Emancipatory Leadership and Improving Equity in Education

Dear GlobalEd Readers,

It is a true pleasure to introduce you to Dr. Fabiola Bagula who is the Senior Director of the Equity Department at San Diego County’s Office of Education. In this role she builds the capacity of educational leaders and policymakers to improve equity consciousness and cultivate inclusive learning environments. She has served as a teacher, teacher coach, principal, principal coach and assistant superintendent. In each of these roles she has focused her attention on transforming systems into places of opportunity and high-quality learning. Dr. Bagula was honored as the 2013 Cesar Chavez Visionary leader and continues to be active in the Latinx community. Recently, she wrote a chapter in Latinas Leading Schools, “Belong and Being Enough,” which we featured in a previous blog post

Enjoy reading!


Throughout my experiences in school leadership positions, from principal to assistant supervisor, I have worked to create conditions to improve learning outcomes for students, specifically those who have been historically marginalized. My entire career, I have worked in City Heights or Shelltown, both San Diego communities of color. Every day, I see promise and potential as well as the differences in the ways that these children and families experience school systems and other community resources. I see myself in the student experience through my identity as a first generation, daughter of an immigrant, single mother. I am grateful to the many educators who advocated for the opportunities I received and this serves as my why behind the work I do — I want to continue to pay it forward, remembering what others did for me. 

When I began leading equity work, I focused on the words of Margaret Wheatley in “From hero to host.” This article directly connects to the stance you must take when leading others towards education emancipation, considering: How might we “hold space” for the collective to take responsibility and ownership and not play educational heroes? I enter equity work with these questions in mind and through the guiding principles of community, unity, and engagement. 

My personal background, my professional background, and the training I have received (including being a National Equity Project fellow) have allowed me to explore and learn about equity. Currently, I am the Senior Director of the Equity department at San Diego County Office of Education. This department serves 42 school districts across the county and we also serve as the Geographic Lead for Equity for the state of California. In practice, this means that we actively (and proactively) engage with educators, from superintendents, to district leaders, teachers, counselors, and classified staff, to understand each person’s role and impact within school systems and then coach them on how to change conditions to improve outcomes for all students. We believe this is done from the inside out. As such, we spend time leading learning sessions and providing coaching in between sessions. We also offer many free workshops and events for interested educators. 

For example, one of the ways we engage in learning about Implicit Bias is through the use of the Implicit Bias Codex. This “cheat sheet” provides information about various neurological research studies and how our brain makes these shortcuts. As we work through innocuous examples (like the Ikea effect, a bias where we prefer things we have built) we move closer and closer to the behaviors that have a large impact on education, such as in group bias and confirmation bias. While learning about these biases, we discuss personal examples and consider how these might show up within our classrooms. During these discussions, we have witnessed honest and raw dialogue about how our implicit bias might make us behave in ways that are counter to our belief systems. I have had educators share that once they became aware of some of their implicit biases, they were able to change their behavior when such biases appeared. This is especially prevalent when educators connect with families that look different from their own.

Source: https://www.teachthought.com/critical-thinking/the-cognitive-bias-codex-a-visual-of-180-cognitive-biases/

We use multimedia during our learning and coaching sessions as well. One of our favorite videos to show is the six photographers one man video, which provides an example of how we project our mindset on others. After showing this video, we have participants make connections to their classrooms and school systems, considering: How do our mindsets about certain student populations get shaped? How are we contributing to the narrative about the capacity of students?

I also lead individual learning and coaching sessions for many school leaders (superintendents, deputy superintendents, and principals) in the county and across the state. In this role, I ask difficult, yet necessary, reflective questions about our own roles and responsibilities. For example, we ask leaders to reflect on “What scares us about leading for equity?” Some common responses include being afraid of causing further divides, of not having clear answers or solutions, or of having their own biases show up when they least expect it. I strive to create safe and necessary spaces for this level of honest discourse as when we can identify our fears, we can work on proactive strategies to counteract them and change belief systems. 

Across my professional work and conversations, I often focus on the principles of emancipatory leadership: deep listening with communities, sharing power, and co-construction of guiding documents, future plans and implementation support. This approach is grounded in adaptive leadership, pedagogy of the oppressed, and relational leadership. 

Emancipatory leadership focused on three central questions: What needs to be emancipated in education to ensure greater equity? How do we “become the light” of equity as love in action? Where are there opportunities to advance education equity? In practice, emancipatory education seeks to eradicate oppression, stand in opposition to oppression, promote inquiry into difference, deconstruct known (status quo) narratives, uncover/dismantle myths of dominance, champion justice and equity, empower personas of concern, and seek transformation of individuals and systems. 

Figure 1. Characteristics of Emancipatory Leadership

Figure 2. Pathways to emancipatory leadership

In particular, there are two quotes that I heavily lean on when I think about Emancipatory Leadership. One is “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power” (Ayanna Pressley) and the other is “People can solve their own problems given the right conditions” (Julian Weissglass). Emancipatory leaders help to create and host these “right conditions,” understanding that schools belong to the community they serve, asking themselves: How are we listening to our students and families? Do we share power with them? This is the crux of emancipatory leadership — leading a system towards empowering a community to take care of each other. There are many traditional school practices that require emancipation.

At San Diego county, we are trying to model this approach. We have spent the last year and half holding community world cafe’s with Black, Latinx, and American Indian communities. This methodology creates a space for small group dialogue and offers a tangible task for strangers to collaborate on. We ask reflective questions such as “what is your highest aspiration for your students” to help participants connect this work to their belief systems. We have found that this helps to capture raw data, connect people, and create a space to have real conversation. 

Community cafe participants engaged in deep dialogue about how school systems can best support children. Through discussions, educators gave poignant feedback and testimony, which we compiled into a recently published document based on their recommended strategies and suggestions. This information aligned with best practices and researched strategies, while still honoring the “other ways of knowing.” Moving forward, we are creating a website for support and professional learning series that will help implement these strategies and continue to move towards emancipatory education. 

To learn more about Dr. Bagula’s work at the San Diego County Office of Education and her research, please visit https://www.sdcoe.net/lls/equity/Pages/default.aspx

Follow on: @FabiBagulaPhD Twitter


Friere, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed.

Hooks, B. (1994). Love as the practice of freedom. Outlaw culture, 243-250.

Larson, C. L., & Ovando, C. J. (2001). The color of bureaucracy: The politics of equity in multicultural school communities. Taylor and Francis Group, 7625 Empire Dr., Florence, KY 41042.

Simmons, J. M. (2015). A Theory of Emancipatory Leadership. Handbook of Urban Educational Leadership, 398.

Sorenson, G., Goethals, G. & Haber, P. (2011) The elusive search for a general theory of leadership. Handbook of Leadership. Sage Publications.

Weissglass, J. (1990, December). Constructivist listening for empowerment and change. In The Educational Forum (Vol. 54, No. 4, pp. 351-370). Taylor & Francis Group.

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