Eleannor Maajid’s office is never empty. As Latin’s Advocate for Students of Color for the last five years, she created a welcoming space for teachers, staff and students to come for support and counsel. In her new role as Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), her office remains as busy as ever, but the impact of her work is felt far beyond those four walls.
When asked about the path Latin has taken over the years, Maajid is proud of the progress made in regards to the width and breadth of DEI work. “When I think of DEI, it is truly becoming a part of everything we do,” she said. While still keeping student support at the heart of her day-to-day reality, Maajid now also oversees all DEI initiatives at Latin and her school-wide scope and strategic lens can require her to be involved in everything from human resources to enrollment management to athletics to communications—sometimes all in one day. As the chair of Latin’s Council for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, she is additionally responsible for articulating goals, brainstorming implementation and providing accountability.
“Latin’s new vision statement directs us to make learning inquiry-based, personal and inclusive,” Maajid shared. “All of these things align with our DEI goals: to help students know and understand themselves, to create a learning environment that supports each student as needed, and to continually grow our ability to understand and empathize with each other.” For Maajid, this commitment on a strategic level is critical. “It shows that DEI work is really who we are and the fabric of our being. It has become part of Latin’s identity.”
To develop a structure for the work ahead, Maajid has partnered with Dr. Derrick Gay, a thought leader and educational consultant who has worked in independent schools, businesses and universities in 17 countries across six continents for more than 20 years. In every country, schools are asking a similar question … what are their responsibilities for educating students so that they can be critical thinkers and develop an open mindset for navigating an increasingly complex world comprised of people from various backgrounds?
Before diving into the complexities, Gay likes to begin with language. As it turns out, definitions are important. Take the term “diversity” which Gay notes is often misunderstood. “Most people understand it as an identity; for example, a historically marginalized group, like women, people of color, LGBTQ+ or non-Christians.” But according to Gay, “diversity” is really a neutral term that means differences, not different. “We need to reframe ‘diversity’ from referring to a particular person to meaning differences. We are all different to other people. It is both an ideological and semantic shift,” he said. “When you redefine it this way, everyone feels included and can contribute to and benefit from diversity efforts.”
We need to prepare students for the knowledge, skills and competencies that they need to flourish and be successful in this interconnected, global world.
– Dr. Derrick Gay, Educational Consultant In addition to hosting dialogues and workshops with faculty, staff, parents and trustees, much of Gay’s work at Latin has been focused on coaching faculty and staff on framing diversity in alignment with the mission of the school. “We need to prepare students for the knowledge, skills and competencies that they need to flourish and be successful in this interconnected, global world,” said Gay. He believes that everything in schools—from literature to curriculum—needs to be a mirror or a window, a metaphor coined by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, a professor and researcher at The Ohio State University. “Children need to be able to see themselves—the mirror. But we also need to create spaces where children feel included and can learn about others in meaningful ways—the window. In this way, we can cultivate empathy, which is simply understanding and caring about the feelings of others.”
Lower school teacher-librarians Sheri Snopek and Luke Sutton are heartened by the publishing industry’s push in the last five or six years to showcase books with different characters and perspectives. However, there is still a long way to go for equitable representation. Statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin for 2018 indicate that only 23 percent of books published for children feature content by and about people of color. That’s up from 14.2 percent in 2015, yet still does not come close to reflecting youth population percentages. “It’s definitely getting better,” said Sutton, “but we could always use more books with different characters.”
Sutton and Snopek gather titles through suggestions from students, teachers and parents, as well as professional book reviews, online resources, and various library lists and publishers. “We have age-appropriate books on any topic you can think of,” said Snopek. “We try to have something for everyone.”
The learning around identity at every grade level in the lower school includes books that provide engaging windows and mirrors for students to learn about themselves and others. Every year begins with an all-school read that encourages students to broaden their idea of community. This fall, every lower school class read the book All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold. The book’s illustrations by Suzanne Kaufman are wonderfully inclusive. Author visits also give students a chance to learn about how writers create these stories. Last semester alone, four visits were arranged by the librarians. Children learned about the Indian holiday of Diwali with author Ajanta Chakraborty, were introduced to the important contributions of a diversity of activists throughout history with author Robin Stevenson, enjoyed Kyle Lukoff’s When Aidan Became a Brother featuring a family’s embrace of a transgender child and followed the writing process of award-winning author and illustrator Grace Lin. A family presentation about the importance of diversifying children’s bookshelves was included as part of Grace Lin’s visit, giving adults the opportunity to learn as well.
Sutton and Snopek are mindful of the books they put on display and try to pick titles that reflect the diverse world around the students. “It is really awesome when you see a student who is excited to read something because the person depicted looks like them,” said Snopek.
Middle school affective education focuses on social and emotional learning, and includes character building. Fifth through eighth graders all study identity with middle school wellness teacher Dr. Richard Dickinson. Each grade examines what identity is, how it is developed and how it affects relationships, albeit in age-appropriate ways.
For example, Dickinson does an activity called The Apprentice with each grade level. Students are given eight candidates for an engineer who can support life on Mars. However, they are given very little information other than the names of the candidates. Some names are ambiguous by gender or ethnicity. Students have to fire a candidate each round. “The purpose is to uncover unconscious bias,” said Dickinson. “The point of the exercise is that we all carry these, so we need to be aware so we can make more conscious decisions.” Interestingly, the fifth graders, who are more eager to fire the candidates, are less aware of their biases and prejudices. “It was very eye-opening for many of them,” said Dickinson. “The eighth graders are much more reticent. They have a greater level of discomfort about firing candidates, given the little information they have. They also exhibited a greater level of shame in their awareness of their biases.”
While Dickinson acknowledges that middle schoolers are sometimes challenging to teach, he loves that he is able to start students thinking about positive personal identity. “The more students can accept and appreciative differences, the more empathy and understanding they will have. We want students to feel free, open, safe and not marginalized because of any component in their identity.”
Upper school Global Studies Visual Arts (GSVA) class is an opportunity for ninth grade to focus on connecting artwork to their identity. Betty Lark Ross, chair of the visual arts department and GSVA teacher, explained the My Visual Culture project, where students take photos of five small meaningful artifacts that will fit on a neutral background. Students then set to work, using one of 150 contemporary master images, giving students a guide for composition or color. “Students can incorporate the items into their work in any way they want, using any medium. The challenge is to make their work very personalized,” said Ross.
Ross insists that students must learn that they are unique and have creative ideas. “Many people think they are not artistic. We want to empower students to know they can express themselves visually.”
English class is another opportunity for ninth graders to explore identity. All freshmen students read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The novel tells the story of Starr, an African-American girl who lives in a black neighborhood but attends a predominantly white school. “Starr attends a school that is a lot like Latin, so Williamson Prep serves as a mirror,” said Kate Lorber-Crittenden who is the upper school diversity coordinator and also an upper school English teacher who has taught the text for two years. Starr witnesses a white police officer kill her childhood friend, and the news story becomes national. When the grand jury does not indict the officer, Starr becomes increasingly vocal about the situation, which causes tensions with her friends at school.
“The novel asks students to think about biases,” Lorber-Crittenden said. “Where we grow up and our values affect our understanding of people who might be different.”
“Students love this text. The protagonist is around their age, and it deals with real-life experiences,” said Lorber-Crittenden. “It has a lot of relevance.”
“The goal is to create a learning environment so that we can support everyone,” said Gay. Helping students understand their identities and the identities of others is critical to all members of the community feeling valued and engaged, which are the best conditions for learning.
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