Becoming an Antiracist School—for the Whole Community
As a board member of Trinity College, his undergraduate alma mater, Friends Select head of school Michael Gary participated in an online two-day antiracist webinar led by Facing History and Ourselves, a global nonprofit whose diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioners “use lessons of history to challenge teachers and their students to stand up to bigotry and hate.” Impassioned by the experience, Michael pledged to make Friends Select an antiracist institution, and has since moved faculty and staff to join him in working toward the eradication of structures, systems, and policies—both within and outside the school community—that contribute to racism, biases, and white supremacy. “Through my board retreat, I realized that I too have work to do to become antiracist,” he said. “It became my mission to provide opportunities for our faculty to bring their authentic selves to conversations so we can grow together toward becoming cross-culturally competent while learning about systemic racism.”
During the 2020–21 academic year, the following steps were taken:
Conducting faculty in-service programs
With guidance from Friends Select faculty and administrators, Michael personally curated two faculty in-service programs focused on antiracism work for the 2020–21 academic year. The first installment focused on identity mapping and the Art Curating Truth (ACT) Paradigm™. For all employees, Michael also purchased copies of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, in which author Isabel Wilkerson correlates racism in America to the social structures of caste systems in Nazi Germany and India. The book served as a constant thread for group discussions throughout the year; the Family Association even organized virtual discussions of Caste for the Friends Select community.
Facing History and Ourselves—the same organization that helped inspire Michael’s commitment to antiracism—was commissioned to administer a second in-service day in the spring, during which employees studied the teaching for equity and justice model, examined equity in education, and worked on developing critical consciousness.
Small groups of employees, or nests, worked together during in-service programming and met frequently throughout the year to facilitate consistent self-reflection. “Conversations regarding race are hard, and that’s why we don’t have them often. You need to first create a relationship with people with whom you feel you can be honest and vulnerable,” Michael explained. “The shedding of the superficial layers we all have happens best in intimate groups that meet together often.” Director of city curriculum Margaret Smith recalled a pivotal moment she shared with her nest. “We were meeting when the Derek Chauvin jury returned their verdict,” she said. “Normally, my instinct is to shrink from others when big national or international events are happening, so I can take in the moment alone with my thoughts. It was moving to watch the results with colleagues and share silence together as we digested what we heard.”
Incorporating antiracism practices
Friends Select teachers are deliberately incorporating antiracism practices into all aspects of their work, with DEI coordinators now in lower and middle school to collaborate with director of equity and inclusion Toni Graves Williamson. The lower school DEI committee prioritized antiracist efforts with an ongoing study of James Banks’ multicultural education framework to reflect on personal DEI practices and develop curriculum. In middle school, DEI coordinator and teacher Bryan Skelly worked with Toni on a multi-part, after-school professional development program regarding how personal biases affect pedagogy. “The programs were designed to be proactive conversations to support future events in the school,” said Bryan. “Additionally, teachers often have conversations framed with an antiracism lens to discuss their classes and lesson plans. We are working to normalize conversations around identity and best practices so our students are all truly seen.” In upper school, Latin and Ancient Greek teacher Ian Lockey and math teacher and department chair Sarah Kelly formed the White Antiracist Group (WAG), which presses its members to do work around white racial identity and determine ways they can help shoulder the burden of antiracist work at Friends Select.
Creating affinity spaces
Teachers have prioritized creating affinity spaces, such as the Big Sibs project through which upper school students of color mentor lower school students of color. The program was a huge success in its first year, with 18 lower school students connecting with 17 upper school students. Upper school students also plan and implement Social Justice Week; engage in activities and workshops during the Day of Inclusivity, Community, and Equity (DICE); and are able to take electives such as African American Literature, African American History, and Asian American History. Middle school courses have also been added, such as Identity and Society, a mandatory class for sixth-grade students to help them understand their own identity and how their experiences will shape the way they view the world. “Through reflections, conversations, and activities, students learned to use their platform to enact the change they want to see, and they became more open to listening to the experiences of their peers,” Bryan said. And for the first time, lower school presented Social Justice Day to highlight racial justice at a developmentally-appropriate level for the school’s youngest students.
Furthering the focus on antiracism
Faculty seeking opportunities to further their antiracism focus outside of Friends Select are supported. “My favorite learning opportunities over the years have been the three People of Color Conferences (PoCC) I attended and The Race Institute. PoCC also serves as an affinity space for people of color working in predominantly white spaces, and providing the opportunity for our faculty is an important factor in our school retaining teachers of color. I am forever grateful to Michael and Toni for giving us the chance to attend these events,” shared lower school Spanish teacher Françoise Thenoux, who—in her 11 years at Friends Select—has consistently structured her curriculum to be decolonized, multicultural, and to have an anti-bias and antiracism (ABAR) lens. “I wouldn’t be at Friends Select if I weren’t able to be a teacher who can foster critical consciousness in her students. The recent commitment the school has made to ABAR is important to me because I have been doing antiracism work for a long time. I am an immigrant, and I also grew up in a fascist dictatorship; liberation and equity are part of my mission, not only as an educator but also as a human being.”
Friends Select administrators collaborated during the National Association for Independent Schools (NAIS) Strategy Lab, a two-day workshop that promoted rapid prototyping through design-thinking techniques. The result was an audit prototype that is being designed to reveal systemic racism in the Friends Select community, and in the future, other schools as well. “We have performed school-wide assessments of inclusivity from NAIS before, but the version our team is developing is a personal audit,” explained Toni. “The antiracism audit prototype will be able to measure how people are progressing in their study of antiracism, how they hold themselves accountable, and how they can move forward. Hopefully, this system can one day be utilized by other schools.”
“The antiracism commitment is truly grounded in our strategic plan and our goal to have a cross-culturally competent community,” said middle school director Desiree Harmon P’19. “Having the structure in place for consistent, brave conversation has been integral in our progress toward becoming an antiracist school.” To continue the momentum, Michael has increased in-service programming to three days and assigned a group of faculty and administrators to further refine the antiracist audit prototype. “To truly make progress,” he said, “becoming antiracist requires deliberate work, every day.”