Holderness School

In the Creation of a Caring Community: The Vital Role of Equity and Inclusion

Greg Kwasnik
Equity and inclusion aren’t buzzwords at Holderness. They’re guiding principles that orient student life across campus – from classrooms and hallways to dorms and playing fields.
“Equity and inclusion work starts on the paths, in the dining hall, on the sidelines of sports games,” says Jini RaeSparkman, the school’s director of equity and inclusion. “You can create frameworks, but being effective means being willing to sit down, create relationships, and modeling the behavior you want to see from students.”

The focus on equity and inclusion at Holderness is deeply tied to the school’s Episcopalian identity, and its motto - “For God and Humankind.” There’s an other-centeredness inherent in the Holderness experience. The school’s mission statement focuses on the creation of a caring community, and the decision to add empathy to the school’s leadership characteristics points to the importance of thinking beyond oneself. 

Much has changed in the school’s 140-year history -- accepting Japanese-American students from internment camps in the 1940s, becoming co-educational in the 1970s, and expanding enrollment to international students. The last several decades have seen a steady drumbeat of equity and inclusion efforts; however, this work truly came into focus nearly a decade ago after students, under the direction of then-Director of Diversity Tobi Pfenninger, took a groundbreaking school climate survey. Sparking uncomfortable but necessary conversations, the survey was a sign that more needed to be done.

Today, the Office of Equity and Inclusion leads an interdisciplinary effort to make Holderness a more welcoming, authentic home for students of all backgrounds and identities. A big part of that effort is the school’s four-year social justice curriculum. The program rotates through four, yearlong topics: gender and sexuality; privilege; ability, disability, and access; and race and ethnicity. This year’s topic, gender and sexuality, teaches students about gender as a construct, healthy relationships, sexual identity, gender identity, and language. A primary goal of the curriculum, Jini says, is to help students understand their own pluralistic identities, and the identities of others.

“We need to give kids a place in the classroom and outside the classroom where they can get into these conversations without fear, humiliation, or retribution or pain and just learn and be curious about the experiences of others - and become more self-aware of their own identities in the spaces they occupy,” Sparkman says. “If you don’t understand the way you occupy a space because of your identity, it’s difficult to understand how you might need to make space for someone else.”

Making space for others has become a central part of the Holderness experience. In September, Holderness hosted more than 100 students for the Northern New England Students of Color Conference. This winter, the school will host a LGBTQ+ Valentine’s Day Conference and Dance, as it does every year. The school’s Peer Leadership Program teaches all students to become creators of an inclusive culture, while the Courageous Conversations framework empowers students to engage in difficult but respectful dialogue with fellow students and faculty. Through these programs – and daily conversations among students, faculty, and staff - the important work of equity and inclusion becomes a continual, schoolwide effort. “We have this critical mass of people doing this work in their classrooms and in their dorms and with their advisories, and that’s really important,” Jini says. “The office of equity and inclusion really is a starting point for work that’s happening throughout our school.”

But Holderness isn’t perfect, and work still needs to be done. The school’s Equity and Inclusion Steering Committee has begun a rigorous self-assessment, and will soon begin creating a professional development plan for faculty and staff. Other plans are also in the works. Jini, currently pursuing a master’s degree at the Klingenstein Center at Columbia University, has begun reaching out to Holderness alumni of color and LGBTQ+alums as part of her practicum. She hopes these alums will share their experiences - both positive and negative - to inform the school’s equity and inclusion efforts. Perhaps, Jini says, these alums will mentor current students who may be going through similar experiences.

Ultimately, Jini says, it’s the alumni – and the students, faculty, and staff – who will drive equity and inclusion at Holderness. It’s a process that will undoubtedly spur uncomfortable conversations about identity, privilege, and bias – implicit or otherwise. It’s not an easy process, Jini says, but it’s one that the Holderness community is uniquely privileged to make.

“Everybody has some kind of privilege. Being at Holderness alone is a privilege,” Jini says. “The question is: what are you going to do with it?”
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Holderness School
33 Chapel Lane, Holderness, NH 03245
mail P.O Box 1879 Plymouth, NH 03264-1879
phone (603) 536-1257