11/10/2018 by Lawrence Alexander |

Finding Your Path to Institutional Equity and Inclusion

Stones in a row in shallow water

Like many Directors of Equity and Inclusion at independent schools, I wasn’t hired to do this work. It wasn’t the job I applied for and accepted; but it’s the one I’ve come to embrace.

I was hired to serve as the Director of College Counseling at a boarding school in northern New Hampshire. As the only faculty member of color at the school, however, my “other duties as assigned” crystallized to include work in equity and inclusion. It was never anything my school required of me, nor was it anything the school leadership pressured me to take on, but within a few weeks in my new community, I began to hear “the voices.” My students of color began to ask me a steady stream of questions. “Why did you choose to move your family to northern New Hampshire?” “Where are you going to get your haircut?” “Do you think your family will like it here?”

Their questions clearly reflected the students’ own anxiety about being people of color at a predominantly white school in a very white and rural community. Due to the acrimony in the current political climate, more student “voices” began to resound with an even deeper level of concern. “Am I going to be safe?” “Why do people hate me when they don’t even know me?” “I want to attend a march. Will you take me?” I found myself engaging in constant conversation with students of color because I knew they needed my support. In time, one of the school’s history teachers and I decided to arrange and facilitate two town hall meetings where we gathered students and faculty together to rest the conversations on campus they didn’t feel comfortable having anywhere else. Concerns ranged from aggressive political rhetoric and personal safety to listening across differences.

As the year went on, I inherited the bulk of the work associated with being the Director of Equity and Inclusion, but without the title. Along the way, I was fortunate to have some awesome faculty colleagues who were courageous enough to be allies and help do this much needed work at my school. I fondly refer to them as my “choir.” Our choir organized our MLK Day program, assisted with waging critical conversations about equity and inclusion on campus, and advocated on behalf of our students when related issues arose. By the end of my first year, we had voices in our choir, singing the song of equity of inclusion. But that June, all three of my choir members left the school to take new teaching jobs elsewhere.

Here, we go, again, I thought. We had no formal Director of Equity and Inclusion position and I was still the only faculty member of color at my school. With my closest white allies gone, I’d have to start over again educating white faculty to understand and engage in this work. I could see the Sisyphean pattern forming — and it raised a central question: What do you do when your school has good intentions and good people, but no formal position or practice for equity and inclusion?

Fortunately, our Head of School at the time, Tim Breen, understood the problem immediately. In addition to formalizing the Director of Equity and Inclusion position at our school, he also created steering committees to support the work. These committees comprised administrators, faculty, and students. I took on the formal role as Director of Equity and Inclusion and served as the chair of our Equity and Inclusion Steering Committee. The committee allowed us to distribute the weight of the work at our school while inviting more voices to the choir. For our faculty and administrators, the process helped them become more understanding of the work and more sensitive and responsive to the needs of our students. For our students of color, who make up around a third of the student population, as well as for our international students and LGBTQ students, the efforts helped them feel “seen” and valued. It also made it clear there were adults they could turn to for support. For the white allies, the process helped them become more culturally competent and informed — which enabled them to better understand how to support students of color while affecting institutional change.

Since the formation of our steering committee, we have been able to establish affinity groups at our school, form a consortium of inclusion directors from all the independent schools in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, and create a centralized calendar of inclusion events for the students on our various campuses. At our school, we started offering our first multicultural elective in our English department — African American/LatinX Lit. Survey. We presented at the NAES Biennial Conference in Atlanta on “A Community Development Approach to Equity and Inclusion.” We were also able to support more faculty in attending the 2018 NAIS People of Color Conference in Nashville. Each of the faculty members came back renewed and committed to impacting more change — for the students of color at our school as well as the entire community.

Now in my third year at my school — and my second year in the role of Director of Equity and Inclusion — I am proud of the work we’ve done and I am energized by the work ahead of us, which I know will only makes us a strong, better education community.

