The 10 Equity Commandments: Creating Learning Spaces that Serve the Needs of Every Learner

Voices from the Field | Insights   03 February 2021
By Michael Lipset, High School for Recording Arts, and Tony Simmons, High School for Recording Arts


If we’re going to do the work of meaningfully engaging our learners, we must be committed to the creative disruption of the conventional educational system.

Michael Lipset and Tony Simmons
Leaders, High School for Recording Arts

During part two of the three-part Designing Equitable Learning series co-hosted by Fielding International and High School for Recording Arts (with support from The Bush Foundation), Tony Simmons and Michael Lipset (of HSRA) dove into the 10 Equity Commandments that guide their work. Below, their presentation has been adapted into an article for our readers. You can watch their recorded presentation here.

In the 70’s, out of the perpetual social and economic hardship that plagued urban communities of color, the incredible culture of hip hop was born. That medium empowered many young people who were often left in society’s shadows with a platform to create and speak powerfully about their circumstances.

Through hip hop, they were able to show their musical talent, lyrical brilliance, and spirit of hustle. Yet, despite that new outlet to showcase their abilities, we’re still fighting the same battles inside unimaginative and inequitable schools—battles that remain much the same today.

These battles need not continue. The High School for Recording Arts was founded in the mid 90’s and instinctively chose to create a learning community that nurtured the purest essence of hip hop.

At its heart, hip hop is a vehicle that engages Black, Brown, and Indigenous young people in deep conversations that speak to their unique lived experiences. Too often, young people of color from low-income backgrounds are misunderstood, marginalized, deprived of opportunity, traumatized by the racist attitudes and policies that impact their environment, and systematically kicked or pushed out of school. 

That reality is what drives our work and brings us to what we call our 10 Equity Commandments—inspired by rap legend Christopher Wallace (aka, Notorious B.I.G.) whose lyrics gave voice to urban youth that the system had shunned and left to the lure of street culture. These commandments guide everything we do at High School for Recording Arts and now we offer them to you. 

Through this lens, we purposely challenge educators to imagine not just how many Amanda Gormans we overlook within our education system, but how many Christopher Wallaces we discard as well. We hope that our 10 Equity Commandments will consciously push others’ ability to meet all young people at the outer margins of equity—equipping them to see the beauty in giving young people a space to discover their genius and fulfill their unique potential.


When a student is brilliant on the street corner, but falling asleep in class, something is wrong with the schooling system.

Christopher Emdin
Associate Professor at Columbia University

1. Issue No Commandments

While our commandments are foundational to how we show up for our young people, we also acknowledge that doing the radical work of designing liberatory and equitable learning spaces necessitates breaking down binary ways of thinking and being.

In that vein, we want to honor the depth of nuance necessary to do liberatory work. So, while we’re offering these 10 commandments, we also recognize that no such list is capable of truly capturing the breadth of work and understanding necessary to provide equitable education services. Even this list should be questioned. 

What this work requires, at its core, is learning that is personalized and guided by supportive educators enabling each learner to create an educational journey that is unique to them, responds to their unique interests and aspirations, and meets their unique needs.

2. Who Impacts What & How

We’ve learned that both the “who” of the student and the “who” of educators, school leaders, superintendents, and others impact what and how young people learn.

In every context, you have to find the most logical and socially just role to play. It may be that you are best suited to work in a classroom, a recording studio directly with students, or in a more supportive or administrative role. 

Deciding how to use your privilege, skillset, or creativity to help others is a question you must answer yourself. And, if you specifically hold white and/or cisgender male privilege, whatever you do, commit to doing the constant work of unlearning your settler-colonial past, internalized forms of marginalization and oppression, and operate in a way that centers social justice and equity.

3. Accept You Were Not in the Plan

When young people first arrive at our high school and share their stories of disconnection, that presents a powerful opening for the establishment of trusting relationships. And, any adult from a similar background knows what these learners are experiencing and essentially saying is true (because we have lived it)—that the conventional education system wasn’t designed for them.

Sitting in that space of belief, we realize that if we’re going to do the work of meaningfully engaging our learners, we must be committed to the creative disruption of the conventional educational system. This creative disruption is the means towards the liberation and learning of our students. We have to feel that degree of urgency in our bones and use that feeling as a driving force for change.

4. Find Your Truth, Never Stop Exploring It

Once we commit to creative disruption and create a space where young people feel safe and heard, we must each commit to empowering ourselves. This means you must find your own truth—where you came from, your family stories, and lessons from your ancestors that can provide you the strength, confidence, and pathway to make true and authentic what it is you seek to accomplish.

It’s important to also engage in self-exploration to identify how your own lived-experience contributes to any implicit biases you may have, even if you share the same racial identity as your students or colleagues. Acknowledging that you are as much on a learning journey as your students allows you to build a more human connection with those young people, irrespective of racial or cultural differences.

