Preparing Leaders for Justice and Imagination



Soraya Sablo Sutton, UC Berkeley School of Education and Woo Williams Zou, UC Berkeley School of Education and National Equity Project

Note: This blog is an extension of the Episode 9 Cultivating Imagination podcast.

“I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.” – adrienne maree brown

It is a challenging time to be an educator.  Almost five years after the onset of the global pandemic and racial reckoning that rocked our society to its core, schools are grappling with the current context that makes justice-oriented leadership imperative and difficult to enact: staffing shortages at the teacher and leader levels, school shootings, book bans and anti-CRT rhetoric which attempts to limit critical discourse, as well as direct attacks on the rights of LGBTQI students.  The growing political and social polarization that is playing out in school board meetings and classrooms across our country has left educators struggling to lead and sustain inside of this new reality. 

Tapping into our imaginations is the first step in locating our agency to break free of versions of reality that do not serve our school communities and begin to reconceptualize public education.  

While the current context may paint a bleak picture, there is hope. Our reality is malleable; we have the power to shape it.  We have the power to envision new ways of preparing aspiring leaders to transform schools. Tapping into our imaginations is the first step in locating our agency to break free of versions of reality that do not serve our school communities and begin to reconceptualize public education.  

The promise of leader preparation

Unless we disrupt long-standing beliefs and practices that lead to unjust outcomes, organizational systems will replicate themselves and reproduce oppression. Leader preparation can play a critical role in supporting aspiring leaders to develop capacities and dispositions that center equity and justice, take into account the importance of critical discourse and reflection, and that center humanizing pedagogy and relationships as essential components of leadership practice.  The challenge is that leaders must be able to imagine realities that do not yet exist and lead with an arrogant humility rooted in the conviction that these dreams for equitable schools are possible. How do we prepare aspiring administrators to lead in this way? 

UC Berkeley’s Principal Leadership Institute (PLI) holds a vision that social justice is possible for vulnerable and underserved students in all school settings, and in order for this vision to be realized, we must transform the way we prepare leaders for this work. The cornerstone of the leader preparation experience at the PLI is a humanizing and experiential pedagogy. Moving beyond simply reading and writing about particular leadership frameworks or instructional coaching models, PLI students try out those practices in real time during their fieldwork placement and during simulated role plays.  This real time enactment of leadership helps students practice in a safe space the various moves that a social justice leader might make such as engaging in a hard conversation about racial justice, and then having a chance to “remix” that conversation in order to refine their approach.  Students navigate complex leadership dilemmas that require far more than a cognitive or intellectual response. In these hypothetical scenarios there is never a simple or “right” solution, but rather a chance to think critically and creatively about the many interest holders involved, contemplate the multiple directions a leader might take, and consider the potential unintended consequences of various leader decisions. Leadership coaches, instructors and peers provide lovingly critical feedback that supports students to reflect and grow their practice.

Aspiring leaders should mirror the school populations they serve

In addition to intentionally designing leader preparation, we must also consider who is at the leadership table.  Leadership preparation programs can disrupt the current demographic mismatch where students most often do not share ethno-racial backgrounds of their teachers or leaders. We need Black and Brown and Asian, and Indigenous, and queer, and differently abled people leading our schools.  When it comes to school leadership, diversity isn’t just nice to have; it is a necessity.  Diversity brings divergent thinking and divergent ways of being and leading; if we are to achieve different, more equitable outcomes we need to welcome and support educators who look at and navigate the world differently.

Effective Leaders Collaborate Across Difference

Leaders are most effective when working in deep collaboration with each other, but they need practice working with those who have histories and identities that are different from their own.  We expect students to get into the sandbox together and get messy – muck around, make mistakes, step out of their comfort zones and feel what surfaces in their bodies, spirits, and minds as they navigate the complexities of leadership.  To this end, PLI students progress through their preparation program as a collective – working in small groups of 4-6 where they must grapple with inter-group dynamics, hold each other accountable for their contributions and muddle through the messiness of collaboration.  Through this productive and beautiful struggle, deep community is forged, disrupting systemic tendencies towards individualistic, siloed, hero-leadership for a more sustainable and equitable collective model. 

Leaders must be prepared to lead from the head and the heart

While the volume of technical and theoretical knowledge that leaders must possess is endless, we also know that leaders must be trained to recognize and value the parts of the work that require tapping into our emotions. The pace of a leader’s work day often demands that they numb their emotions for the sake of productivity as they put out fire after fire after fire.  But our emotions are messengers, and when we ignore those messages and model for teachers and students that our emotions must be checked at the door, we normalize oppression, cut ourselves off from the things we care about and create environments that are antithetical to well-being.


Imagination is not just a luxury; it is a necessity for transforming education in service of  justice and the right of all people to live into their full humanity.  It is our right and our responsibility as leaders to envision a future that is not a carbon copy of the present. The work of this transformation will not be easy, and our leadership preparation programs must also imagine new approaches to prepare and support educators to tap into their agency and courage to dream big, to develop the skill sets to collaborate with their communities to accomplish things that have never been done before, and to remain steadfast to turn these dreams into reality.

Hear more from our leaders in the Cultivating Imagination podcast series.