An Excellent Education is Antiracist
The public murder of George Floyd last May rekindled the demand for a nationwide reckoning with racial inequality. The outcry, which reverberated across every corner of society, rang especially loudly in independent schools as students, parents and alumni have demanded that schools look inward and examine the ways in which they have failed to ensure the safety of students of color with the hope that those institutions will make structural changes so that they may better serve all students.
Grace is facing a reckoning of its own as current students and alumni have spoken up to say that Grace is not immune to the scourge of racism. In truth, people of color in the school have been speaking up for years, but the school’s efforts have fallen short. This summer many Black members of our community created and contributed to an Instagram account called @blackatgrace, which was designed for, “Black students past and present to share their stories as a Black person in a predominantly white school.” Our students said unequivocally to the faculty and administration that we have not made good on the promise of the school’s mission.
The response from the school was to open a dialogue more widely and transparently than had been done before. Following a written response, the school held a town hall and then smaller open forums via Zoom for any constituent to share their concerns and experiences, to ask questions and to make suggestions for change. It has been a painful process, particularly for the people of color in the community who have shared and relived experiences in which they were harmed, but it is a vital one if Grace is to live its values.
Prior to the summer of 2020, the school had been taking steps to improve its commitment to inclusion and belonging. In 2018 the Dean of Equity and Inclusion position and the Office of Community Engagement were created at the recommendation of the Diversity Structures Task Force, itself a product of the 2015 Long Range Plan. The task force became the Institutional Culture Committee in May of 2020, a standing committee of the Board and a formal commitment to keep antiracism, equity and belonging as central pieces of the school’s mission.
This fall, the ICC worked with a consulting group, Pollyanna Inc., to conduct focus groups as the first step in their work to assess Grace’s culture around race and racism. This winter they are conducting a community-wide survey to give every member of the community a chance to share their thoughts. The ICC has committed to quarterly updates to the entire school community about their ongoing work, which will include sharing Pollyanna’s findings in the spring.
The school began its work on inclusion more than 60 years ago, though there is much more work to be done to make it a school in which students of color feel that the community is as much theirs as their white classmates’. Over the past several decades the language and philosophy of how to achieve the goal of an equitable school have shifted. Today, our work is focused on “antiracism, equity and belonging,” and one question that is asked often is why this focus today. The answer is straightforward: we believe antiracism is a crucial part of how we provide an excellent education.
First and foremost, every Grace student needs to feel seen and valued. Standing against racism and all forms of bias is one way we try to make Grace a place where all students know they belong, where all students feel free to learn and grow and flourish. Until this is true for every student, our work is not done.
Antiracism is also an academic skill. Good historians learn not to accept uncritically an earlier generation’s conclusions without listening for voices and stories those narratives have ignored. Good scientists have the knowledge and confidence to call out the pseudo-scientific bunk that bigots use to justify racism. We embrace antiracism because it is an academic virtue and not just a moral imperative, and we celebrate the ways it enhances our pursuit of truth and excellence.
For generations, Grace has attracted students who want to make the world a better place, and we try to teach the skills and habits of antiracism so that students can see problems with greater clarity and address them with greater success. We believe that all oppression is connected and that working against the forces of racism equips us with the know-how and desire to work against bias in other forms and to promote justice for all.
In the summer of 2018 the Diversity Structures Task Force updated the school’s ten-year old diversity statement. The new statement underscores that, “…inclusion is not enough and equity is an impossibility if we cannot name, acknowledge, and oppose the forces of racism and all forms of bias, hate, and fear that exist in our society and that seek to diminish so many in our midst.”
The Board and administration have built, and continue to add to, a robust network of people and structures to ensure that we are living up to our goal of aspiring to be an antiracist institution. The day-to-day work that appears in classrooms and in extracurricular programming for students and evening workshops and meetings for faculty, parents and alums is primarily led by the Office of Community Engagement. Their efforts to move the needle on the school’s institutional goals are guided by a few principles:
The work of antiracism is ongoing. We aren’t an antiracist school right now, but we are striving to become one. Our students of color experience the burden of racism every day, and we strive to oppose the forces of bigotry and hate that seek to diminish them. We know that what happens outside the walls of a school can have a profound effect on student achievement within them, so we stand in solidarity with all our students against racism and its pernicious effects: because by doing so we will help them grow to be more successful students and healthier people; because our mission demands it; and because it is the right thing to do.
We are designing a future for the school. We are redesigning our structures and programming to serve the needs of today’s students, and we are asking for students, parents, alumni, and faculty to join the effort. We must go beyond just naming the flaws of the institution and move toward true inclusion. This is part of our pedagogy of joy as the faculty and families work collaboratively to build a school as equally committed to academic excellence as it is to equality for all. We see this in the many student- and parent-driven initiatives that have been created, and, while the school works diligently to create new programs, we know some of the most meaningful work is being led by students, particularly students of color.
This work is about abundance. Antiracism is not a zero-sum game in which we are taking resources away from one group to give to another. It is about expanding resources for all of our students and creating a larger bounty because a school where everyone feels they belong improves the experience of everyone, not just those who have been marginalized. We are actively revising policies and practices that serve all students like moving discipline in the middle and high school divisions towards restorative justice, including an equity lens as part of our curricular evaluations, and amending school handbooks to explicitly name hate speech as a violation of our code of conduct.
There is a place for everyone in our community. The school and the OCE in particular create opportunities for everyone in the Grace community to engage in the ongoing work of building an antiracist school. There is a growing number of affinity groups for students, parents, and faculty and staff that work alongside multiracial groups like the Diversity Council. This is our big tent approach. It is a universal welcome, which ties directly to our identity as an Episcopal school—a central part of our mission—to seek justice and challenge the sins of white supremacy and racism. To be successful, every member of the Grace community will need to invest their time, energy and heart into this transformational work.