5. We Are Problematic, This is Our Gift

In this nation, nearly everything we do is laced with a colonial lens because most of us originate from different countries. In that vein, we need to acknowledge we are on stolen land—land stolen from Indigenous and Latinx communities. And, whether we’re White, Black, Brown, able-bodied, cis-gender, neuro-typical, first language speakers, or otherwise, we each have unique components to our identity (at varying degrees) that cause harm to others.

However, falling into the trap of “Oppression Olympics”—arguing over who is doing/receiving the most harm—gets messy. Our charge is to discover how we can each contribute to creating a more equitable and inclusive world. We must each do our own work and contribute to a collective liberation. 

6. Co-Design Space for Truth and Freedom, Accept All then Believe What You See

Designing learning spaces with the intent to disrupt oppressive systems so that we may liberate our students should be our mission. This means, in the end, that young people are able to show up fully as their authentic selves, even when that showing up is displacing or uncomfortable for others.

Our aim at High School for Recording Arts is to create space and opportunity for our young people to practice and experience the act of being free. This is counter to the prevailing attitude towards Black, Brown, and Indigenous young people where, too often, the approach is to control their bodies and limit their voices.

7. The Work is Never Finished and Spans Space and Time

Alim and Paris practitioners and developers of culturally-sustaining/revitalizing pedagogy, point out the necessity for educators to not just sustain but also revitalize those elements of students’ cultures that have resisted marginalization over time.

We must ask ourselves: Does the legacy of your ancestors hold secrets for how we might resist marginalizing and subjugating your students’ cultures in the classroom or in the school house?

What elements of our students’ culture should they be learning in order to better understand how to resist the ever-present pressures of oppression and marginalization? And, what will make visible the systemic function of white supremacy and, in particular, how it impacts people based on race, gender, and socioeconomic status?

Learning about their own culture does not reduce our students’ challenges to race, but serves to complicate them in an intersectional feminist (pioneered by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw) way.

This work is never finished. If we as practitioners stop reflecting critically on ourselves, we will inevitably continue to support oppressive systems. 

As soon as our students start to learn about who they are, what beauty their pasts hold, and how these histories inform their current identities and realities, they begin seeing themselves in the classroom, in their learning, and in the adults guiding them. 

 8. Dynamics Always Shift, We Must Always Learn

The reality is that oppression and marginalization are the status quo in conventional school systems. We have to maintain hope that our work is actively resisting this, and working to create the opposite outcomes. 

The dynamic, nuanced, non-binary lens required to actively deconstruct our world as educators and our students’ world as learners requires a keen attention to the subtle ways our world continues to ebb, flow, and change. Truthfully, the ideas we have today may not be relevant tomorrow. And, certainly, the world we’re responding to today will be different from the world of tomorrow. 

When High School for Recording Arts opened 20+ years ago, we were only one of a handful of schools advancing such components as the competency-based curriculum, personalized learning plans, advisory model, project-based and internship-based learning, and 21st-century skills training programs.

And, now that more people are waking up to the transformative power of implementing these practices, we are keenly focused on our own reinvention, to ensure we’re matching the needs of the world around us. 

9. Don’t Sleep on Nothin’

As we’re disrupting, creating, and providing liberatory space for our young people, especially for those who are at the furthest margins of equity, there are so many things that can pull us back to an oppressive default position. 

This means when you’re leading a movement towards creating liberatory learning spaces, you must be focused on and committed to comprehensive school change. You have to pay attention to literally everything because, remember, the system was not designed for disruption, and there are traps everywhere.

We must go beyond teaching. We must be attentive to the budget, facilities, governance, hiring, and community-building that gives the community a voice and a place in the work that we’re doing. This all must be aligned to ensure that the new spaces we are creating will survive and thrive. We have to be hyper-vigilant, every day, to detect anything that might disrupt the work we’re doing to empower our young people.

10. Love the Journey

In any conversation about equity, social justice, and racial justice, love has to be the last word. You have to love the journey. You have to understand (and embrace) that this work is hard, that there will be sleepless nights, and that you’ll be tested—over and over, and unexpectedly—with many frustrating and disappointing moments.

To build the space and capacity to love the journey, you must open yourself up to hearing the stories of your young people and understand that they each deserve your engaged listening and respect, irrespective of their background or lived experience.

And, if they come with a story that breaks your heart and makes you feel like you no longer love the work, then you shouldn’t be doing this work. Only love allows one to go to the deeper level required to do socially just, equitable work. We have to love our young people, each other, and the process, for there is true beauty in the struggle.

Recording artist Michael Kiwanuka beautifully captures this sentiment in his Grammy-nominated album, Kiwanuka, and a song from it called You Ain’t The Problem:

Love makes you blind
I hope to find
Who I believe in
Get back in line

I can’t deny myself
Show me the feeling
Oh, you got me wrong
If you don’t belong

Live in the trouble
Don’t hesitate
Time heals the pain
You ain’t the problem (I know)

Educators: Our students are not the problem. And, you are not the problem if you choose to live in the trouble, love the work, and create the schools and learning spaces that serve the needs of each young person. 

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