Reflections on this work in progress
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the
oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a
direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not
suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word
“Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has
almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished
jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
1. Who Tells Your Story
On November 10, 2021, I resigned from my role as Director of Equity & Inclusion (DEI) at an independent school. Since resigning, many people have asked to hear directly from me the reasons for my departure. Many people let me know that it’s been suggested that I left because I was impatient with the progress of DEI work at my former setting. I fear that such a construction might lead some to conclude that I gave up on the work and, worse, that I gave up on a community of teachers, parents, and children who in many ways demonstrated an admirable appetite for exploring what it means to achieve excellence in the area of DEI.
This letter is an attempt to share some reflections not only on the reasons for my resignation but on some of the challenging dynamics of diversity, equity, and inclusion work which I believe are illuminated by my experience. It provides windows into some of my core values and commitments regarding DEI work, especially as they relate to the reasons for my departure. I certainly don’t expect that everyone will sympathize or even empathize with what I have to say here. This is all simply a primary source offering.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion work is about making progress towards greater and greater inclusion, safety, and respect for socially disadvantaged people. And DEI work is itself a work in progress - still in its nascency, growing towards the kinds of settled theories, common practices, and standards that characterize a discipline or paradigm.
There isn’t as yet a deep and wide bank of data-driven research on the dynamics of DEI work, but a useful glimpse into what it can be like to serve as a DEI practitioner in independent schools can be found in this report. While the report focuses on the accounts of people officially in DEI practitioner roles, I believe there are ways in which every person of color at an independent school takes on the DEI mantle one way or another, officially or unofficially, imposed or self-imposed. My experience is of course unique to me and my circumstances, but because one of the challenges associated with this work is isolation and the risk of being perceived as the problem instead of being properly supported in addressing the problems themselves, I hope the linked report might provide insights and context that are relevant to what I’ll share here.
I also hope there are things to learn from the dynamics that led me to leave—things that might help us advance and refine this work in progress.
2. Why I Left
I would no more abruptly resign because I reached the limits of my patience with the progress of DEI work than would Dr. King put down his pen and hang up his hat and tie out of impatience with the pace at which civil rights were advancing. I’m quite aware of the painstakingly slow pace at which social justice usually proceeds.
When it comes to the importance of this work, I have the urgency of a firefighter wanting to rescue a child from a burning building. When it comes to understanding the need to meet people where they are and then move them as quickly as is possible and necessary towards increased equity and inclusivity, I have the long-term patience of a psychotherapist. This is perhaps because I am a psychotherapist.
I have worked with some of my clients for decades, grateful to be able to stay devoted to their health and welfare through all manner of disasters and struggles with all species of demons. I have raised two human beings into adulthood; I have been married for thirty-four years. I have lived and persevered for sixty-one years in the skin I live in, in a society that devalues and discriminates against it, and thus me.
It is certainly true that I was always eager to improve DEI work in general at my former setting, but that’s not why I left. I believe a judicious, constructive urgency should be a part of the job description of every DEI practitioner. I resigned because, for me, when it comes to the core aims of DEI work—inclusion, safety, and respect for socially disadvantaged people—forbearance is tantamount to bankruptcy. I left because under the circumstances as I experienced them, staying would have represented an abdication of my integrity and duty.
I will not go into the details of the particular situation that led me to conclude that I could not stay. Doing so would get ahead of people telling their own relevant stories, in their own words; and that is not the purpose of this letter. I hope that in time, those whose stories are relevant to this situation will tell them. The particulars of my situation are perhaps less important than the opportunity they provide to consider critical aspects of DEI work at independent schools.
In the remainder of this letter, I offer brief thoughts on what I see as key dimensions of DEI work relevant to my circumstance and to DEI work at independent schools in general. They include, recruitment and retention of people of color (section 3), inclusivity (section 4), belonging (section 5), standing up straight (section 6), true commitment to this work (section 7), and what you can do (sections 8 and 9).
