Dr. Michael Maclin: A Devoted DEIA Leader Transforming Lives with Equity, Truth & Grace

The 10 Most Successful D&I Leaders to Watch in 2023

“I didn’t choose this field. This field chose me,” declares Dr. Michael Maclin, Executive Director of DEIA of the Special School District of St. Louis County. “When you’re marginalized, don’t have a voice and choice, and are impacted by systemic issues and barriers, you don’t have a choice but to delve into this work.”

Dr. Maclin shares a poignant and traumatic experience he had at the age of 16 to clarify how he became a Diversity Thought Leader. He had just gotten his driver’s license and was very proud. His brilliant father was trusting him to go and buy a belt, something he’d never done before.

“He truly instilled in my brother and me what trust means. He’d always say you can build a reputation for 30 years and tear it down in 10 seconds. So, I was excited and when I walked into the store, I saw an older Caucasian lady in her 80s who was stealing. As a 16-year-old, I didn’t understand what was happening and it wasn’t bothering me,” he recalls.

So, he bought his belt, checked out, got the bag, and as he was walking out, the lady he saw earlier was leaving at the same time and the alarm went off. “Because I was raised to do whats’ right and to have integrity and dignity, I stopped. I’d done nothing wrong, so in my mind, I thought they were going to get her because I saw her stealing,” he says.

However, the Caucasian male manager came up to him and said, “Come to the back. If your black ass is stealing, you’re going to jail.” Shaking and unsure of what to do, he went to the back where another undercover off-duty security guard stood. The manager took the bag, saw the belt and the receipts, and realized they’d made a mistake. He threw the bag back and told him he could leave.

“When I walked out of that store, I cried all the way,” Dr. Maclin recalls. “More importantly, I understand why a female, a victim who experienced some kind of assault will never take the stand against the aggressor. Because at that moment, I felt marginalized and demoralized and didn’t have a voice.”

The most powerful part of this story is the fact that he never told his father about the incident because he felt like he’d done something wrong and did not want his father to lose trust in him. “25 years later that still sticks with me. So, the reason I do this work is that it chose me,” Dr. Maclin remarks.

The Challenge of Fostering True Inclusion

Dr. Maclin notes that the term ‘Inclusion’ is misrepresented, because it’s based on the creation of a policy, procedure, classroom norm, or system that asks the individuals their views as an afterthought, and includes students in systems that are broken and that, by design, don’t foster voice and choice.

“How can you foster true inclusion when they’re not ingrained in the fabric of the decision-making process?” he asks. Dr. Maclin also shares some disturbing statistics:

  • 14% of students did not graduate with their cohort in 2018-2019 (COE – Public High School Graduation Rates, n.d.).
  • 8 million LGBTQ+ youth seriously consider suicide yearly in the U.S., with at least one attempting it every 45 seconds (The Trevor Project, 2021).
  • Over 20% of students aged 12 to 18 report bullying yearly (NCES, 2019).

“Our organizational systems are missing an essential process in DEIA. They do not have Granitification™ – the process of creating a composite group of synergistic people in which individuals retain their identities,” Dr. Maclin maintains. “Systems with Granitification™ can incorporate new elements into their fundamental structures, allowing individuals to stay true to their characteristics while becoming an integral part of the new whole with its characteristics.”

Granitification™: A Big Perspective Changing Idea

Granitification™ – a term coined by Dr. Maclin – has taken the country by storm. He came up with this Big Perspective Changing Idea/Concept based on the perception that granite is a tough, igneous rock resistant to staining and etching, and it won’t scorch if you place a hot pan on it, and went on to share it in a TEDx Talk.

“Speaking on the #TEDxJesterCirEd stage was a dream come true, and I feel incredibly grateful for the chance to share my ideas with such an engaged and inspiring audience. From the moment I stepped on stage, I felt a rush of energy and excitement. The atmosphere was electric, and I was honored to be a part of such a dynamic and thought-provoking event. The audience was incredibly attentive and engaged, and it was truly humbling to see how my ideas resonated with so many people,” Dr. Maclin recalls.

What made the experience even more special were the kind words of the organizer, Dr. April Michaud-Willis, who applauded Dr. Maclin for being “an engaging speaker who explores the intersection of societal norms and individual identity.” She stated that his exploration of how systems impact people, specifically students in a K-12 environment, can empower educators to transform their classroom culture, and appreciated his energy, his data-driven points, and his solutions-oriented approach.

Conformism Is the Antithesis of GranitificationÔ

Granitification requires a system to flex to incorporate these new elements without destroying them. However, the current education system does not have this flux, expecting all students to be able to conform or fit into another student’s ‘school world’ without anything else changing.

