Constructions of Race and Equity in a Suburban School: Teachers, School Social Workers, and Other School Staff as Nepantleras and Border Crossers

Apr 9, 2021

cands cover croppedSuburban schools, particularly those with majority white histories experiencing demographic shifts, are increasingly in need of addressing issues of racial equity. An article in a recent issue of the journal Children & Schools, co-published by NASW and Oxford University Press, reveals findings in a study on these issues.

This qualitative study, using the extended case method, examined one suburban school district’s efforts to promote racial equity and focused particularly on how professional development was experienced by school personnel and on the perceived outcomes. Data sources for this study included focus groups with teachers, pupil personnel services professionals, and other school staff and administrators as well as observational data from participation in district events and meetings.

This study was grounded in Gloria Anzaldúa’s nepantlera framework, which conceptualizes the in-between space between two or more cultures and those who occupy that space as “border crossers,” and nepantleras as cultural navigators, bridge builders, and advocates.

‘Nepantla is a concept used in Chicano and Latino anthropology, social commentary, criticism, literature and art. It represents a concept of “in-between-ness.” Nepantla is a Nahuatl word which means “in the middle of it” or “middle.”‘ Wikipedia: Napantla.

Nepantleras are advocates and intermediaries who navigate the in-between, “overlapping and layered” cultural spaces and realities of different cultures. They serve as change agents with the goal of inspiring others toward greater cultural awareness. In this sense, they are true bridge builders between members of the majority population and those living in the margins, or what Anzaldúa referred to as the “borderlands”.

The researchers noted themes including:

  • perceptions of the district’s level of commitment to racial equity;
  • common barriers to facilitating racial equity training, such as white racial prejudice, resistance, and defensiveness; and
  • the challenge of navigating self- and student social identities for teachers and staff of color.

Finally, the article discusses implications for equity work in schools and the role of school social worker training.

The study’s authors are:

  • Leticia Villarreal Sosa, PhD, is professor, School of Social Work, College of Applied Social Sciences, Dominican University, River Forest, Illinois.
  • Michelle Martin, PhD, is assistant professor, Department of Social Work, California State University, Fullerton.


The journal Social Work is a benefit of NASW membership. It is available online or, at a member’s request, in print. Children & Schools, Health & Social Work and Social Work Research are available by subscription at a discounted rate for NASW members, either online or in print. You can find out more about the journals and subscriptions at this link.