Diversity for Faith-based Schools

Jack Peterson
Managing for Mission


If the second Diversity video doesn’t start automatically, click here.

Most schools struggle with the challenge of diversity. They want to serve all kinds of students, but they often can’t attract under-represented minorities or fully involve them in the life of the school. Working on diversity was one of my greatest challenges as a school president, but also one of my greatest sources of joy. In the process, I learned that to understand why our schools struggle to achieve their diversity goals, we have to answer a few questions and we have to answer them honestly:

Why is Diversity important?

What do we mean by diversity?

Why is it so difficult to achieve?

And what is our goal?

First, why is diversity important to us? As faith-based schools, we’re in the business of forming students with competence, conscience and compassion. If ours school were transplanted to the 1850’s, we’d like to think that the education our students now receive would give them the intellectual clarity and moral courage to recognize the evils of slavery.

But the views we would have been educating against were deeply woven into the culture, and opposing them would be as radical as anything we can conceive of today. The reason that diversity is important, is that after hundreds of years and many generations of weaving, the racism on which slavery was founded is still woven into our culture. In American cities we think of today as diverse, people of color are still experiencing exclusion from opportunity.

White people like me may not experience racism directly, but those whose skin is brown can experience it in some form on a daily basis. And it still has a huge influence on who has access to the rich opportunities our schools can provide.

So if we’re serious about fostering diversity in our schools, we have to face the legacy of slavery which, in many ways, continues to perpetuate the racism that is still alive today, even in the communities we serve. And doing something about it will arouse deep feelings, which can include fear, resentment, guilt and denial.

The second question is “What does diversity mean to us?” There are many kinds of diversity: economic, gender, academic or even geographic diversity with international students. As important as they are, the biggest challenge is including students whose families have been treated for centuries, to borrow Jesus’ words, as the “least of these.” Reaching out to the most excluded in our culture is still the apostolic frontier for faith-based schools, and at some point we have to cross that frontier and make a commitment to do things differently in order to achieve different results.

The third question is why is achieving racial diversity so difficult? I used to think that publishing our Equal Opportunity Statement would ensure that the barriers would be removed. But it became clear that most of the barriers are hidden. Barriers may be finances, language, location, lack of awareness and the symbols we use. Each of these must be addressed if a school wants a student body drawn from all communities, and many schools have made heroic commitments to eliminating these barriers.

But perhaps the biggest barrier is one we don’t see. “Whose school is this?” No one wants to attend someone else’s school. If I am black, I don’t want to attend or send my children to a school that is clearly intended to serve white people. Because at some point, I will encounter something that tells me or my child, this isn’t “your” school. It may be the parking lot supervisor who interrogates me when I come to pick up my child. It may be being called on to give the “African American perspective” during a discussion of Huckleberry Finn.

Closely related is “Whose voices are heard?” Are there people on the board or in the administration or faculty who understand my experience because they have also lived it? If I am one of a handful of Latino parents, do I have to go to the parent information night where no one else would have my question or concern, or ask it in the same language? If the campus doesn’t always feel safe to me, is there a safe place I can go to get myself grounded again? And do most people at the school not understand why that safe place is even important, because for them the whole school is their safe place?

Finally, “What is our real goal here?” Is our goal to be able to say our school does not discriminate? That shouldn’t be hard to achieve. We don’t have to actively discriminate in a system where the barriers are built in. Maybe our goal is more substantial, like being inclusive and welcoming. This requires us to become more aware of the hidden ways in which we are not welcoming.

But the mission of our schools calls us to go a step further. Our institutions and our students have a responsibility to use their intelligence, skills and resources to dismantle and finally eliminate racism not only in ourselves but in society. To be anti-racist.

So here’s my advice to administrators and boards who are serious about moving the needle on diversity in their schools.

First, take time to have honest conversations about the questions we talked about above. Use the same depth of discernment and involve the same levels of the organization you would use to formulate your mission statement.

Second, if you are white like me, put yourself in situations where you are in a minority, like attending a Black or Latino church service, and ask what it would take for you to feel at home. Then imagine what it would take for the people around you to feel at home in your school.

Third, provide safe ways that students and parents of color can educate you about their needs, perceptions and challenges. It’s difficult for them to express this in a setting where most people don’t already share their experience. You’ll have to earn their trust, because many before you have lost it.

Finally, you’ll have to dedicate great effort to recruit faculty, administrators and trustees of color, and support them in the challenges of isolation that they will feel. One of the best ways is to keep in touch with your own students of color and invite them back to join the team. It’s a long game, but there is no short game on this one.

It’s hard to do this topic justice in a few paragraphs. If you want to learn more about discernment and other tools that can help you approach this and other school challenges, please explore our website at www.managingformission.com. Click on one of share buttons below to send this blog to others who are key to meeting your school’s commitment to diversity. And thanks for having the courage to assure that the blessings of your school are available to all God’s children.

Special thanks to Dr. Saj Kabadi of Regis Jesuit High School, Barbara Henderson of Bellarmine Preparatory School, Matt Balano of St. Ignatius College Prep, Dr. Donna Andrade of Fairfield College Preparatory School and Gwen White for their contributions to this post.

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2 Responses to Diversity for Faith-based Schools

  1. I welcome comments people have to this Blog post. It’s an important topic and your added wisdom is appreciated. –Jack

    Like

  2. tduhl says:

    Jack, it takes courage to tackle diversity in the way you did. Thanks!

    Like

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