“The current educational system assumes one student can leave and another student can enter, and little needs to change. There’s no accommodation for the new person coming in. This is because we’ve created policies and procedures that benefit certain individuals, and when we ask other individuals if they’d like to be included, we’re not truly including them in the process. We don’t have the process of creating composite systems and synergizing people within those systems in a way that allows them to retain their own identities and succeed,” he observes.

One reason why Dr. Maclin is an avid sports fan is that the locker room is one space that fosters true GranitificationÔ because it takes individuals who have different needs or disabilities on a sports field and helps them succeed.

Success Is About Connection That Drives Movement Vs. Moving

Dr. Maclin believes that success is about connection – a connection that drives movement vs. moving – a clear distinct difference. As an example, if you’re running in place or doing jumping jacks, you’ve moved, but are not moving.

The Elevating Equity Report revealed that roughly 80 percent of companies or organizations are just going through the motions of DEIA work and are not holding themselves accountable because they have movement and are not moving in this work.

“When we talk about movement versus moving, and about success and connection, we must truly understand that access is important. But DEIA does not permeate the organization because it’s often relegated to the margins or siloed into some far-off corner of the HR function. That’s why success remains elusive,” he explains.

Since mid-2020, awareness has grown that DEIA must be integrated into every aspect of a business. Organizations have introduced DEIA-specific roles, often with Executive and Director titles. Still, there remains a disconnect between filling these roles and giving Chief Diversity Officers real power to effect change.

“While having a Head of DEIA looks good on paper and is undoubtedly a step in the right direction if that person doesn’t have buy-in from leaders across departments, they’re not empowered to fulfill their mandate,” Dr. Maclin observes.

Challenging the Status Quo Is Never Easy

Dr. Maclin notes that the U.S. has systemically benefited certain individuals and those in the dominant group, and to know who that group is, just ask the question, ‘Cui bono?’ – a Latin phrase meaning ‘Who benefits?’

“There’s a high probability that those responsible for a particular situation or event are the ones who stand to gain from it and who have voice and choice. The ones who aren’t benefiting are the ones who need to be benefiting. If you’re not in that group when decisions are made and laws and policy procedures are put into place, it does not benefit you,” he clarifies.

As an example, the United States is one of 41 Nations that does not have paid maternity leave for new parents, because it doesn’t benefit the dominant group. While the share of moms working full or part-time in the United States has increased from 51 to 72 percent, almost half of the two-parent families include two full-time working parents with fathers taking on more childcare responsibilities.

Paid maternity leave lowers infant mortality, and it improves maternal and infant health, including psychological and physical well-being. Women who receive paid leave have a lower chance of reporting intimate partner violence. Increases in paid parental and/or maternity leave decrease rates of infant mortality.

However, the U.S. remains the only country among 41 nations that does not mandate paid leave for new parents. “Those are places we look to eliminate systemic barriers so we can have an impact for all,” Dr. Maclin maintains.

He also notes that, although women are the backbone of America’s public schools, and hold more than 75 percent of all teaching jobs and most school-level administration positions, nearly 80 percent of the district’s top jobs are held by men. So, all districts must have diversity acceleration policies in place.

Another challenge is that while companies are re-evaluating DEIA efforts, people with disabilities are often left out of this conversation and likely missing from these strategies, even though one in four adults in the U.S. has a disability.

“There are disabled individuals in most organizations, but talking openly about disability is still taboo. Disabled people are talented, innovative, adaptable, and resourceful — their limitations often require this. Recognizing the disabilities that employees have and understanding why it’s essential to include them in DEIA is important to this work,” insists Dr. Maclin.

Expanding Access to More Students Creates More Opportunities.

Dr. Maclin shares that in 2019, well over 60 percent of students in all demographic groups, except Native American students, took a Dual Credit, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate (IB), or Cambridge International course. For Native Americans, that number was 59.5 percent.

According to a 2018 report by the advocacy group, Stand for Children, since 2013, when school systems were encouraged to consider voluntary policies, 50 out of 294 districts made participation in college-level classes the default for qualifying students.

In the last decade, the number of U.S. public high school graduates who have taken an AP Exam increased by 65 percent, and research shows students who take AP courses and exams are more likely than their peers to attend college and graduate on time. So, expanding access to more students creates more opportunities.

Organizations Must Resist the Urge to Move Too Quickly

Dr. Maclin shares a quote from Arthur Woods, author of Hiring for Diversity, in the Harvard Business Review, that said: “The greatest challenge leaders face right now is resisting the urge to move quickly and hire impulsively. Rushed recruiting efforts usually cause us to revert to our most familiar ways of hiring. We abandon structure and make short-sighted gut decisions, both of which are the perfect recipe for hiring bias.”

