Embracing DEI Work as the “Why”

Andrew Prince Leadership Programs, Pedagogy of Leadership Interview

by Andrew Prince, gcLi Faculty, LL ‘19, Head of Upper Collegiate School, New York, NY

This summer was busy, difficult, and exhausting for many, if not all of us working in independent schools. Throughout much of the spring, we grappled with how to provide an effective and equitable educational experience to students who were in any number of different environments which may or may not have been conducive to learning. Moreover, we spent much of the summer preparing for the different scenarios in which we might find ourselves teaching this school year. Be it fully in person, fully remote, or hybrid, school was going to look different this year and we had to be ready for each of those eventualities and more.

Adding to this reality, we experienced a reckoning with systemic racism that was upon the entire country at the start of this summer. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd catalyzed a movement for social justice that stands out as unique in my lifetime — though it must be said that the tragic deaths of each of these Black Americans is neither uncommon nor unique. Like much of the nation, our schools found themselves responding to the courageous and honest feedback of students of traditionally marginalized groups who had been calling on us to improve our practice for decades without adequate progress. Many independent schools have taken meaningful steps to desegregate but have not taken the corresponding steps to integrate students of traditionally marginalized groups into the fabric of our school communities — a reality that we must be honest with ourselves about.

As an independent school teacher, DEI practitioner, and a multiracial man, I was as exhausted as anyone. Yet, I felt firmly “in control” and able to function until late August and the shooting of Jacob Blake. Seeing another Black man shot in the back was difficult but what really got me was a graphic posted by a friend comparing the fates of Kyle Rittenhouse and Tamir Rice. Rittenhouse shot and killed a number of protesters and then walked by police without being harmed while Tamir Rice was shot dead within seconds of police arriving on the scene of him playing in the park with a toy gun. I watched the videos of Rice’s and Rittenhouse’s interactions with the police and it nearly broke me. How this country can view those two boys so differently — can trust and protect one while fearing and murdering the other — I will never be able to reconcile in my heart. That we killed Rice while allowing Rittenhouse to walk away is both quintessentially American and unbelievably heartbreaking.

I was ready to be done. Ready to be done with schools, to be done with the struggle. Quite frankly, to be done with America. I was ready to quit my job, take the LSAT again, and go to work for the NAACP. I was ready to drive to Kenosha and stand amongst People of Color and White Allies alike and march for justice no matter and perhaps because of the consequences. I was ready to hop the first flight to anywhere not in the United States and wash my hands of a country that thinks so little of me and people who look like me. I was in a dark place and stayed there until a notification came up on my calendar reminding me to start preparation for the DEI work students would undertake during orientation. I began to think about the 600 some odd students that would be returning to Taft and the boundless opportunities I and my colleagues would have to shape and mold those young minds. I began to think about the impact that they would undoubtedly have on the world and I knew I had to be one of the people guiding them. I was reminded of the awesome power and promise of the work we do. I knew that I had to be back at Taft because I could make a difference in the experience of my children and their children to come with the work I get to do with young adults.

During his opening remarks our head of school talked about the “why,” the reason that we do what we do. The tremendous impact that we can have on the state of racial justice and social justice more broadly in the world through our students is the “why” for me. It is not an “add-on” or addendum to the work that we do; it must be an indispensable part of each of our everyday interactions with our students. This fall is likely to be even more challenging than the spring and summer. A second wave of COVID is likely to hit along with the flu, we will work to navigate the evolving landscape of teaching, and there will be a Presidential election that is likely to feature language as outright corrosive, divisive, and oppressive as any in modern memory. Through all of this, we must embrace our opportunity to create a more socially just world through our students as our “why.” In the moments you might want to recoil from the difficult conversation about the racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or xenophobic language a politician or media figure used, we must instead lean in and uphold our communal norms. In the moments when a student commits a microaggression and we could plausibly deny that we heard it, we must turn around and help that child to learn through curiosity and compassion. In the moments when a colleague makes a mistake and the thought of the unbearably awkward conversation to come is overwhelming, we must engage and help that educator to be better. This work will almost never be easy and it certainly will not be perfect and yet it is by far the most promising and important work we will do in our respective institutions.