3. Recruitment and Retention
When a person of color leaves an independent school, where the vast majority of people and practices are predictably reflective of structures, traditions, and expectations defined by privileged social identity groups, it’s natural to wonder if the departure was because the school felt inhospitable to them.
In my experience, it’s often the case that people of color who leave do not always feel safe being forthright about the factors involved in their decision to sever ties with an institution. They might worry about the repercussions of expressing discontent stemming from dynamics that led them to feel isolated, undervalued, marginalized, or out-and-out mistreated. These dynamics could be interpersonal, structural or institutional. There could be worry over how their honest account of negative experiences might affect the tone or content of a recommendation needed for another job, or how they might be talked about in the tiny independent school world (where it often feels as if everyone knows everyone and everything about what’s happening everywhere).
When a person of color leaves an independent school, questions can arise, narratives might emerge and compete, and the whole story might never be known. Sometimes the school tells the story, rather than the person who left. When that happens, the departure is often attributed to personal reasons, new opportunities—or subtly—the inability of the departed employee to operate comfortably within the cultural parameters of the impeccable school community. I have yet to hear an institution provide an explanation for a departure of a person of color that includes what might have gone wrong on its own side of the equation.
4. Whose House?
I observe that while the horrific murder of George Floyd and the social unrest that attended it spurred efforts on the part of all kinds of organizations and institutions to improve their DEI efforts, talking the DEI talk is easier than walking the DEI walk.
There is an incisive modern fable, The Giraffe and the Elephant, that illustrates how the best intentions to welcome those from different backgrounds into an environment not created with them in mind can ultimately result in exclusion. In it, a proud giraffe, eager to welcome an affable elephant into his home, runs into the limits of his own ability to understand that a house designed to make a giraffe comfortable is not guaranteed to feel likewise for an elephant. The giraffe’s pride in his supremely beautiful and acclaimed house blinds him to recognizing that for his friend to feel a sufficient sense of welcome and belonging, structural changes would have to be made.
The elephant encounters the limitations of a place built exclusively for giraffes as well as the hubris and arrogance of his misguided host who insists that if only he would make unreasonable changes to himself (e.g. take ballet lessons in order to become lighter on his feet), the elephant could be comfortable. In the end, the beleaguered elephant, physically and emotionally hurt from running into the giraffe’s narrow structures and even more narrow perspective on inclusivity, realizes he cannot be safe or at ease in a place managed by someone unwilling to recognize or respond to his basic needs.
I use this fable in DEI workshops. That I have found myself in a real-life version of this very tale, crashing into unyielding cultural, structural, and institutional obstacles is a powerful and painful irony.
5. Being One of Us Should Not Require Being Less of You
Generally speaking, schools in this country, whether public or private, were not built with diversity, equity, or inclusion in mind. Independent schools are particularly challenged when it comes to incorporating DEI. Many of these schools are rooted in intentions and traditions of welcoming, educating, and socializing children of elites in ways that prepare them to be elites; and when grown, to send their progeny to their alma maters to continue the pattern through the generations.
The implications regarding the demographic skew of such school communities need not be belabored. The point is that any such school aiming to welcome students with social identities not associated with privilege and power is in effect engaged in an experiment to see what’s possible regarding transforming itself from what it was built to be into something better. My choice to work in such settings was motivated by a desire to support institutions with a sincere commitment to inclusivity and equity.
To provide a sense of what people from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds may face in trying to navigate settings that were not built with them in mind, I often show the above image, depicting a member of a high school wrestling team being forced to cut off his dreadlocks in order to take part in his sport. I share it in my workshops as a stark metaphor demonstrating how those who are socially disadvantaged can be forced to choose between preserving dignity and integrity or submitting to demeaning norms constructed by those with the power to dictate what it takes to be “one of us.”
I believe DEI work requires an unwavering and uncompromising commitment to ensuring that no child’s identity or dignity will be shorn in the proverbial wrestling match between feeling belonging and feeling belittled.