Dr. Maclin notes that if you have not built an organization that fosters GranitificationÔ, your employees are not going to have a sense of belonging or feel included and are going to leave. So, taking the time to slow down and making conscious decisions for the long run is foundational to the success of organizations.

“Organizations need to understand that this work takes time. We don’t expect a toddler to take their first step and walk on a Wednesday and run on a Thursday,” he remarks. “Resisting the urge to move too quickly if it is harming the individual, is a delicate balance. Even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: I fear that I’m leading my people into a burning house. When you’re walking step-in-step, you’re going to move a little bit slower.”

Working to Eliminate Systemic Barriers to Equity

The Special School District (SSD) of St. Louis County was established in 1957 and is the largest specialized education provider and the 10th largest employer in the St. Louis area. It equips and empowers students of all learning abilities to excel to their greatest potential through an inclusive, collaborative approach supported by comprehensive resources and deep expertise centered on each student’s unique needs.

Dr. Maclin is the first African American male hired in an administrative role in the central office in the history of SSD, and he’s proud of this accomplishment. However, being the first in anything means numerous institutional biases must be overcome. In addition, he notes that “too much who is given, much is required.”

Dr. Maclin feels honored to serve the students and staff of the Special School District every single day and believes that he has been able to help eliminate systemic barriers as it relates to students and staff. However, he admits that this work can also be exhausting.

“I can count on one hand how many times I left before seven pm in three years. I’ve concluded that, in my lifetime, there are outcomes I may never see. The first challenge is knowing where to begin — or begin again. We’re slowly but surely permeating the culture and seeing the impact,” he states.

An Innovative, World-Class, Systemic Approach to DEIA Issues

Under Dr. Maclin’s leadership, SSD has developed and implemented an innovative, world-class, systemic approach to addressing student and staff DEIA issues, and prioritized equity, which the Board of Education selected as one of the district’s four Comprehensive School Improvement Plan goals for 2020-2025.

These goals are focused on optimizing educational opportunity and access for the district’s 24,000 students with disabilities by providing procedures and processes to raise awareness of DEIA topics and extend professional learning for its 6,000 staff members and 22 partner school districts in St. Louis County.

Dr. Maclin has focused on providing a professional learning series for staff members, partner school districts, and SSD schools, that provides a level of self-reflection and introspection, because “understanding as individuals, where we can look in the mirror and challenge ourselves and our thoughts is key.”

This multi-year plan used a systemic approach to make fundamental, sustainable changes to culture and daily practices. It intersects with the district’s leadership, infrastructure, professional learning, and evaluation to evolve the system into a fairer place of education and work where all can realize their potential.

Allocation of funds and resources was critical, so funds were increased for equity-related staffing, providing personnel to implement and maintain infrastructure changes. In the first year, SSD hired an Equity Director and two years later, it prioritized funds to support expansion.

Dr. Maclin interviewed and was selected to become the Executive Director of DEIA. “Leadership is a delicate balance of allyship, coaching, and mentoring. The three individuals in the department are very talented in their own right and strive for excellence,” he declares.

A Director of Equity – Human Resources and a Director of Equity – Teaching and Learning were added to support hiring, recruiting, and retaining diverse staff, implement diversity in staffing, and professional learning in equity. The equity plans address other elements of infrastructure.

  • All board policies were reviewed for equity, and the Executive Director of DEIA became a member of the committee to review any future new or amended policies.
  • An equity stakeholders committee oversees the process for continual improvement.
  • Procedures for the stakeholder group include ways to access and incorporate voices from the community throughout the year.
  • A professional learning strand was added with annual expectations for all staff.
  • Diversity was intentionally increased in the central office and the superintendent’s cabinet to expand the perspectives of those guiding the district.

Developing A Framework on Leading for Equity

For equity to permeate the culture and truly impact the school system and student outcomes, it must have a shared vision, mission, and action at multiple organizational levels, total organization, subgroups, and individuals.

Dr. Maclin found that a significant component of the success of the equity innovation mandated professional learning for each staff member in the school district.

This began without developing a framework that included a definition of equity and eight guiding principles, with supporting questions to operationalize the concept in practice. 23 collective action plans with timelines and metrics were developed to accompany the guiding principles, and a robust 5-year learning plan was created.

Dr. Elizabeth Keenan joined the District as SSD superintendent in July 2019. Dr. Maclin says, “She is a fearless leader. She’s never shaken nor raveled.” “There are times when I watch her leadership and I’m truly in awe. There are very contentious times when hard decisions have to be made and she never loses her composure.” Dr. Maclin remarks.

