How to Face Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Challenges With Commitment

How to Face Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Challenges With Commitment
How to Face Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Challenges With Commitment

Academic Leadership//

September 12, 2021

Not all private schools are on the same page with the issues of diversity. Some schools have just begun the conversation about justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) initiatives, while others are amid significant shifts in both policy and practice.

JEDI goals directly connect to a school’s willingness to undergo a true transformation—if policies remain status quo, the work is performative—when people or organizations make policy changes that don't get to the root of the issue—at best. Honesty can be scary, and to some it feels threatening. But remember—keeping our heads in the sand contributed to the system we are now challenging. Conversations may be uncomfortable—in fact, they should be—but taking that first step will lead to progress and a better future for the academic community.

Where to Start

The work behind JEDI does not comprise platitudes, press statements, or snappy graphics on a website. JEDI work is not simple or immediate. As with any worthwhile objective, it requires work. It takes effort, intentionality, and fortitude.

So let’s dive in. One of the biggest challenges to JEDI work stems from a lack of communication. Instead of simply directing teachers to change parts of their curricula, for example, provide them with the rationale behind the changes. Be prepared to share value- and mission-based reasons for these shifts.

Communication is multifaceted. All stakeholders must be on board if JEDI work is to be successful—Head of School and other administrators, faculty and staff, parents and students, and trustees. Focus language on the school’s mission and culture. In an increasingly politically charged world, word choice is key. Strive for clarity to increase engagement among varied constituencies.

Countering Reluctance and Doubt

It is unrealistic to expect easy or quick consensus among your entire school community when it comes to JEDI. There will be some who cannot be swayed, period.

As a school, a commitment to pursuing and achieving JEDI means a willingness to let some segments of the population go. That is not an easy concept to digest. The loss can range from community members to tuition and donations.

Avoiding loss cannot be guaranteed, though there are several helpful steps an independent school can take to mitigate it.

Alumni and Donor Communities

Alumni hold their alma maters close to their hearts—complete with nostalgia, warmth, and an aversion to change. What are the most effective ways to convey the reality that even their beloved institutions must reflect cultural shifts?

  • Personal Audit: Share student, staff, and faculty experiences using facts and narratives. Data and storytelling are a compelling duo.
  • Student Focus: Explain how these changes will meet the needs of your students, both today and for generations to come. Teaching children goes beyond GPAs—it means preparing them to live and work in the outside world.
  • Perseverance: The withdrawal of financial support is sometimes unavoidable. Remain firm in the belief that the work being done is for the greater good, and stay open to new donor sources.

Board of Trustee Community

A Board member who is not engaged in JEDI cannot fully support such initiatives at the school.

  • Recruitment: How are new Board members solicited? Before they are seriously considered, ensure an existing commitment to JEDI work.
  • Education: Conversations regarding white fragility and privilege are difficult. The Board should strive to uncover its own implicit biases before making recommendations for the school. Share data and trends regarding equality with your Trustees to aid in these discussions.
  • Campus Lens: Let students share their thoughts and feelings about the current curriculum and campus life. Their unique perspectives shed light on issues Trustees may not have previously considered problematic.

Sometimes a third party must facilitate conversations with independent school Trustees, who may be all over the spectrum on JEDI issues. There is no shame in seeking outside help.


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Partnering With Parents

There will be parents who push back—sometimes loudly—at JEDI work. Engage with them to assess their comfort with the topic to help inform your approach. Offer JEDI programming for parents to reinforce what students are learning at school. Work within the existing infrastructure among parent groups—encourage them to connect through relevant activities and conversations. Peer experiences can be highly effective.

Some families may decide to leave your school. But consider this—JEDI work is taking place in direct response to the needs of institutions and communities across the nation. Many prospective families are actively seeking educational options where JEDI is woven into the school's fabric.

Planning for the Future

Academic institutions were challenged in unimaginable ways over the 2020–21 school year. Many schools did not come out unscathed, but a majority found their inner strength to make it through. JEDI work requires similar determination and dedication—arguably more so. When planning for the future, consider the following:

  • Definitively share information and recommendations with core constituencies—faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, trustees, and students. Always include the “why.”
  • Allocate resources: both time and money.
  • Identify community allies.
  • Build longevity into JEDI initiatives.
  • Commit to JEDI work. Be willing to lose something along the way.

While experiencing resistance is uncomfortable, it is a good sign and paves the way for true progress.

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