An Interview with Darnisa Amante

November 19, 2018
Written by
Jim Knight

An Interview with Darnisa Amante

August 17, 2023
November 19, 2018
Written by
Jim Knight

Dr. Darnisa Amante is an educational and racial equity strategist who is deeply committed to the study of culture, innovation, and experiential ways to transform organizational and school culture on issues of racial equity. I had the honor of interviewing Darnisa this past September, and was blown away by her thinking and the work she is doing.

JK: Please tell me about your theory of action and how you have turned it into a theory of practice.

DA: By trade I am a socio-cultural anthropologist and have always been deeply curious about what transformation looks like at the cultural level. So I’ve been drawn to systemic change, particularly changing the mindsets that inform both systemic and more localized culture as it relates to race, equity, and diversity.

In addition, my lived experience as a black woman – particularly a black woman growing up in Brooklyn, New York, in the 90s – has informed much of my work. For example, I’ve seen what can happen when you try to change systemic culture but fail to spend time on helping people to unpack who they are.

I went into education shortly after graduating because I felt like education was a key area where I could impact the building of new communities. Education is one of those unique spaces where you can interact with multiple stakeholders; I felt like it was a powerful place to think about change overall, so education has been a key vehicle of change for me.

That theory of action that if I support people in changing their individual culture and then help them make deeper connections to their self-culture – and how it’s been one informed by a system, and how they are participating in the system, either knowingly or unknowingly – led me to three different paths that are all interconnected.

First, I serve as the CEO and co-founder of DEEP, which stands for Disruptive Equity Education Project. DEEP is all about supporting people in understanding who they are – what their triggers are, what systemic suppression looks like within themselves – and helping them build their foundational vocabulary. So DEEP directly supports individuals in understanding more about oppression, power, privilege, micro-aggressions, macro-aggressions, supremacy, white privilege, white fragility, etc., and then connecting those individual conversations to team conversations with an organization. We’ve learned that if you don’t help the team to do that same level of introspection, the organization is unable to make the necessary change. So we support organizations in building on those first two steps, establishing a strategic platform to change itself in a transformative and adaptive way.

Second, I serve as the senior racial equity advisor and social justice entrepreneur in residence with City Year, an organization that helps to close gaps in high-need schools by supporting students' academic and social-emotional development while also providing schools with the additional capacity to enhance school culture and climate. So I support City Year a quarter of my time in thinking through the process of organizational transformation – what does service look like through a lens of DEI, how do you support a large non-profit in changing itself over time by engaging with its board, building capacity, doing the internal work, and then naming that 30 years of culture that we’re transitioning for newer communities.

Finally, I serve as the director of coaching for the RIDES project at the Harvard School of Education. RIDES, which stands for Reimagining Integration, Diverse and Equitable Schools, was created to think about what might happen if you reimagined integration, knowing that integration is a very contentious word for many. So given that, what would it look like if schools could achieve the four outcomes that we believe integration originally set out to achieve: (a) improving academics for students, (b) creating cultures of belonging, (c) creating a commitment to dismantling systemic oppression, and (d) making a commitment to diversity.

Those three roles combine for me working with students, families, school systems, non-profit organizations, and larger school districts that are attached to Harvard and thinking through equitable change. So my theory in practice is that those three things will lead to maximum impact in terms of changing mindsets, embedding those mindsets, and positioning ourselves in institutions to create best practices out of DEEP practices.

JK: Are you saying that those three organizations are designed to enable the systemic change that you are describing to take place, or are you saying that there are three things that we need to particularly be looking at?

DA: Those are the three things that I believe we could be looking at to make change in the education sector and in organizations that impact education and community.

JK: Tell me more about what you mean by disruptive. Is it disrupting our unconscious bias, is it disrupting systemic prejudice, or is it a whole host of things? 

DA: Disruption to us is multiple things. The first is that we’re disrupting the commonly held perspective that spending time doing deeply personal work is not work. Another level of disruption is disrupting the notion of how many different spaces you think you have to work within in order to do equity well; in other words, we are disrupting the “how” of how to do equity well. For example, it can’t just be a conversation with one group. You have to be building platforms of collective efficacy. And the last level of disruption that we really focus on is storytelling; telling personal narratives and building empathy are key levers for creating equity not only in schools but everywhere.

JK: How are you feeling about the impact you are having?

DA: I feel we are having significant impact. Even as someone who values storytelling, I did not realize how the combination of empathy, active listening, and intentional conversations could be a change lever for a person or an organization.

DEEP workshops follow a six-part framework for eight and half days, paired with executive coaching, an online virtual certification class, and a monthly check-in call with leaders. From the beginning, we wanted to ground all of our work in data and, to that end, we looked at levels of measurement that weren’t just Likert scales. So for the last two years, we’ve been developing equity audits, measuring organizational change as it relates to people hearing stories, building empathy, being able to name the lived experiences of different groups, connecting those experiences to stories, and then leveraging that connection to change organizational practice and structure as well as self-culture.

