DEI Consultant Welcomes Her Newest Challenge

Photo courtesy Stefani McCoy Stefani McCoy, who attended John Burroughs High School, returned to her hometown to lead the Burbank Unified School District’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative.

First published in the Dec. 11, 2021, print issue of the Burbank Leader.

When the Burbank school district’s Board of Education approved the hiring of Stefani McCoy as a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultant in October, it was well past 11 p.m.

“She’s still here. It is late. Welcome, welcome, welcome,” board member Emily Weisberg said prior to the approval of McCoy’s hire.

Many stakeholders may have missed McCoy’s brief introduction at the time, but she returned to the next meeting to update them on the district’s DEI initiative two weeks after that, and again on Nov. 4 and then on Nov. 17.

McCoy — who attended George Washington Elementary, Luther Burbank Middle School and John Burroughs High School — said she’s on a mission “to ensure that we have equity across the board and access to every student here.”

“This is the most exciting opportunity ever because now that I have an understanding of race, ethnicity, equity, inclusion, diversity, I can now go back to my alma mater and make some changes,” McCoy told the Leader in a phone interview.

The 33-year-old consultant hit the pavement running, reaching out to Burbank Unified School District students, parents and employees and diving into the district’s curriculum.

“I realized it’s the exact same curriculum I grew up on 20 years ago,” McCoy said. “We have a lot of queer students who don’t feel represented in how they’re learning. We have a lot of Black students who don’t feel represented, as well as a lot of Indian students and Armenian students who don’t see themselves in education. This is problematic.”

Photo courtesy Stefani McCoy

McCoy, who identifies as a queer Black woman, believes there is a need for cultural understanding in the classroom, a realization that came to her while going for a master’s degree at New York University.

Prior to dedicating her life to making a difference in education, McCoy had dropped out of high school and lived out of her car before finishing high school in Ontario. She graduated from DeVry University and began working in the corporate world.
“I realized I was part of this pyramid scheme of just making money,” McCoy said. “I knew I had a lot of skills; how can I use my skills to really help people in my same position? So, I ended up joining the United States Peace Corps.”

As an economic development consultant for the Peace Corps in Rundu, Namibia, a country located in southern Africa, McCoy helped at-risk youth facing HIV, AIDS, teen pregnancy and tribalism. She also trained individuals on how to manage money.

“It was a dream come true,” McCoy said. “It was really an insightful place to be in. Just for myself as a Black woman, going back to Africa and seeing where my roots are. It was a really good experience. I was very humbled, making the same amount of money as the people that lived there. I realized I didn’t need a lot of money to enjoy life.”

The memorable experience led her to NYU, where her journey as an educator began. McCoy worked with a nonprofit to develop human rights curriculum for public and private schools in New York City.

“We have such a hand in how we shape the students’ minds, so why don’t we use it to our advantage? And so, we developed a curriculum on human rights and human injustice around the world, on how to be an activist and how to have allyship,” McCoy said.

After living on the East Coast for two years, McCoy made her way back to Los Angeles in 2019 and worked on the Proposition 15 campaign, a proposition that would have provided additional funding to schools and local government services.
The citizen-initiated proposition failed by a small margin, but McCoy left the experience motivated.

“I think [Prop 15] really changed the minds of people and how they see education, how they see equal housing and equal opportunity,” she said. “That really gave me a push to begin working back in L.A. in a sense of how I can really structure my development to create structural change.”

The opportunity for many school districts across the nation to begin such a change came last year following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the widespread calls for police reform. McCoy was encouraged to see so many, including students, taking to the streets.

“When students do that, it speaks volumes and districts have no other choice but to raise their awareness and rise to the occasion,” McCoy said. “This is a civil rights movement, virtually and presently. This will be in the history books. DEI is civil rights.”

McCoy fielded various offers to help schools and institutions with their DEI efforts, but she elected her hometown of Burbank. However, it wasn’t for nostalgic reasons.

“Burbank is exactly the same — it’s predominantly white,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but I told myself, ‘We got a lot of work to do, Stef.’ It wasn’t something that was daunting. It was something that was very inspiring. I wanted to start something from the ground up. I wanted to take the most challenging position and I wanted to take the position that needs the most foundational work, and that’s Burbank.”

McCoy is already hard at work at creating a survey for all BUSD stakeholders to assess their needs. She then plans to look at the classroom environment in Burbank, to determine what possible development and materials teachers need to better educate students on topics such as slavery and racism. McCoy said it’s important that students feel safe enough to have difficult conversations and that teachers feel supported with materials to discuss them.

“I think the conversations are so hard to have because we don’t have a real structure to have them,” she said. “Curriculum really sets up the classroom to have these conversations. Let’s make sure that the way we’re approaching it has empathy and sensitivity. That really helps a classroom thrive.”

According to McCoy, one of the biggest misconceptions of DEI is that it is for Black students and that American history will be replaced with a Black narrative, which some parents fear.

“That’s not true,” she said. “This is for everyone. We’re not changing history; we’re being inclusive and true and debunking myths about the things that are taught.

“I think the fear comes from [the realization] that if their kids are now learning the true history and they go home, how are parents going to answer and address these questions? Yes, information is going to change, it’s going to be uncomfortable, but it’s what we need. You can’t be optional to the truth and the facts of history. It’s informative.”

Transparency and outreach will be key in alleviating the fear some parents may have, and McCoy is working with the district’s DEI committee — which includes parents, students, teachers, district staff and board members — to organize town halls where community members can voice their concerns and ask questions. She’s also extending her reach by working with city officials.
“This is citywide,” she said. “When I see myself at the district level working, I know that I’m really working for the city.”

All that and it’s only been two months since McCoy took the role as the Burbank school district’s DEI consultant.

“Ms. McCoy’s expertise has already been invaluable as we navigate challenging topics and conversations,” Superintendent Matt Hill said in an interview. “We look forward to her helping us assess our current situation and develop a long-term plan so that we can ensure all students and employees are heard, seen and thrive at BUSD.”

With full support from the district, McCoy is looking forward to taking the deep dive into Burbank’s situation but reminds everyone that this is not something that can be quickly resolved.

“DEI isn’t going to fix itself,” she said. “It’s going to be ever evolving because our culture, institutions and students are progressing and evolving by the second.”

It’s a challenge McCoy is certainly willing to take on this year.

“It feels good to know the support system is there,” McCoy said. “I know [the board] knows there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and they’re giving me the baton, asking me to show them the way.”