Cultivating Our Garden: Working to Uphold Racial Justice

Toni Graves Williamson, Director of Equity and Inclusion

At the end of May, after the murder of George Floyd and the nationwide outcry for racial justice and equality, the world shifted. We found that there were valiant efforts in our country to figure out our respective places in the fight against racism. Black students and alumni from independent schools throughout the country started speaking up about their time as students in their respective institutions. Black alumni from area schools (including Friends Select) developed a petition for school administrators. And many schools created Instagram accounts now referred to as “Black at” accounts.
When I found out that Friends Select had a Black at account, I encouraged our faculty and staff to follow the thread—not in an effort to be defensive, but rather to listen to our community members and face the truths of the past and the experiences of those currently at Friends Select. We spent faculty meetings in all divisions reviewing some of the entries and acknowledging how we all play a part in upholding racism and White supremacy, and we continue to be in conversations of how we work to uphold racial justice. 

Over the summer, I formed a Friends Select working group that started to articulate some of our commitments toward working for racial justice. I have brought these commitments to several constituents of the school, including the board, divisional leadership, and faculty. We are committed to:

Building an anti-racist curriculum that assesses what we teach as well as how we teach.
Ongoing professional development for our employees (both elective and required) that is matched with individuals’ needs and their place on the continuum of learning.
Setting hiring goals and performing an ongoing review of our hiring process. 
Finding ways to hold ourselves accountable to increasing our faculty, staff, and student racial diversity by producing annual demographic reports and setting yearly goals for improvement.
Monitoring ways that we spend and invest money in order to support Black-owned businesses and businesses that are committed to anti-racist work. 

Supporting Black students and their families by creating spaces where their identity is affirmed and celebrated, and where they are able to discuss microaggressions and how to address them. 

Supporting our Black alumni by maintaining meaningful relationships with Friends Select and each other. 

I stand in a place in my role, as director of equity and inclusion, where I have to hold myself accountable to keep these conversations on the table. In a year when we are figuring out how our educational program adjusts to the limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to remember that our country is also suffering from another pandemic—the pandemic of racism. What is our culpability? How do we ensure that our alumni have the opportunity to share their stories? We want the memories of Friends Select to be about joyful learning and positive community. Where we fell short, we want to hear stories about how we held ourselves accountable and worked to change the narrative. How do we ensure that we are cultivating those positive relationships?
The leader of a workshop that I attended last summer about responding to the outcry of our Black alumni shared the analogy of cultivating a garden versus curating a museum. Is Friends Select curating a museum where our alums think of their time at our school as set in stone, whether positive or negative? Or are we cultivating a garden that we continue to tend—learning and growing and staying in communication and connection with all of our alums, students, and families. I am working with our community to make sure that we are weeding, planting, and watering to ensure that we are upholding the best interests of our community members and holding ourselves accountable when we experience neglect. 

We realize that all of these goals are aspirational, but they are within our reach! Our Quaker roots remind us that we should seek continuing revelation. Our institution today should not look the same as it did 50 years ago, five years ago, or even last year. Some of the initiatives that we have taken this year include: 

• Ongoing racial justice professional development with all employees. 
• Our Black Student Union meets with some of our Black alumni on a regular basis. 
• We have reviewed and revised our practices of choosing vendors. 
• We have established ways to examine curriculum in the lower school to ensure that we are adhering to our goals of inclusivity. 
• The middle school started a new course with sixth grade called Identity and Society. Curriculum of that course examines “-isms” and biases for all core cultural identifiers. 
• We have reviewed our investment policies. 
• Department chairs for the middle and upper school are examining their department audit process in order to make sure that diversity, equity, and inclusion are meaningful. 

Are we finished? We will never be finished. A garden needs constant tending.