I have been intimately involved in equity and social justice work for most of my adult life. Back in the day, the work was called, “anti-racism,” or, “multicultural education”. It began during my senior year as an undergrad, with a conversation with a psychology professor, and her sharing with me her copy of Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children. That conversation, and that book, altered the trajectory of my personal and professional life, and began my “career”, as it were, as a classroom equity and social justice educator.
Over the years, I have closely observed diversity/anti-racism/multicultural education/equity and social justice work at independent schools. In addition to being a classroom teacher for 22 years, I served as a director of diversity for three years. Additionally, I was a member of a year-long coalition with a group of independent school educators from schools in and around the Boston area, as well as Connecticut and Vermont. What I learned from each of these experiences is that it takes a great deal of education, training, expertise, personal insight, perseverance, intellectual fortitude and courage, to be an effective doer and advocate of the work.
What I have discovered, however, is many people, even many people of color, are lacking in the aforementioned. Yes. I said it. There is a belief that people of color as a collective have it going on in this arena. Well, let me tell you: Such isn’t the case. I have been witness to it, on personal by and professional levels. It’s like the myth that all Black women can throw down in the kitchen, when the truth of the matter is: Many cannot. There are many people of color, who, despite the bigotry, racism and white supremacy pouring out at the seams at their respective institutions, will sabotage – directly or indirectly – the efforts of a person of color, leading the equity and social justice charge. Consider Malcolm X’s, “The House Negro and the Field Negro.” For many people of color, as long as they’ve gotten their slice of sweet potato pie, life is good.
But, let’s get back to the topic of institutional equity and social justice work in independent schools. During the 1980s and much of the 1990s, independent school leaders were committed to the work – even if in name only. Many of these schools stepped up their efforts to increase in student of color enrollment, and, to a much lesser extent, of faculty, staff, and administrator of color recruitment. This all led to the creation of affinity groups and multicultural clubs, the installation of multicultural, anti-racist curriculum, and the establishment of diversity committees for faculty and staff, even if there were no Black or Brown people to speak of in the school or community at-large. Additionally, conferences, workshops and institutes proliferated; I have attended many of them. Then, during much of the 2000s, many independent school leaders disbanded their clubs, affinity groups and committees, and ceased recruitment of students, faculty and administrators of color, the belief being that “racism was over” in the United States, and all was good, right, and proper at their respective schools.
Then, Travon Martin happened. And Tamir Rice. And all the rest. Independent school leaders – most of them White – began to grow concerned at what was happening in the United States, and tried to revive the programming of the 1980s and 1990s. They now needed people who could be hired as equity and social justice experts – with 20 or more years of experience in independent schools. But, there were, perhaps, only four such experts in the entire United States. Since the tenure, on average, of such professionals is approximately five years, and, since many independent schools had dismantled these positions, the proverbial pickings were quite slim.
The truth of the matter is this: Equity and social justice work just isn’t that important for many White independent school heads, and, as a result, they have not made this work a high priority. There is something called a legacy, and, one would think that this legacy for independent school heads would include instituting lasting and enduring change at one’s school to promote equity and social justice – on campus, and beyond the campus. And yet, if one were to look behind the furniture, lift up the rugs, and open the closets at many of these schools, a lot of dust, dirt and skeletons, denoting a not-so-nice equity and social justice history, would be revealed.
Additionally, there is a very concerning trend at independent schools: Many are attending the conferences and workshops, and learning all of the right things to say. Yet, their knowledge is superficial, and their capacity to do the work in deep, complex and complicated ways is minimal.
So, no; I no longer sit on so-called equity and social justice committees. I have an agenda, and that agenda is rarely the school’s agenda, even when there is a committee. On the other hand, I am able to do the work on my own terms, via classroom curriculum, presenting at conferences, and, of course, writing. Like Sgt. Elias Grodin in the film, Platoon, I move faster alone. Moreover, I am learning not to give away my skills and labor for free, which is all too common for people of color at independent schools, which has been the greatest liberation.