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Democracy Depends on Inclusive Education

Heather Harding, executive director of the Campaign for Our Shared Future, advocates for diversity in educational settings.

Illustrated portrait of Heather Harding.
Image: Illustration by Bruce Morser

By Heather Harding
Fall 2023
My Northwestern Direction
1 Response

Education holds a special place in my heart, largely due to my parents’ influence. My father worked as a math teacher and coach. My mother served on the school board in my mostly white hometown, Jackson, Mich. They taught me to value academic excellence and the transformative power of learning.  

Even so, no one ever encouraged me to teach. But I ended up in the classroom, and my time as an educator opened my eyes in ways I never could have imagined. 

Now, as executive director of the Campaign for Our Shared Future, I fight every day to promote inclusive, high-quality K-12 public education for all children by working to keep extreme politics out of classrooms and school boards. Our nonpartisan efforts include fighting anti-equity legislation, providing support to educators, and empowering student activists to make their voices heard. We work to ensure that every student has the opportunity to succeed. 

Northwestern played a crucial role in guiding me here. When I arrived in Evanston, I had a clear goal: to become a print journalist. However, during my sophomore year, I read an article about the creation of Teach For America that shifted my perspective. It underscored the importance of inclusive education the kind that allows kids to feel welcomed, safe and affirmed in their identities while also learning about people who are different from them. Learning about different identities or values does not threaten your individual liberties or beliefs. On the contrary, it sparks imagination and supports cognitive development — both of which are critical to being well-informed, active members of our democracy. 

“Learning about different identities or values does not threaten your individual liberties or beliefs. On the contrary, it sparks imagination.”

With this knowledge, I pursued specializations in sociology and African American studies at Northwestern, which fueled my passion for democracy and urban education. My senior year, I joined Teach For America and was assigned to a high school in eastern North Carolina, where I taught social studies and an elective African American history course. I introduced my students to the celebration of Kwanzaa. While the student body was mostly Black, they hadn’t learned about their history and were excited to experience a part of their culture. The school-wide Kwanzaa ceremony I developed became a campus tradition that continued long after I left.  

Initially intimidating, my classroom experience was transformative. It allowed me to witness firsthand how inclusive education can empower young minds. It also gave me the opportunity to witness the richness of Black culture in a way I hadn’t experienced growing up in the North. I was welcomed with open arms and became a part of an extended family in that community. That experience was just as beneficial for me as it was for my students. 

I went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and then worked my way up to executive director at Teach For America. Later, I served as the founding executive director of the Education Consortium on Research and Evaluation at George Washington University, where we conducted research on the Washington, D.C., public school system that laid the groundwork for some of my most impactful work to date. We provided researchers with access to previously unavailable student performance data from over 100 local education agencies, including charter programs. Under my leadership, we completed an evaluation of mayoral control of schools, focusing on student performance, educator development and student impact. The result was the creation of the DC Education Research Collaborative, a consortium of top research organizations that provide data to better inform policymakers about educational needs in the Washington, D.C., area. The consortium is housed at the Urban Institute, and I sit on the board. 

As I celebrate my first anniversary with the Campaign for Our Shared Future, I am more certain than ever that high-quality, research-backed, inclusive public education is central to our democracy. Earlier this year, we announced the development of an Educator Defense Fund to provide resources for teachers who’ve faced extremist attacks for promoting inclusivity. 

Educators need support now, more than ever, from all of us. I am proud to lend my voice as an advocate for public education. 

Heather Harding ’92 is executive director of the nonprofit Campaign for Our Shared Future 

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Reader Responses

  • It was heartening to read what Heather Harding is doing to encourage inclusive education in our schools.

    I recently returned from a trip to Germany. On May 10, 1933, the German Student Union organized a coordinated nationwide day of book burning to eradicate books incompatible with Nazi ideology, including books by Jewish, half-Jewish, communist, socialist, anarchist, liberal, pacifist and sexologist authors.

    Today, in Bonn, this shameful event is commemorated by several plaques in the ground that look like the spines of the books that were burned. Among them were the works of 19th-century poet and author Heinrich Heine. In the Berlin Opernplatz, this dark day is commemorated by these words written by Heine in 1821: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.”

    Instead of relics of a distant past, these are warnings about the ever-present risk of what oppressive governments and societies are capable of doing beginning by banning books, which is exactly what is happening today in Florida, Texas and many other states throughout our country.

    Stephen Rohde ’66 Sebastopol, Calif., via Northwestern Magazine

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