Socially responsible leadership: Taking a closer look
Socially responsible leadership: Taking a closer look
Socially responsible leadership: Taking a closer look
Jane Larsson Executive Director


By Jane Larsson, CIS Executive Director



This post was first published in CIS News

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Redefining global citizenship

The CIS definition of global citizenship is often cited in research and continues to be one of our most visited web pages since its publication in 2009. This definition—our understanding—of its key elements emerged via a series of consultations with CIS stakeholders worldwide to determine tangible outcomes for international education.

As a membership community, our work at CIS has always relied on a strong foundation of beliefs. Our code of ethics and our values guide our actions and decisions. The basis for joining CIS as a member requires a commitment to actively develop global citizenship in education. Yet, in 2020, rising voices on social injustice compelled us to take a closer look. Our definition has fallen short to many worldwide who see international education as a blending or homogenizing of norms and content rather than fostering deeper discussion on multiple forms of difference.

Internationalization is hotly contested with regard to its purpose, process, and ideology, and its meaning is heavily dependent on the context and stakeholders.

Pitts & Brooks (2017) 1

Editorial advisory board members for the journals Higher Education, Studies in Higher Education, Higher Education Research & Development, and the Journal of Studies in International Education published similar observations this past January.

Findings reveal internationalization continues to be perceived as a multivocal, largely Anglo-European, and neoliberal enterprise which is at a crossroad, and needs to be reimagined for the betterment of all in society. Collectively, participants draw attention to a lack of criticality and problematization within higher education internationalization discourses and highlights the need for research, scholarship, and academic leaders to expand the focus of the internationalization of curriculum to address future global challenges and needs.

Journal of Studies in International Education 2

On almost a daily basis, we hear from students, teachers and leaders sharing frustrations with their international education experiences. Many describe a sense of loss of national, ethnic, and personal identities, calling on schools and universities to recognize and preserve them.

To address these tensions, new research is underway at CIS. We are taking a fresh look at global citizenship in practice across our community of schools and the alignment of global practices via a thematic review. We can also do a better job portraying distinct forms of international education.

At CIS, we work with many types of international schools—those that are globalizing a form of education (e.g. American, British, French, etc.) as well as those that are internationalizing education.


Each has a fundamentally different purpose: to globalize (extend across the world) national educational norms, history, language and culture; or to internationalize education through the addition, blending, or intersection of various educational norms, histories, languages and cultures.

As we near the end of 2021, a new understanding of global citizenship is emerging, a more relevant model, unpacking the hidden complexities of the current definition to address difference more specifically. What is needed for CIS to guide a systemic transition to a new era for international schools, one that is more accessible, equitable and inclusive, truly connecting the local and the global?

This research and a new model of global citizenship will be published in 2022 and shared via learning opportunities, tools, and resources.

Finding a voice and approach to change

Meanwhile, we are moving forward with specific intent: to help our communities address rising voices on social injustice by fostering socially responsible leadership in education. For those of us who work in international education, this is vital.

But undertaking these discussions can be challenging. Divisions are surfacing as people look for simple or even adversarial solutions to systemic challenges in international education. School leaders are struggling to find the right approach to talk about racism and discrimination and are worried they will get it wrong. Some are losing their jobs as their communities fracture amidst polarized views, fed by social media.

Socially responsible leaders must first consider their individual ability to engage in meaningful discussion when called upon to lead change.

In a recent interview, Nicole Furlonge, Professor and Director of the Klingenstein Center at the Teachers College, Columbia University, highlighted the fundamental skill of listening leadership as an active practice, one that can help us to understand views that are different from our own.

[…] some schools began thinking about and reimagining how they […] show up in the world that they are in as opposed to asserting who they are against the world they’re in or despite the world they’re in.

Nicole Furlonge, Professor and Director of the Klingenstein Center, Teachers College, Columbia University

One must be quiet in order to listen. But listening isn’t silence. Listening isn’t absence. Listening in order to end up with a voice, as a leader, as an institution that resonates with the challenges of this moment, is what’s important. Instead of saying what first pops up, I suggest taking stock of what the work actually is so that your voice is  even more robust than it would be otherwise.

EdSurge, Reshan Richards and Stephen J Valentine 3

Across our global community of schools and universities in 123 countries, we see that leaders are generally in three groups, or mindsets, related to their readiness to undertake this work:

  1. people who haven’t yet realized how important it is to talk openly about racism and discrimination
  2. people who have discovered how important this topic is but who are either afraid or angry about it—which brings a real challenge for us all
  3. people who have come to the realization and understanding that we need to foster discussion on this topic, even if it is uncomfortable

These mindsets and the associated readiness to see and engage in meaningful discussion on difference are similar to those identified in the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), developed by Mitchell Hammer, PhD in 2003.4  Progression across the IDI developmental continuum requires intentional work. Tackling discrimination and racism of any kind also begins with individual awareness and understanding. Both are essential to move from empathy to action.

The catalyst for action within CIS

It was June 2020 when Nunana Nyomi, then Associate Director of CIS Higher Education Services, wrote a blog that became the catalyst for action at CIS. It began:

I am both a victim of and a beneficiary from structural racism.

He was writing about his international school education and career as both a student and a university admission professional. Within his post, Nunana revealed a dissatisfaction now echoed by many other international school students and alumni worldwide, finding their international school education—in practice—often focused on similarity to the exclusion of difference without sufficient time to explore their identities. “Interculturalism, global citizenship, and international mindedness […] the ubiquitous use of these words projects a certain universalism within international education which masks a deeper understanding of cultural differences.”

Students are ready for deeper discussion in their formal education

We wanted to learn more. Students from two international schools were identified to take part in a six-part video series on Adaptive Leadership. We asked them what advice they had for school leaders. Our conversation began with a series of questions:

What does racism and discrimination look like in your school community?

