To better uplift students with multicultural backgrounds, Clifton J. Thompson, III, heads the latest department in charge of change at Lawrence Township Public Schools.
He is the new director of equity, diversity and inclusion, a position created just for him. The job, which looks to take on matters of empowerment as well as promoting acceptance, is tailor-made for the former teacher, current administrator and Englewood native.
“It’s about understanding how we all feed and play off of each other,” Thompson said. “If we believe we’re all human beings worthy and valued and belong in this space in our communities, even if we’re going through a rough patch and a tough time, we’ll get treated with value and concern, because there’s very few humans that don’t go through a rough patch, through a tough time. That’s about what this work is about.”
He is also serving as the district’s affirmative action officer and Title IX Coordinator with a 25-year career in varying levels of education. At the beginning of July, he began to work towards his future goals of an improved, welcoming Lawrence.
Thompson grew up in Englewood, and in seventh grade, his mother, a lawyer, received a promotion in California. They moved there, but when his mother died during his senior year of high school, his grandmother came and stayed until his graduation from Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino.
Thompson has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Hampton University and a master’s degree in urban education from New Jersey City University, which comes with a specialization in administration and supervision. He will be enrolled again this year for his doctorate at Seton Hall.
He played football in college, just like his son would too. Inspired, Thompson wanted to follow in his mother’s footsteps rather than set off on his own path.
“The only thing I did not listen to my mother about was to major in physical education,” he said. “She told me that my love for sports, and helping people do better in sports, was aligned with being a physical education teacher that coached, and if I did that, I probably wouldn’t work a day in my life, because I would just enjoy what I was doing.”
Rather than pursuing that passion, Thompson started teaching different grades with plans of applying to law school in the future. Education pulled him in a direction that he never expected.
“It’s something about seeing a child learn something, discover something, and when you’ve had a role in that learning or discovering, it becomes infectious. You just want to do it again, and see it happen again, and again, and again, and you just can’t get enough because it’s just a wonderful thing to experience,” he said.
He was doing what he loved, but with two of his own children to raise, Thompson made the transition into administration rather than stay in the traditional teaching environment.
“Even though the classroom was really fulfilling, the pay scale didn’t provide for growth in a way that was going to allow me to do [it] for my children and their extracurricular activities,” he said.
“I did what I wanted to do as a father, along with raising two healthy, smart, kind, loving, caring, young adults. It was that he recognized that I was there for him,” Thompson said of the significance. “But I also recognize there were times in school districts where I didn’t feel that they were treated appropriately, and I was an educator. It’s like, if my kids can run into situations where they’re not treated right, where they’re made to feel as if they don’t belong, then there has to be other children that are feeling worse.”
Wanting to help from his background in a classroom, Thompson became a consultant for Collaborative Equity Solutions and CREED Strategies.
“Sometimes, those things are done by who we would consider ‘good people,’” he said. “It’s just that you don’t realize sometimes what you’re doing when you’re trying to make several decisions in a moment for several different children or students, and you end up working on what we call ‘autopilot,’ and then a bad decision was made, or a student feels uncared for.”
He added: “We really try to make sure that other children can have an advantage in school, and by advantage, I don’t mean over someone. I mean an advantage over the situations life has to offer, that has the ability to overcome those obstacles that get in your way just by living. That’s what drives me.”
Racial tensions in Lawrence and worldwide reached a pivotal moment last year when Black Lives Matters protests against unfair treatment brought to light problems in the area.
Thompson’s hiring is partly a result of LTPSD officials acknowledging a need to move forward in regards to treating marginalized students with respect and dignity, then hiring staff that shows a commitment to that very campaign.
“As we became more ingrained in our equity work over the years, it became apparent that we needed one person with the expertise to elevate our equity initiatives,” Superintendent Ross Kasun said regarding Thompson’s hiring. “Clifton’s extensive understanding of this type of work is a valuable asset to our district as we focus on strengthening relationships throughout the community.”
Said Thompson: “We have to do the work in a way that says look, I want to accept you and for you to belong in my circle, however, your beliefs can’t take away my humanity.”
He said that he can understand the belief in equity is on a continuum, but at his core, he believes that people are good and can unlearn the biases taught to them.
“I want my children to be great in a wonderful world, and this is my way of earning a living, and trying to create a world that’s positive for all kids and adults,” he said.
While doing equity and bias training, culture response and strategic planning for others, he enjoyed setting up safe spaces for children with the notion that, “Gosh, it would be great to be able to do this consulting work full-time,” he thought. “But I had no entrepreneurial spirit.”
Then, he saw a position open in West Orange that involved the same duties as his current position with LTPSD, causing him to leap at the opportunity. They decided not to fulfill the position.
“A little bummed,” Thompson took this as a sign that he had to keep consulting. Then, Lawrence Township happened to want the same positive steps towards inclusivity through a series of initiatives and hirings. The more his recruiting process continued, Thompson felt peak professionalism at the way his future coworkers desired a brighter tomorrow for students.
“More and more, I was like, this must be the place that I can do the work, that I can be a consultant, but in the situation that I’m used to and comfortable with the school system. This would be great,” he said.
A call came in that Thompson was hired, eliciting a “yay!” from him upon reflection.
The director’s efforts in preparation for the school year are currently focused on informational presentations to teachers, letting them know how to best care for the district’s youth.
“By children, I mean Pre-K to graduation. Just because they’re 18 and 6’4” and 300 pounds, they’re still our children, they’re our kids and we have to give them the space to... allow kids to be kids longer. Let’s not make them adults at 15, let’s not name their behaviors adult behaviors at four, let’s allow them to be kids.”
He said that recognizing others, especially young people, as human beings of value is imperative to progress.
“It’s about an end goal of making people feel like they belong in their community,” he said, adding that a sense of kinship can come from school, sports, performing arts or anywhere that fosters connection.
From his history in administrative training, Thompson said he knows that what a school needs in a leader is the follow-through to answer promises—in this case, Lawrence manifesting an environment that centers undervalued voices and reduces incidents of alienation.
“One of the most important things is if you believe in it, if it’s part of your plans, if it’s part of your goals, then your budget and your money needs to look like it. So, you can’t say you believe in the arts, you can’t say you believe all children should be able to participate in fine art, and you haven’t bought any paint, any crayons, any canvasses, any brushes, like you didn’t buy anything that speaks to the fine arts, so how is that something you believe in?” he said, using an illustrative example.
“If you don’t put money behind it, it’s just a statement, and so, whether it is the consulting group, whether it’s paying stipends, money to the teachers that are leading some of the work, or creating a position for the position I’m in, it shows a commitment to what the town and district believes as a whole,” Thompson added.
While he is happy to fulfill the role as director, he knows that after him, striving for the best will be a continuous process shared by the entire community.
“There is no finish line, there is no mountain peak. It’s a journey that we’re going to be on, and we can get it right this year, and mess it up next year. We get it right the following year, and mess it up, you know, so we always have room for improvement and growth.”
For the near future, he wants to advocate not just for the people who have always been in Lawrence and still are, but those who appreciated their time in the area and chose to move on, sometimes because of the way they were treated.
“When people love a place like that, you know it’s something special, but sometimes, it’s something special for a group of people and not for another group. I’m meeting people where Lawrence wasn’t as special for them as one would think, however they recognize that it did develop a foundation for their future success. They just wish that certain things were more inclusive,” the director explained.
Thompson said he hopes that Lawrence faces these residents and students with open arms.
“We have to create our school as spaces where adults feel comfortable coming even if they didn’t have good experiences as children, and children feel comfortable coming so that when they become adults, they can continue to come,” he said.