I know that independent schools vary a great deal in their approaches to equity and justice — and are in different places in their journey toward being truly inclusive. Some have had formal diversity statements and Directors of Equity and Inclusion for years. Others are just starting to formalize the work to examine all their practices through a diversity lens. And still others know they need to make significant changes but wrestle with how to start. I’m thankful for all the diversity work being done at independent schools. Not only are we helping the students of color enrolled in our schools succeed, we are helping all of our students better understand the value of learning in a diverse community and helping our school communities become all around better educational institutions. We also do this work more generally for the field of education — for what I hope all schools can become in service to a better nation and world.

To schools who may be where my school was a few years ago, I have three central messages:

1. I encourage you to appoint a Director of Equity and Inclusion. At the same time, I also encourage you to see Equity and Inclusion as both a position and a practice. The position is not only important to ensure that a senior member of your administrative team oversees and guides the work — making sure it never slips to the back-burner —but also symbolic of your institutional commitment to the work. Yet, while the position matters a great deal, it’s the shared practice where things most often go array. The practice requires every member of your school community to join in the work and ensure its vibrancy and sustainability. As we know, many inclusion directors are members of vulnerable groups, so the very nature of their work is an occupational hazard. Because of this, the position benefits from as much community support as possible. For me, as a man of color doing this work, it helps tremendously to have others who can step in from time to time. There’s only so many times, for instance, that I can lead conversations on campus on racially derogatory language. Having allies at my school lead those conversations has led to our school’s success and my personal wellness.

2. You can’t afford not to do this work. Cost usually tops the list of excuses schools make for not engaging in the work of equity and inclusion. But the price you pay when you neglect the faculty, staff, and students of color at your school is higher than the price you’d pay in support. At the same time, the research makes it clear that it’s better to be educated in a multicultural learning community than in a monocultural one — so neglecting this work is tantamount to neglecting your core mission as an excellent education institution. Moreover, from a straight-up business perspective, there are many full-tuition paying families from all racial and ethnic backgrounds who are choosing independent schools based in part or fully on their equity and inclusion work. Anti-racism activist and writer Tim Wise (and keynote speaker at CS&A's 2018 FORUM/Diversity said that he chose University School in Nashville for his children primarily because of the school’s deep commitment to equity and inclusion work.

3. Start where you are, with who you have. I am in my third year at my school and I’m still the only faculty member of color here. I know this region is a tough draw for faculty of color, and we can’t pick up our school and plant it in the middle of Boston or New York City. But I hope we can steadily add to the number of faculty members of color as we more broadly diversify our school community. For now, our progress won’t be measured by the percentage of increase in our faculty and staff diversity, but it can be measured in the demonstrable commitment to making our school an equitable and just place where the most vulnerable members of our community feel “seen” and heard and where they can speak truth to power and feel safe doing so. Our community is also a place where students in majority groups can learn how they can participate in justice work as allies and engage in a more multicultural curriculum. We are not where we want to be, but we’re a long way from where we were. Our goal is to keep moving forward and to have the institutional structures to ensure that we do so year to year.

Independent schools don’t have to be deeply endowed to do diversity well. Every school can find a way to be a welcoming, supportive, and diverse institution. Every school can create structures that support a diverse student body and develop a supportive, culturally educated faculty and staff. The key is to start somewhere. Start with someone. Start with doing something. Listen to the voices in your community. Form a choir of people committed to the work. Sing the song of equity and inclusion at your school. You’re bound to hit a few sour notes along the way but your school community will be a better place for the effort.

Lawrence Alexander is a Consultant with Carney, Sandoe & Associates focused on diversity recruitment and consulting. He is the former Director of College Counseling and Director of Diversity and Inclusion at The White Mountain School in New Hampshire. In addition to his work with the Search and Consulting Group, Alexander has helped organize CS&A’s annual FORUM/Diversity event.

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