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Leaning in and Learning

An Update on Inclusion, Diversity, Empathy, and Action at The Country School

by Liz Lightfoot '77 P '05, '07, '08, '12
Alumni Relations, Community Outreach, and IDEA Parent-Teacher Alliance

A recent issue of Independent School magazine has been making its way to teacher desks across campus, where it has been bookmarked, annotated, and underlined by many different pens. This particular issue of the National Association of Independent School’s magazine focuses on the state of diversity and inclusion in independent schools, and among the array of thought-provoking articles is one called We Need to Talk: Making a Place for Race in Schools by Sheri Lyn Schmidt, a social justice educator and curriculum director.

Schmidt begins her article by describing a conversation she had with a school administrator who was seeking her perspective on an interaction he had with a parent. She writes:

The parent seemed frustrated about an uncomfortable interaction about race that occurred between his white child and a child of color. While expressing dismay that this encounter had happened at the school, the parent declared, “Race has no place in school.” The administrator knew this parent to be bright, successful, and caring — and also knew that this parent was not alone in this belief. We talked about how common this sentiment is, how hard these conversations are to navigate, and finally, our desire to move schools past the discomfort that often comes when issues of race arise.

Schmidt found she couldn’t stop thinking about the conversation and, in particular, about the parent’s contention that race has no place in schools. Convinced that this was a “barrier that we must finally push through,” she began formulating a question: “What if we embrace the notion that schools are the perfect place to talk about race, because in actuality, race is always present in our schools, race matters in every aspect of our lives, and if we are truly committed to educating future leaders, students must understand the impact of race and specifically the consequences of systemic racism?”

At The Country School, we embrace a similar notion. Although talking about race — or about diversity of any kind — can be difficult and uncomfortable, it’s a commitment we must make if, as Schmidt says, “we are truly committed to educating future leaders.”

Having these conversations is nothing new at The Country School. We’ve been discussing diversity, equity, and inclusion for years, although, like most of the schools in the country who are tackling these issues head on, we are having them more frequently these days. (For instance, read this Equity and Inclusion update from Phillips Exeter Academy to see how they have stepped up their efforts.)

We have also been reporting about our own diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts for a while now (read Creating Global Citizens: The Country School and the World, extracted from our most recent Country Connections magazine), but there will always be more to tell. So here is an update on inclusion and diversity at The Country School, starting with the opening of school in September:

  • In addition to all the other back-to-school work, our faculty, administration, and staff began the year with a discussion about teaching and/or talking about race. Conversations centered around their summer reading on the topic, and a commitment was made to holding monthly conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion at faculty meetings throughout the year.
  • A faculty IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Empathy, Action) Committee has been meeting regularly to plan for these and other conversations and events, such as our upcoming IDEA Day on January 21 (scroll down for details). This will be our eighth annual IDEA Day, a full day set aside for workshops and reflections on subjects related to diversity, inclusion, empathy, and action. Other IDEA activities are ongoing throughout the year.
  • The IDEA Student Alliance, formed this fall, has been meeting every other week over lunch. Conversations, facilitated by members of the faculty IDEA Committee, have included: What do we mean by diversity, equity, and inclusion? What ground rules should we include in our discussions? What initiatives do we wish to undertake? Watch for more news from our dynamic Middle School student IDEA Alliance leaders.
  • Over the years, we have held several parent and teacher discussions on topics related to diversity and inclusion. Like the IDEA Student Alliance, we have decided to formalize our periodic gatherings into something more concrete. Look for an announcement about the next meeting of what we are calling our IDEA Parent-Teacher Alliance.
  • At a recent faculty meeting, based on advice from Jade Walker ’93, a social justice educator, teachers participated in an energetic discussion about the podcast 10 Things Every White Teacher Should Know When Talking About Race.
  • Our 8th Graders are engaged in the Witness Stones project, a ground-breaking undertaking to uncover untold stories of enslaved people in the town of Madison. Last week they presented their project at the Madison Board of Selectmen meeting, and their efforts were met with great enthusiasm. This project was made possible through a grant from Teaching Tolerance, dedicated to helping educate children and youth to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Watch for more about this exciting endeavor.

Below, students with town leaders at the Selectmen Meeting.
Click here for a video of their presentation.

  • On December 2 at 6:30 p.m., the broader community is invited to join the conversation on race when author Margaret Hagerman comes to campus to discuss her book, White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America (register here). Ms. Hagerman will be joining us when she's in Connecticut to speak at the Yale Child Study Center (thank you to the Country School parent who knew about her appearance there and suggested she might also speak on campus). As a regular sponsor of community conversations on important subjects related to parenting and education, we reached out to local public school administrators to see if they wished to join us. We are pleased to say that both the Madison and Guilford Public School systems will be co-sponsoring Ms. Hagerman’s visit. We are proud of The Country School’s leadership on this issue.

Of course, diversity and inclusion are about much more than race, and so we embrace opportunities to explore other ways we can learn from and share with each other about all kinds of differences. One such opportunity will take place on IDEA Day on January 21, when we welcome Sam Drazin, founder and executive director of Changing Perspectives, a nonprofit that engages students in open dialogue and real-world experiences to promote disability awareness and foster inclusive communities. Mr. Drazin will speak about his own experience growing up with Treacher Collins syndrome and then help facilitate a series of workshops designed to promote empathy and inclusion.

A few weeks ago, students heard from Jonathan Starr, founder of Abaarso School in Somaliland, when he delivered an Elmore Leadership talk about the continent of Africa in general and Somaliland and Abaarso in particular. Country School students also enjoyed meeting Nadira, an Abaarso graduate who now attends Yale. We hope to continue our conversations with Abaarso in the coming months. Last Friday, students learned important lessons about diversity, inclusion, empathy, and taking action against injustice, when the musical Stand Up and Speak Out was performed on campus.

Being on the forefront of these diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts helps all of us — both young and old — grow and more fully understand the world around us. Perhaps most important, they fulfill our school’s mission to empower our children to serve the common good as we prepare them to face the future with confidence and an education that lasts a lifetime. If we allow our students to engage with others, experience a diverse array of perspectives and traditions, know what it is to be inclusive and empathetic, and empower them to take action in support of others, then they will be in the best possible position to take a leadership role in our rapidly changing world.

As educators, we believe engaging in hard discussions is at the heart of our work, and we are ready to keep leaning in and learning alongside our students and families.