Holderness School openly and purposefully pursues the creation of community, welcoming all onto campus and into our educational and intellectual conversations. We intentionally create a structure that requires buy-in and encourages engagement and participation from all students and all adults; slipping through the cracks or operating under the radar is rare. In the Holderness community, involvement and investment are a priority, regardless of your race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, or culture.
But is there a cost to that investment? What is the effect of joining a community and accepting its norms and traditions? Is there anything individuals have to give up? What do they have to offer that might not be valued?
“When we invite people to join the Holderness community,” says Director of Equity and Inclusion Jini Sparkman, “we often assume that it will supersede all other communities and cultures to which a student or teacher might belong. Because of their lived experiences, for students and faculty of color, international students and faculty, and even some of our white students and faculty there may be reasons why they can’t embrace, or feel embraced by, this community the way others can.”
This is the premise behind the People of Color Conference and Student Diversity Leadership Conference; people of color have decidedly different lived experiences and need space and time to grapple with their truths. As welcoming and inclusive as independent schools are and want to be, people of color are still in the minority and are not always comfortable giving voice to their ideas. The conferences, then, “create space that lifts up, protects, and affirms the dignity and lived experience of people of color in our schools and society.” They are a safe space for processing, sharing, and engaging in conversations with their peers.
Divided into separate conferences for students and adults, the People of Color Conference (POCC) is for independent school teachers and administrators; meanwhile, the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SLDC) is a multiracial, multicultural gathering of upper school student leaders from more than 300 independent schools across the United States.
In the past, Holderness has sent students to the SDLC, but the conference was sold out this year when Holderness tried to register. (They will try again next year!) Six faculty members, however, attended POCC, thanks to encouragement from both Jini and Dean of Faculty Kristen Fischer. “It was a no-brainer for me,” says senior thesis teacher Jennifer Martinez, PhD. “I knew I had to go and learn more.”
Throughout the conference, held this year in Nashville, TN, there were multiple opportunities to engage in conversations about race and ethnicity from a variety of angles. In addition to workshops and keynote speakers, people had a chance to take a civil rights tour; see a performance of the Fisk Jubilee Singers; and visit local schools. They could also join affinity groups, designed specifically to bring together people who shared the same ethnic or racial background. According to the conference’s program, each group’s work included:
· Facilitating opportunities for affirming, nurturing, and celebrating lived experience
· Discussing issues related to racial/ethnic identity development in a safe environment
· Envisioning and sharing strategies for greater racial and ethnic diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“It was an incredible experience,” says history and Spanish teacher Carlos Villafane, PhD, who attended the conference for the first time. “I made cultural connections with other conference attendees I haven’t thought about in years. It was an important combination of personal and professional experiences that have definitely stayed with me and that I have brought back to school with me.”
Both Carlos and Jennifer attended many workshops, but the one that had the most impact on both of them was “Colorism in the Latinx Community.” Colorism refers to racism within a culture in which people treat each other differently based on their skin color, judging each other for not being white enough or dark enough, depending upon the circumstances. “We’re pretty hard on ourselves,” Carlos reflects. “The workshop explored different case studies with varying Latinx lenses and how to spread awareness and create a more equitable and inclusive environment.”
Dean of Students John Lin’s takeaway from the conference focused on how to recruit and hire faculty of color. “What will it take to get black faculty to come to Holderness?” John questions. “We need to be able to answer this question and make sure they feel supported and can benefit from being part of our community.”
Dean of Academics Peter Durnan agrees. “As I attended workshops and listened to the speakers, it became clear to me that faculty of color are increasingly feeling they have less support than they used to,” says Peter. “To me that is worrisome. Including people of color has to be a priority during the hiring process, not just at Holderness but throughout the independent school community.”
While Peter and John, as well as Jini, work together to help diversify Holderness School’s faculty, the Office of Equity and Inclusion continues to be an advocate campus-wide. Most recently, the office reinstated the Equity and Inclusion Committee (formerly the Diversity Committee), a group of faculty and staff who help provide feedback on campus. Their first order of business? Proposing a cultural competency assessment that will inform the school’s understanding of the school’s climate and will be used in conjunction with the accreditation process to inform and create the next strategic plan.
The theme of this year’s POCC was Harmony, Discord, and the Notes in Between. Extrapolating from that theme, it’s the music of schools—ones that have a great deal of harmony and have good intentions—that can change the conversation. If they can listen carefully, hearing the notes of discord, they can be the agents of change that work hard to collaborate, making sure that the notes of discord are not lost or discarded but are made part of a larger symphony. That’s Holderness School’s task now and for many years to come, ensuring that inclusion does not have a cost.