In the wake of national protests against the murder of George Floyd and racial inequities in the U.S., as well as criticisms of racism at independent schools, more schools are considering hiring a director of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) or putting more resources behind the position if it already exists.
“I think there was a time when schools thought that, ‘We don’t have all the resources, so we’ll just look at someone we already have here who teaches and is interested…and offer them a stipend,” said Gardy Guiteau, director of equity and inclusion at Newark Academy, in a recent NBOA webinar on “Structuring Your School’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Directorship for Success.” “I think that model is dead on arrival because it sets the person up not to be effective.”
A full-time position, rather than a part-time add-on to other work, is key to making real change, urged all five presenters.
Guiteau, along with four other independent school DEI directors, outlined what schools can do to move the needle. A full-time position, rather than a part-time add-on to other work, is key to making real change, urged all five presenters. Jade Valenzuela, director of diversity and inclusion at Albuquerque Academy, explained, “I did this role for two or three years with another full-time job [being a grade dean], and it was really, really difficult … I was less available.” The school initially had a focus on external outreach and employed a director of multicultural outreach, but an inclusion assessment revealed a need to focus internally. When the outreach director retired, a new position was created, which has allowed Valenzuela “to better focus on all the things that come up” between parents, students, alumni and staff.
Most of the presenters are the first full-time DEI director at their schools, and most are part of senior leadership, which helps each of them effect change across their organizations. They noted the importance of integrating the director’s work with different departments and groups across campus — not just different grades and division levels, but also human resources, technology and facilities, for instance — so that the work is carried out by many staff members and not expected to emanate from a single office. While the DEI director is not the expert in these different departments, the role “has the ability to see how these things interplay and provide equity or barriers for students and families as well as constituent groups,” said Lana Asuncion-Bates, Ed.D., director of equity and inclusion at McDonogh School.
“I think it’s good to be embedded in all aspects, but the danger is to be spread too thin,” said Oscar Gonzalez, director of equity and inclusivity at Graland Country Day School. “One way I’ve been set up for success is to have a diversity and equity cohort, which is anywhere from 20 to 25 faculty, and every year we break it into a beginning and a 201 track.” The group is released from five full teaching days, during which substitutes are hired, in order to complete in-depth training. “It’s a ripple effect, and we build capacity across the school,” Gonzalez explained.
“This work is researched-based and evidence-based. There’s an identifiable outcome, there are processes and evaluative measures in place to determine whether or not they’re effective.”
Bates stressed that DEI work is not merely “feel-good work” but rather data driven. Administering a climate survey can be an important first step, and reassessing the effectiveness of different initiatives and policies is key to long-term success. “This work is researched-based and evidence-based,” said Bates. “There’s an identifiable outcome, there are processes and evaluative measures in place to determine whether or not they’re effective.”
The presenters together stressed that DEI work impacts a school’s strategic plan and marketability to prospective families. When thinking of DEI programs, “many times we think of programs for students of color, but [DEI work] is essential to all education,” said Melissa Brown, director of diversity, well-being and global education at Holton-Arms. “It’s essential to thriving in a multicultural world.” She urged school leaders to think about DEI in the accreditation process as well.
While the presenters acknowledged that professional development in this area can require significant resources, they pointed out that some opportunities may be lower cost this coming school year, as events go virtual during the pandemic. “Make it [investing in DEI work] a priority,” stated Gonzalez. “Don’t wait until you’re completely ready,” he said, or until COVID-19 passes. Schools can pool their resources and tap their associations to find ways to move forward right now.
For more on this topic, see the on-demand webinar, “Structuring Your School’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Directorship for Success,” in the NBOA webinar archive.