We send out surveys after each workshop and have a DEEP consultant work directly with the organization. We follow up with our clients monthly, measuring changes in their mission and vision and the organization’s ability to do collective and adaptive work together. We are beginning to see those data because we just now hit our two-and-a-half year mark and have some longitudinal data. Over those two first years, DEEP has supported roughly about 18,000 leaders across 12 states.

JK: The reason I ask how you are feeling about the impact you are having is that I think that folks who read this column are engaged in conversations where they often feel hopeless ... they have important things to be communicated, but the person who needs to hear them chooses not to look at facts or even engage in dialogue. That is,  they’re working with people who test their expectations or perceptions. I sense in America right now a kind of hopelessness like, “We can’t talk about things that are important anymore, like human rights.” Things that we would ordinarily have taken for granted, things we would try to do, like being good people and so forth. Do you have a reaction to that?

DA: Yes. People are more afraid of conversations than actually changing structures, and I think it’s because of the culture of blaming and shaming, of individualizing unconscious bias and then naming it as something that it is not. People fear these conversations because in this era of social media, someone’s false assumption and miss-statement could lead to loss of jobs, relationships, and family. It feels confrontational.

DEEP uses nine norms to support a community in being able to have difficult conversations even in absence of our facilitation. Our goal is to put ourselves out of business, so we are simultaneously creating sustainable conditions. So we don’t just show them the norms, we tell them a story around them. We cannot move forward in community until everyone has agreed, and if someone does not agree, we pause. I am happy to report that of the 18,000 participants we have supported, not one person has ever paused; yet, many of these folks are about as polar opposites as night and day.

I find that people need to see modeling of grace. When present our norms, we emphasize that at the end of the day it’s about building deeper connections to humanity through love and grace on both sides. You have to be willing to assume that people are uninformed, and then you have to forgive yourself for that which you didn’t know. Sometimes people are not upset with other people but are projecting their upset with themselves about being uninformed. We call it ignorance, assuming that everybody should know whatever the issue is.

As a result, we don’t name that we live in a country where you can live, eat, sleep, and die in the same racial group. People don’t have a context for understanding difference. There are five big cities in this country that work with a huge swath of our racial diversity, but the rest of this country is more similar than it is different in terms of access to racial difference, and I don’t think people know that. We don’t teach that in education, so how would people know? Every time we do the DEEP norms, we ask the organization that we partner with to incorporate them among their key cultural norms so that the organization is living them in our absence.

JK: There’s so much in what you’re saying. I want to come back to love. One of my wife’s favorite quotations is Dostoevsky’s statement, “Beauty will save the world.” What she sees in that concept is that when people experience beauty, it takes them out of themselves and helps them see something more powerful, something humane; they see beauty in other people, and what they probably experience is love. It seems to me that’s how stories work. A story is not a confrontation. You’re not telling somebody, “You’re doing this but you should be doing this;” instead, you’re saying, for example, “Let me play this music for you and see how it affects you.” That is, your story honors the capacity of human beings to make their own sense of it. It’s kind of like Paula Ferrari’s idea of the power of dialogue.

DA: Exactly.

JK: The concept of love has been obsessing me this year; I seem to have run onto it with everything that I do. My definition of love keeps changing, yet I hold on to Dallas Willard’s definition: “Love is engaging the will for the good of another person.” I think it’s hard to engage in the kind of dialogue we need, and become aware of our assumptions, unless we do that. Freire says that “Love is a the condition of the dialogue,” and I think what he means is that we have to have the best interest of each other at heart in order for dialogue to take place, even if we don’t agree on certain issues. In short, we have to act in love, and not out of hatred, to move forward.

DA: Right.

JK: I can’t wait to hear what you will be talking about at the TLC conference.

DA: I’m doing adult development, which focuses around how to support adults with transforming how they interact with each other and themselves over time. A big piece of that starts with love. My definition of love is very similar to what you just described. Love for me is grace on both sides, and then pointing out that adults go through stages of development that inform how they perceive themselves in the world over time. Those ideas are based on Bob Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s Immunity to Change.

I’m an Immunity to Change (ITC) coach. During my educational leadership doctorate at Harvard, we were coached by an ITC coach, and afterwards, realizing that being able to help people name how they make meaning of the world is crucial, I became a coach myself. Eli Drago-Severson’s Subject Object Interview has been foundational to my practice. I will be talking about that at the conference and have participants create their own “Immunity to Change Maps.”

These maps have been very powerful. We build the capacity of our facilitators by allowing them to “hear” the map. We have developed a manual for facilitators on topics such as how do you take people through this? How do you use your stories? Where are the moments when you want to hold the room differently? What would it look like to hear an Immunity to Change Map happening in front of you? And how do you create an intervention to help people change on the spot?

The ITC map is all about designing tests to gauge whether one’s assumptions are absolutely true or not, so we model that live, but often the room doesn’t know that. For example, participants in the workshop know what the four columns are, What’s my goal? What am I doing or not doing? What am I more committed to?, and What are my big assumptions?, ao you often hear them say, “I really want to be equitable and I take the time to read books, I go to affinity groups, and I ask my friends of color what they are doing differently, but I haven’t talked to my family about this … you know, it is really hard to talk to them about it. I’m worried that they’re not going to love me anymore or that I’m going to mess up and say something that … that I won’t be able to explain myself … and that I’m smart enough to do it.” Those answers literally cover the first three columns!

