09/08/2021 by Martha Neubert | ,

Notes from the Field: Architects of Belonging

outline of a house made of tiny people

Better is possible. It does not take genius.  

It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. 

 And above all, it takes a willingness to try.1

Imagine the decision has been made to upgrade one of the oldest structures on campus—say, a $10 million library project. As the Board of Trustees and the 21st Century Learning Task Force begin seeking architectural bids, the school places an advertisement that reads: Do you love reading? Invigorated by ADA codes? Enjoy call numbers and archival materials? Proficient at hanging drywall? A sense of humor is essential. This scenario likely would yield questionable blueprints from a range of incompatible submissions and is, of course, unimaginable. And yet, this partial-considerations approach is analogous to what has emerged from the many well-meaning commitments to create, formalize, attract, and hire for DEIJ opportunities in independent schools.

A Turning Point

I suspect we can agree that the emergent cultural moment can be polarizing and immobilizing at worst. But here is the good news: at best, it is asking educators to center two long-understood axioms that have consistently underpinned the day-to-day work of schools: 1) authentic relationships make the world go ‘round; and 2) our collective enterprise as school people remains to create the conditions of possibility within our communities—full stop. Interestingly, these axioms also serve as central tenets of DEIJ scholarship and work. This unfolding moment offers independent schools a chance—if authentically willing—to examine the intersections where every community member is (or is not) seen, heard, loved, and, therefore, valued.2

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice work necessarily is daily, structural, and long-game work. Whether there is an existing position, a relatively new one, or the KendiDiAngeloAntiRacistFragility Committee is working on defining a near-future role, “the bottom line [is]: you cannot call your school excellent unless you embrace diversity and put in a concerted effort to ensure a well-functioning inclusive community.”3 In looking to the coming fall, after ongoing COVID-19 safety protocols, there is nothing more critical than re-building and strengthening the very stretched threads of social connectivity within our school communities. So, what now? Define, create, authorize, and support positions that attract deans of diversity, engineers of equity, designers of inclusivity, advocates of justice, surveyors of plurality, experts of intersectionality, connoisseurs of nuance, champions of common ground—in short: architects of belonging. 

Drafting Your School’s Plan

In concert with hiring (and retaining) personnel responsible for leading the work, if your school is serious about locating, rethinking, or moving the DEIJ needle, there are a few fundamental components in creating an effective blueprint.

1. Center the mission. 

Your stated raison d’etre is and should be the guidepost driving people, policies, and practices. To convincingly engage the mission, you will need clarity about its meaning, how it is understood and lived throughout your school community. In “The Advantage,” Patrick Lencioni, an expert in organizational health and team management, names core values as essential to any and all mission-driven aspirations. On this point he asks leadership teams to consider the following six questions: Why do we exist? How will we succeed? How do we behave? What is most important, right now? What do we do? Who must do what?4 While Lencioni is speaking to overall organizational health, school leaders could benefit from the exercise of drilling down on the distinct characteristics fueling the school’s “why.” This kind of work can (and should) be used to examine any area of school life, generally, and—because it demands specificities about ethos, climate, culture—it will guide, support, and well-serve DEIJ aims, in particular.

2. Claim the why.

There were, are, and will continue to be many lessons and silver-ish linings revealed by this past year’s unprecedented layers of disruption and the myriad responses therein. Though in very different ways, we all are experiencing a moment of seemingly great velocity and seemingly greater unknowns. To be sure, the muchness of the past year is undeniable, but it cannot obscure our collective agreement to “respect, affirm, and protect the dignity and worth of each member of [each] community.”5 From their founding histories through the past 18 months, most schools have absorbed moments and even eras of acute national (and global) turmoil. So, let’s be clear: how school leaders are—or are not—bearing witness and responding to the ongoing sociopolitical upheaval is, in fact, a series of choices and decisions. Effectively articulating why the institution exists as an educational space is necessary to navigating who and how the institution is and will be.

