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How Proximity and Identity Advance Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity

Jenn Downey, school receptionist
Receptionist Jenn Downey reflects on her experience chaperoning Steward students at a diversity conference.
“You are either busy developing the leaders of today and tomorrow or you are one,” said Brittany Packnett, vice president of national community alliances for Teach for America, in her speech at the People of Color Conference in Atlanta. This annual conference for independent school faculty and staff is hosted by the National Association of Independent Schools. It didn’t take me long to realize that there was purpose in my attendance at this conference. The conference speakers shared stories of advancing equity and inclusion in their communities which encouraged me, as someone in the role of developing future leaders, that I could do the same in my community back home.

I chaperoned Steward juniors Amanda Wang and Lauren Cantor on this trip as they attended the Student Diversity Leadership Conference. As the students’ chaperone, I felt a responsibility to help Lauren and Amanda bring what they learned back to Steward. In trying to determine where to begin, Steward’s mission statement has been on my mind. Our purpose is to prepare students for college and for life. My experience at the People of Color Conference compelled me to contemplate how furthering diversity, inclusion, and equity in Steward’s community can help us accomplish our mission with excellence.

Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, spoke at the conference’s opening ceremony: “You’ve got to get proximate to the people and the places where there’s inequality and injustice,” he said. “You cannot change the world from a distance … you’ve got to get close to the problems.” Teaching students to be leaders is part of preparing them for life, and we can accomplish that task by helping students get proximate to issues that inspire them to make a difference in their community.

Mr. Stevenson specifically addressed the students in the room, saying, “… we need you to be smart and innovative and creative, but … those ideas in your mind have to be fueled by some conviction in your heart.” At Steward, we fuel students’ minds as we prepare them for college and for life. We teach students to be compassionate and to have integrity.

Students whose hearts break over the world’s profound problems will be inspired to design and display solutions to these problems. Imagine what solutions students will innovate when the passion and heartbeat of their lives is solving the world’s complex problems. Steward is designed to help students succeed at achieving this kind of passion-driven innovation, as we are large enough for students to explore their passions and small enough to support students as they pursue those passions.

Students will find their passions when they realize who they are, and when students recognize their identity and are comfortable sharing their identity with their peers, then diversity and inclusion are able to flourish in the classroom. Our diversity statement mentions “difference as a source of strength.” Each student can contribute to the wellbeing of our community in the unique ways they are gifted when they know who they are.

Martha Caldwell and Oman Frame, teachers from the Paideia School in Atlanta, conducted a workshop at the conference titled, “Let’s Get Real: Exploring Race, Class, and Gender Identities in the Classroom,” which is also the name of their book. Ms. Caldwell and Mr. Frame presented strategies that teachers can implement to help students explore their identities, and displayed how crucial this is to student’s learning. Discovering answers to questions like, “what identity issues do your students bring to school with them?” and “how do identity issues affect learning?” helped me understand the connection between students understanding their identity and their capacity to learn.

Whether we are developing tomorrow’s leaders or we are one, Ms. Packnett explained, we all have a role in advancing diversity and inclusion in our community. We have an opportunity coming up to get proximate to inspiring stories like those that Lauren, Amanda, and I heard in Atlanta. Mr. Stevenson’s book "Just Mercy" is VCU’s Common Book this year and Mr. Stevenson will speak at The Siegel Center on Wednesday, April 12 at 6 p.m. Listening to Mr. Stevenson’s accounts of advocating for equity can move us forward on our journey of developing future leaders and preparing students for college and for life.

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