduated and walked across the stage with his class — on time.”
Tsosie-Jensen said that the College Board research found that “catalysts for change” include students knowing where their resources are, experiencing their culture and understanding it, feeling connected to the school they attend and realizing that it’s never too late to learn.
She comes to Weber School District from the office of the Utah State Board of Education, where she was most recently a project director for a school-based mental-health grant. Previous to that she was the equity counseling and prevention coordinator and a school counseling specialist.
In addition to this experience at the state level, Tsosie-Jensen has experience working in schools in Jordan and Murray School Districts. She’s been a teacher in career and technical education and mathematics and is endorsed in several areas. She’s also been a counselor.
Tsosie-Jensen was recognized as counselor of the year by the Association of Career and Technology education, as teacher of the year by the Utah Technology Council and as a human rights award winner by the Utah School Counseling Association.
Her experience includes contributing her expertise to a host of other groups, including the coalition of minority advisory to the State Office of Education (now called that Utah Board of Education) and the SafeUT Commission, which implemented a smartphone app that includes a statewide crisis chat line and school safety tip line.
Tsosie-Jensen has served on the governor’s multicultural task force as the American Indian Alaskan Native representative and worked with the Reach Higher initiative of the Obama administration.
Altogether, she has 29 years of experience in education.
While her résumé is extensive, her work in equity, justice and inclusion began at an early age, while observing her grandfather.
Tsosie-Jensen is indigenous, and her tribal affiliation is Diné (Navajo). Her grandfather was a tribal leader called a chapter president, comparable to a regional mayor, she said.
She would follow him around during his work, including to Window Rock, Arizona, the headquarters of the Navajo Nation.
“A lot of who I am today I attribute to that time with my grandfather because of his belief in the people and his belief in leadership and education,” she said.
Tsosie-Jensen’s father is Caucasian, she said, and she grew up in Central Utah spending time in both cultures.
“I think that really lends to who I am today to not only be able to move in and out of two worlds but see some of the barriers our students face that are marginalized — they just need an advocate,” she said. “And I have always in my work in education, no matter what my role is, tried to stay on that focus of being an advocate for students and student success.”