You want to be equitable, you are reading books, but you don’t talk to your family about it, because you are more committed to being perceived as perfect than not. You’re more committed to the relationship than to the difficult conversation. So the underlying assumption is that the difficult conversation will lead to the end of the relationship.

When I hear that as a facilitator, I tell a story of what I did when I had to confront someone and was afraid, and the people in the room go, “Oh …” I didn’t teach them ITC, but the story helped them to see through the assumption, and then they go try it themselves.

JK: Did you work with Sara Lawrence Lightfoot?

DA: I didn’t; while I was a student she went on sabbatical, but in both my undergraduate and graduate work, we spent a lot of time studying her portraitures. So while I didn’t work with her directly, her portraitures were foundational in my thinking and the storytelling platform.

JK: Why do you think you’ve been successful? What’s the connection that you’re making?

DA: The connection that I am making is that our platform, even though it sounds simple, is really like sim-plexity. That is, on the participants’ side, it doesn’t feel overly academic. It’s about learning the things we need to learn, talking about how we feel about it, creating some conditions to really push each other with love, having norms, and then getting some structural updates so that you can try to implement it in your organization. On the DEEP side, it is Immunity to Change, along with adaptive leadership, adult development, culture, strategic change, double loop learning, critical race theory, and organizational change theory, so you have Bolman and Deal in there, Kegan, and ITC. And it is not that apparent that all of that stuff is informing the “simplest” experience.

JK: And, at the heart of everything you are talking about is humanity.

DA: Yes, and that is a real re-frame for people. One of the reasons I think so many people come to us is that our workshops encourage them to be present with an emotion, sitting in discomfort and learning what that feels like.

JK: Most of the people who will be coming to our conference are coaches or people who are engaged in coaching in some way. What can a coach learn from the work that you do?

DA: I think the skills that I bring to coaches involve thinking about how you support people in making connections to humanity, lifting them up, using storytelling, empathy, and perspective-building as a key way to transform people, as well as the conditions that are necessary structurally and culturally to achieve equity and what that looks like in practice.

JK: What’s the learning process you went through to get to where you were able to look at people who say things that are not good for people and talk to them about what’s great?

DA: The process was informed by storytelling. Listening to stories from my family growing up as well as having an opportunity to travel to places in this country that I had not experienced before and realizing that people could have completely different perspectives than mine. In addition, the greatest support during that transformation was having an ITC coach. I had never been able to name my assumptions, and once I realized that I too was biased, I felt a personal call to action, to better understand myself and why I believed what I believed. Those three things were happening simultaneously.

I have had many Immunity to Change Maps over the last few years; some of them were about empathy, others were about teaming – like how to be a better team player. As part of that process, I started asking myself which teams I didn’t want to be a part of and what assumptions I was making about those teams, and it really highlighted how much bias I had and that there was a way to name it without getting angry at myself. The process itself was naming and then being able to model those skills.

As a result, I am more “graceful” of different perspectives two years into this DEEP framework because I am often asked to go to communities where I may be the only black person in the entire town, where I am the only black person that some of the people have ever met. And it wasn’t until I heard people say, “I’ve never met one of you people before,” that I realized just how segregated this country is. That was my New York City bias. You know how you think you know, and then you are face-to-face with it, and then you are like “Huh-oh, I know nothing!?”

It brought me to my knees when I realized that there are people out there who think all black people are dangerous, violent, and aggressive, and then when I took an inquiry stance, where I wonder why people thought like that, people actually told me … and they were waiting to see my reaction on the other side of the tell, but because I had been doing all of that self-developmental work I didn’t get triggered. Instead, I asked more questions, and when people saw me asking more questions, they not only opened up, they started telling me!

So, that’s the process that has brought me to where I am today, and it’s a process that takes place on a daily basis.

JK: What’s a good metaphor for what coaches do?

DA: I don’t know if I have a metaphor, but there’s a quote that really resonates with me from James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” I think the role of the coach is supporting people in understanding that they are perfectly imperfect, that this is lifetime work, that there is no such thing as an expert, that we are always striving to know and understand people better, that there is power in knowing voice, and that sometimes we do not have the answer, but naming it and asking questions is as powerful as having solutions. So, the role of a coach is to support people to use their voices in new ways.

JK: Are there publications that you want people to know about or websites you want them to go to?

DA: Yes, our DEEP website, We would love for people to check out our White Paper on how our methodology is supporting not only school communities and shifting practices, but also larger communities. A lot of it will read like this conversation, but it includes more examples of stories, like case studies about a particular organization.

JK: Is there anything else you want to add to this conversation?

DA: Just that I am incredibly honored to be having this conversation. I have worked with a lot of your work for years, so it’s a very humbling and appreciative moment to be able to contribute to this community and be having this conversation with you.

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