Designing Professional Learning Opportunities for Each Staff Member

The first year of this program focused on a core group of staff that provided leadership in equity study and planning. During the second year, every staff member participated in a 90-minute professional learning experience on the frameworks customized for their job or department. These sessions provided a common language and understanding that emphasized the integration of DEIA into daily practices. District Leadership attended an additional learning series on leading for equity.

For three through five years, the district created blended (virtual and in-person) learning sessions for its 6,000+ staff. Learning sessions were developed around andragogical learning principles by customizing presentations to connect with daily work and offering a menu of professional learning sessions that staff could choose from based on their interests.

SSD identified between nine and sixteen DEIA topics for staff to study each year. Although participants selected specific topics, each year’s sessions were broadly focused on the yearly DEIA theme. Offerings during year three focused on diversity and culture; year four focused on bias, and the fifth-year topics centered around integration into practice. All sessions end with participants reflecting on how the learning connects with their daily work.

This learning process modeled how to differentiate content (frameworks revamped by department), student voice (self-selection of learning sessions), and equitable learning environments (for example, one goal — year three diversity and culture; multiple paths to the learning content — multiple learning topics.)

While the five-year learning plan was one avenue for providing professional learning, the leadership series and equity teams provided additional customized professional learning opportunities.

“I work with the district leadership team. Each one is very talented and has amazing skills, but we challenge each other and delve into hard conversations and hard topics to move the work forward. I have a lot of respect for their skill sets, talents, and perspective,” says Dr. Maclin.

Changing Lives with Truth, Grace, and Equity

Dr. Maclin is considered one of the region’s most efficient and effective DEIA specialists. His expertise includes conceptualizing workplace diversity programs and seeing their proper implementations to ensure a smooth functioning system, and his ability to strategize and execute programs to create an environment of cultural diversity in the workplace has earned him numerous awards.

Dr. Maclin has consulted with organizations that collaborate with school districts from coast-to-coast, for example, the Los Angeles Unified School District, a massive system of half a billion students and the second largest in the nation enrolls more than 565,000 students. The School District of Philadelphia supports the limitless potential of more than 203,000 young scholars.

Before joining SSD, Dr. Maclin was honored with several well-deserved awards, some local, regional, and even national awards, such as the New Principal of the Year Award and Educator of the Year Award. His accomplishments include earning many certifications, e.g., the Racial Equity Facilitator from Harvard University, and the Yale School of Management Certificate for Fostering Inclusion and Diversity.

However, he insists that his greatest achievement was not about him. “When I was a high school principal, I was often asked to rank the graduating class and I never could, because I would say I won’t know for ten years until I see if humanism is at the forefront of their lives,” he remarks.

While Dr. Maclin has been honored to receive numerous awards, he reserves his most honorable recognition for a homeless, broken, angry, young African American student named Darrion Cockerell (D.C.), who was born to a drug-addicted teenage mother and a father who was murdered when D.C. was four.

The 14-year-old had been in and out of the foster care system and experienced rejection and painful trauma. When Dr. Maclin met him, the only thing he had to offer was love. He became D.C.’s mentor, and 20 years later, was invited to the Parkway Alumni Hall of Fame where D.C. became the first African American male in Missouri to become Educator of The Year.

Dr. Maclin believes that the foundation for every direction, instruction, or conversation he had with this young man was guided by truth and grace. “When I see a young man, who was given nothing, stand tall and proud because I once was his teacher, and he continued that legacy to help those who are marginalized feel valued, it supports the claim that it’s the simplest form of equity, truth, and grace. So that’s my proudest recognition,” he declares.

Equity is Truth & Grace and a Link to Love

In his passion for DEIA work, Dr. Maclin notes that trying to define Equity has caused complications, and many school districts and organizations are at a convoluted or cemented stage or, even worse, have yet to start. He credits the help of other individuals for his accomplishments and invites those in need of help to reach out to him, as they don’t have to do this work by themselves.

“Equity is Truth and Grace; it is that simple. Truth is the realization that it is not how a person sees themselves, but how they think you see them, not through the lens of Sexism, Ableism, Racism, or Ageism, but through the lens of Humanism and Kindness, treating them the way you want to be treated. Grace understands that we’re all on our journey called life, and no one has arrived,” he says.

He also believes that it supports the data that EQUITY in the simplistic form, titled Truth and Grace, is linked to short-term and long-term improvements on multiple measures: higher student academic engagement, better attendance, better grades, fewer disruptive behaviors and suspensions, and lower school dropout rates.

“But most of all it’s a link to love,” Dr. Maclin reflects. “Regardless of a student’s individual, family, and school background, these effects hold. After many honors and awards in my career, one day I will say I’ve fought the good fight and finished the race and kept my faith. Truth and Grace never fail,” Dr. Maclin concludes.

“Remember this: Everyone is gifted but some people never open their package.”
Dr. Michael Maclin