In and of itself, the alignment of core values and mission opens many doors of possibilities in our schools.6 Most critically, it allows a school’s mission to serve as a kind of institutional backbone—a set of embedded, unequivocal pillars on which the school’s entirety rests and from which the school entirely engages, responds.

3. Articulate the non-negotiables. 

You know your school best. What are the “absolutely nots?” Certainly, there are levels to it but there are many places, for all sorts of reasons where a school draws its lines: unchaperoned dances, nut-based snacks, graffiti, students driving school vehicles, closing the playground at certain hours, paying a tuition bill, plagiarism and, probably, rugby. Who is responsible for naming, authoring, adhering to, and accounting for the institution’s non-negotiables? The Board? Dean of Students? The State? Human Resources? Student or parent groups? Head of School? In a similar vein, what steps are being taken to acknowledge, convey, and combat manifestations of systemic racism within (and outside of) your school community?7 This could be, for example, a symbolic external gesture such as recognizing Juneteenth or something more internally substantive like revamping student discipline policies through an equity-centered approach. 

In her brilliant work “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” Isabel Wilkerson analogizes America’s racialized social hierarchy to an old house made well before our time but a house we’ve inherited, nonetheless.8 She writes: 

“America is an old house. We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation...And, yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built…We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now. And any further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands.”9

The final line of this “Caste” excerpt offers a hard truth, a weighty charge and, by extension, further inspires the always-hopeful prospect of actualizing Dr. King’s delayed vision of a “beloved community.”10 As we witness, experience, process, and earnestly attempt to move forward in this distinctly American atmosphere framed by and filtered through racial(ized) lenses, it is critical for school leaders to strategize how meaningful DEIJ work will take hold—to, again, create the conditions of possibility within our learning communities. Ultimately, then, it becomes possible to uphold racial equity work as a horizontal, embedded, and non-negotiable component of the institution’s operational matrix. It is, to Wilkerson’s point, in our hands. 

Looking Ahead

While I am a steadfast optimist about humanity writ large, I also want to offer this: we will not solve systems of inequity in our lifetime. That said, I believe independent schools—elite transformational spaces shaping (hopefully informed, compassionate) future innovators, influencers, visionaries, powerbrokers, creatives, doers, and change-agents—are uniquely positioned to take up the constellation of pressures being brought to bear in the current moment. But only if we have the courage to do so. 

Wishing all independent school leaders the acuity, clarity, and strength needed to envision and contribute to a more equitable and just world.

Martha is a consultant in our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Practice.

1 Atul Gwande inCulturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain” by Zaretta Hammond (Corwin Press, Inc., 2014).
2 Janae Peters (Hawken School)Founder’s Day Keynote, Northfield Mount Hermon School, 2016.
3 Michael Brosnan, “From Assimilation to Inclusion: How White Educators and Educators of Color Can Make Diversity Work” (AISNE, Spring 2008).
4 “The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business,” Patrick Lencioni (Jossey-Bass, 2012). This book was selecteas a reading-in-common for the NMH leadership team in 2020. It is a book we continue to reference and use, particularly when thinking through how we might best articulate and live our “why.”
5  ”Principles of Good Practice for Equity & Justice,” NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools, Washington, D.C.).
6  In using the phrase core values, I am referring to any stated/guiding set of community norms, commitments, agreements, etc.
7 Or manifestations of any type of identity-based discrimination rooted in systemic inequities.
8 “Caste” is Isabel Wilkerson’s guiding term/lens to frame her scholarship which draws on the racial-ethnic social dynamics of India and Nazi Germany. “Caste” was an intervention in my own historical thinking and a watershed read for me, as Wilkerson researched and crafted a critical narrative wrapped in hard histories, tangible relevance, and a radical kind of hope.
9 “Caste: The Origin of our Discontents,” Isabel Wilkerson (Random House, 2020, p.15)
10 Although theologian Josiah Royce first articulated the idea of “beloved community” in the early 1900s, Dr. King often called on the notion to underscore his philosophy that we all “are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

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1 Comment

Margaret van Baaren 9/10/2021 at 1:23pm

So good – thank you!