Why Diversity and Inclusion?

One of the reasons I joined Catlin Gabel School last year was the opportunity to build on the work of previous years in the areas of diversity and inclusion. In 2013-14 we conducted the Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism (AIM), which helped us to set goals related to leadership, community, employment, and professional development.

Those included creating a new senior administrative position, the director of equity and outreach; a standing board committee on diversity and inclusion; an inclusivity leadership position on the PFA executive council; and a variety of community events, forums, and activities.

We have taken these steps in response to AIM and because I believe that creating a diverse community in which every child feels safe, known, and valued is a precondition to effective learning. I am not surprised, given the complex nature of diversity and inclusion and the changes that we have made, that some people in our community have questions about this institutional priority. To that end, I thought it would be helpful to address some of the questions I have been asked.

What do we mean by diversity, equity, and inclusion and why are they so important?

Diversity is the range of differences represented in our community, including class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, physical ability, religion, etc. Equity refers to access to the various opportunities, programs, and experiences that we offer to our students, families, and employees. Inclusion is the degree to which members of our community feel safe, known, and valued. We explain these terms on our website. Being diverse, equitable, and inclusive are necessary conditions for educational excellence. Becoming culturally literate cannot be an intellectual exercise; it must be developed through the experience of learning alongside others who bring multiple perspectives to our community. To that end, the people we enroll and hire should represent, as Ruth Catlin wrote, a “cross section of American life.” In a diverse and inclusive school students learn the skills they need to live and lead in an interconnected global community. Their future success will depend on their ability to collaborate with all kinds of people, bringing curiosity, respect, and humility to those interactions. Our board of trustees recently adopted a statement that outlines the case for being a diverse, equitable, and inclusive school.

Affinity groups seem divisive. Shouldn’t we all be talking to each other?

It may be hard or uncomfortable to acknowledge, but the culture, norms, traditions, and, to some degree, curriculum of Catlin Gabel, like most independent schools, reflects a history of enrolling primarily affluent, white, straight, physically able people. That is not a bad thing; it’s a reality. But that also means that the community can feel like it “belongs” to some people more than others. We know from our AIM study, alumni feedback, and ongoing conversations that it can be challenging for some families and employees to navigate our community’s dominant cultural assumptions and norms. Affinity groups provide a respite, a safe place where one can talk from the “I” perspective about the experience of feeling like “the other,” a place where you don’t have to explain what that’s like to well-intentioned majority culture friends. I believe that it is important to provide these opportunities, as well as broader multicultural events and activities that bring all community members together. It’s a both/and approach, not either/or.

How are the school’s diversity efforts affecting admission?

As in all independent schools, Catlin Gabel considers many factors in the admission process. First and foremost, those include whether a student has the demonstrated aptitude to succeed in a challenging academic program and be a positive community member. They also include sibling or legacy status, family educational goals, and how a student will enrich a classroom with a unique perspective. Being a sibling or having a school affiliation generally is an advantage, but certain aspects of a child’s profile may be more or less important in a specific grade in a given year. Because we have more applicants than spaces, each year we deny or place in a wait pool many deserving applicants. We do not admit children simply because they are siblings, they are of color, or they are wealthy. There are numerous compelling reasons for each decision that, understandably, are not shared with the community. Making assumptions about admission decisions based on any one aspect of a child’s profile does that child and the community a disservice.

What’s wrong with privilege? I’ve worked hard for what I have.

Nothing. Many of us in our Catlin Gabel community have social, economic, or physical privileges of some kind, either “unearned” (e.g. race), or “earned” (perhaps economic status). What privilege requires of us is not superiority or guilt, but recognition and self-awareness that we may be walking through life without having to feel like “the other” or “less than” in certain ways and in certain settings. I believe that, as educators and parents, we all have an obligation to understand what forms of privilege we do or do not have. We need to consider how those privileges affect the opportunities and relationships we have at Catlin Gabel, in Portland, and in America. I believe that individuals and institutions with power and privilege have a role to play in helping our communities to become more equitable and inclusive.

I’m committed to diversity and don’t think I am biased – can’t we just move on?

As human beings, we all have biases, some conscious and some unconscious. Asian or European, high or low income, NE or SW Portland residents; our biases are shaped by our life experience, the opinions and attitudes of those with whom we work and socialize, and the information we receive from various media. In The Inclusion Dividend, the authors explain three forms of unconscious bias we all share: stereotypes we can’t discard; affinity for those like us; and being primed by others we trust. Just as it is important for all of us to know what privileges we have (or don’t have) in society, it is important to know how our biases inform our relationships, parenting, work attitudes, and beliefs about society. In a community in which we are raising and educating young people, we have an obligation to understand our biases and consciously mitigate them. That is furthered by public dialogue and acknowledgment.

Why should we talk to our young children about complicated issues of diversity? Can’t we protect them from topics such as race, class, and gender?  

They’re already talking about these topics, in various ways. Young children seeking to understand themselves and the world around them notice differences and are curious about them. Many parents discuss class, race, family structures, and other aspects of diversity with younger children to help them understand their own identity and because research suggests that avoiding these sensitive topics suggests that the topics are bad or should not be discussed. Here at Catlin Gabel we can help families learn how to do that in ways that are appropriate for the child’s age and development. Fortunately, our children are growing up in a world that is rapidly diversifying. They are likely to have life experiences that equip them to navigate differences with curiosity, sensitivity, and empathy. By working together, families and the school can help them to make sense of those experiences.

I have heard these questions in my previous schools, and I hear them here at Catlin Gabel, where we all mean well and we all have blind spots. We are justifiably proud of our happy and healthy community – and we have work to do to help everyone feel safe, known, and valued. I believe that if we consider the intent vs. impact of our actions and words, recognize our privileges and biases, and respect that families and colleagues have different experiences and needs, we will move closer to being the community that we aspire to be, and the school that our children need to thrive in their global future.

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