In your school, what do conversations about race sound like?

Who is/isn't having these conversations?

Collectively, they shared their disappointment that more explicit conversations on race are not happening as part of their formal learning. After the interview, one student took the time to write and share her perspective on our discussion.

Meeting with students from another international school was also really validating, as we were able to compare our experience with racism and lack of education on the matter, as well as express our mutual frustration with the latter. It was the general consensus that yes, opening up and beginning to explicitly educate and hold conversations with students might be uncomfortable, but we would rather be uncomfortable with the reality of racism than ignorant to it.


Personally, I believe that the discussion of racism at [school] often does not penetrate past the "politically correct" bubble in fear of offending certain parties, causing the issue at hand to be sugar-coated and consequently ignored by those not directly involved. Due to this, the responsibility of education surrounding racism and holding more nuanced conversations often lands on the students, which defeats the whole purpose of hosting a classroom-based discussion. [School] markets itself to be inclusive; however, by avoiding these conversations and thus letting ignorance breed racism, can we really call ourselves that? We have to stop justifying the racism prevalent within the [School] community (primarily manifested within microaggressions) with the false equation of diversity equals inclusivity.


Inside CIS: Implications for our organization and global team

Nunana’s personal courage and professional generosity led to my own personal growth and the beginning of real conversations on racism and discrimination within CIS, including the Board of Trustees, who declared our strategic intent: To determine a scope of work for the advocacy and development of diversity and inclusion within CIS and across our international education community. An ad hoc Board Committee of Stakeholders was formed to lead an organizational self-assessment and advance this objective.

Discussion amongst committee members was exciting, rich, difficult and nuanced as diverse stakeholders imagined the challenges and opportunities ahead.

For example, there have been many calls for CIS to bring about change in the same way we raised awareness on the risks and realities of child abuse, citing racism as a child protection issue, and indeed it is. This prompted an email exchange with one committee member, Stephen Chatelier, Assistant Professor in the Department of International Education at the Education University of Hong Kong, who shared his perspective.

One major difference between the work on child protection and anti-racism is that the former receives almost universal support (less so with what many of us would view as physical and verbal abuse). Anti-racism, though, as a movement, receives both support and criticism.


The way I see it, we need to be informed about child protection matters—to address our ignorance regarding its prevalence, when and where it happens, how to try and both prevent and respond to it etc.—but not too many hearts need to be changed. When it comes to anti-racism, we need to be transformed personally and communally. Anti-racism challenges structures and institutions that have been normalised, and are often seen to actually be helpful and good (e.g. schools). And it requires ALL of us to ask honest questions of ourselves. And no one likes being told that things which they thought were 'good' (and continue, in many ways, to be good) need deep, fundamental reform. It is so confronting. So, to work against racism requires so much more than information.

We have written extensively through blogs and thought leadership pieces about our organizational journey. At the heart of this journey was a decision to bring together the following concepts:

Strategic inclusion via diversity, equity and anti-racism (I-DEA)

Globally, different organizations have used a range of terms to define their work in this area. For us, we understand the following:

INCLUSION—Refers to the behaviors and social norms that ensure people feel welcome. The driving principle is to make all students feel welcomed, appropriately challenged, and supported in their efforts. It’s also critically important that the adults are supported, too.
DIVERSITY—Refers to the traits and characteristics that make people unique.
EQUITY—Involves distributing resources based on the needs of the recipients.
ANTI-RACISM—An approach which seeks to identify and dismantle racist structures and attitudes in order to eliminate racial inequality.

Calls us to actively promote social justice by engaging in difficult conversations.

University of Dayton, USA

Anti-racism is an active and conscious effort to work against [the] multi-dimensional aspects of racism.

Robert J. Patterson, professor of African American Studies at Georgetown University

To be antiracist is to think nothing is behaviorally wrong or right -- inferior or superior -- with any of the racial groups. Whenever the antiracist sees individuals behaving positively or negatively, the antiracist sees exactly that: individuals behaving positively or negatively, not representatives of whole races. To be antiracist is to deracialize behavior, to remove the tattooed stereotype from every racialized body. Behavior is something humans do, not races do. There is no room for neutrality and there is no such thing as a “non-racist".

Ibram X. Kendi

These terms were identified in discussion with the Board-appointed committee of stakeholders from our membership community who wrote this charter for the work ahead: 

To accelerate the ethical renewal of international education institutions to take active leadership in nurturing and sustaining inclusive, diverse, equitable, and anti-racist communities of learning, anchored on human and children’s rights 5



The I-DEA Stakeholder Committee recorded this video to help you understand the process we undertook and their recommendations, the outcomes of our organizational self-assessment. We will continue to report on our progress and impact.



1  Pitts, M. J., & Brooks, C. F. (2017). Critical pedagogy, internationalisation, and a third space: Cultural tensions revealed in students’ discourse. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 38(3), 251–267.
 Journal of Studies in International Education 1–21; © 2021 European Association for International Education; Article reuse guidelines:; DOI: 10.1177/1028315320984840; 
3  EdSurge, Reshan Richards (Columnist) and Stephen J. Valentine (Columnist), Oct 25, 2021.
4  Validation studies of the IDI conducted between 2003 and 2017 concluded: The IDI is a cross-culturally generalizable (i.e., international and domestic diverse culture groups), valid and reliable measure of intercultural competence that does not contain cultural bias.
5  Child rights were set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child; adopted in 1989. 


Related content:

Blogs: Read more blogs about inclusion via diversity, equity and anti-racism (I-DEA) from across the global community, like these:





Socially responsible leadership: Taking a closer look
  • Diversity (I-DEA)
  • Global citizenship
  • Intercultural learning & leadership
Socially responsible leadership: Taking a closer look