Moving the needle on Diversity

Tutorial in two parts, with discussion questions

Jack Peterson
Managing for Mission

Study Guide for Video:
Over the years I have had the opportunity to work with several insightful leaders in the field of diversity. I have learned a great deal from them and they have asked me and other white colleagues to speak out on what I have learned about racism from the perspective of a white administrator of a faith-based school. If ever there were a time to share their lessons, it is now, when we have the opportunity to truly move the needle.

I have taken some practical insights which have appeared in earlier posts and formatted them into an 8 ½ minute video tutorial that will foster discussion among boards and administrative teams. It is broken into two parts to allow for discussion. The first part invites participants to reflect on what diversity is, why it’s important, challenges to achieving it and understanding outcomes. At the end of Part 1, please pause the video and invite participants into a discussion using the questions provided.

Text of video, Part 1
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. Even 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.

We’ve talked about why diversity is important and what it is. In the next part of this tutorial we’ll talk about why diversity is so difficult to achieve, what our goals are and some practical steps our schools can take to achieve more meaningful diversity. But for now, please press the pause button on your device and invite the members of your team to discuss the following questions.

Discussion Questions for Part 1:
1. How do you see issues around diversity, equity and inclusion relating to our school’s mission and spirituality?
2. Ask each individual to talk about what diversity means to them personally.
3. How important is having the diversity you’ve described? Why?
4. What kind of diversity do other members of the school community feel is important?
5. What have been our school’s successes and challenges in the area of diversity?
6. What sources do you look to to inform you about how our school is doing in this area?

Text of video, Part 2
In Part 1 we talked about why diversity is important to faith-based schools and what we mean by diversity. 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 Feel free to forward this post and video 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.

Discussion Questions for Part 2:
1. What difficulties has your school encountered in trying to be more open and supportive to students of color and their families?
2. How would you describe their experiences students of color are having at your school based on what you know?
3. What sources do you look to to understand their experiences?
4. What words would you use to describe what your goal should be in this area: e.g. 1) eliminating all discriminatory policies; 2) having a school as diverse as the surrounding community; 3) ensuring that all students and families feel fully included; 4) ensuring that groups which have been held back by prior discrimination have equal access to opportunities; 5) forming a community which is committed to dismantling overt and covert racism within the school and beyond.
5. What opposition do you anticipate to the goals you’d like to see the school pursue?
6. What would you personally be willing to do to support the goals?

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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