6. Leaning towers
When teaching about social bias, I often help students grasp the meaning of bias by showing them a picture of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Bias, I say, means to lean in a direction. The Leaning Tower of Pisa has a physical bias. It leans in a certain direction, towards the south. This means it leans away from the north. Students gain the understanding that social bias means to lean towards some people and away from other people based on their social identities. Social justice, then, requires that we do our best to regard people without bias.
I used to say to my own kids (my poor kids who somehow survived all the things their dad used to say to them), “If you mess up, stand up.” As my kids got older, the word “mess” was replaced by a more grown-up word. When our behavior runs afoul of expectations and we fear serious consequences and/or mortification should the misconduct come to light, the reflex to self-justify, rationalize, prevaricate, obfuscate, equivocate, dissemble, and turn tables is so strong in us. The self-preservation instinct runs amuck. We can find ourselves falling into self-defense while leaning away from truth and responsibility.
It’s so much better, I would say, to realize that owning your behavior, while painful at that moment when your best intentions run into the orange-peeler of truth, is actually liberating. Defy the insidious and counterproductive narrative of needing to never be wrong, I would say. Learn to push through the feeling of mortification that attends exposure of shortcomings. Yes, it’s super hard. If you’re lucky, you’ll be forgiven, but never make the mistake of believing that forgiveness is a substitute for accountability.
7. What Do You Do? Where Do You Do It?
Our society is careening towards stark and violent clashes between advocacy for and resistance to inclusivity. Sometimes the clash plays out within a single institution.
A special and extreme kind of harm lurks in settings that profess to prize and promote inclusivity while at the same time—even if inadvertently—insidiously perpetuating practices, structures, and systems that privilege and protect powerful people whose conduct and biases contradict equity and inclusion. It is one thing to know who one’s adversaries are and thereby be able to guard against their attempts to cause harm. It is another thing to be encouraged to trust, to be given promises of respect, inclusion, safety, equity, and accountability only to realize in a heartbreaking moment that those promises come with untenable exceptions.
There is so much that needs to be understood, refined, and said about this work we call DEI, about the surge in efforts to make all kinds of environments more inclusive, about the recoil surge of anti-DEI forces, about the differences between a true commitment and a costume of inclusivity worn by too many schools, organizations, and companies—one that is, in too many cases, aspirationally and rhetorically splendid but materially flimsy and masking problematic realities.
“What do you do?” and “Where do you do it?” are two very different questions; and sometimes the answer to the latter becomes incompatible with the answer to the former. One’s job is not always one’s work. My work continues. It has continued in these pages; and I remain eager to support those who are truly ready to do it with honesty, humility, integrity, and courage.
8. In the end
So many people have reached out asking what they can or should do in the wake of my resignation and in order to keep contributing meaningfully to this work. In my DEI workshops, I encourage participants to think about everything we explore and discuss in terms of praxis. I ask, "How will you synthesize and translate knowledge and skills into meaningful action as an individual with your unique social identities, challenges, and powers, as a professional practicing your discipline in service of others, and as a member of your various communities?"
As illustrated in my own use of his wisdom at the start of this letter, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s endless insights are often marshaled to illuminate difficult dynamics and inspire constructive action. One MLK Jr. quote that hung on the office door at my former setting reads, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
One of the hardest parts of DEI work is helping people understand that their friendship, allyship, or good intentions must not be wielded as an inoculation against accountability if ever their behavior results in social bias. Sometimes our “enemies” come in the form of people who are brazen regarding their enmity towards us. Most often, however, the enemy is not a person, but a person’s behavior. When someone insists their virtuous character should neutralize their bad behavior and absolve them of culpability, any professed commitment to DEI becomes a hollow tree.
In the end, we are done in not by ill-intentioned people but by the inability of well-intentioned people (and the structures and institutions they govern or support) to acknowledge their susceptibility to commit harmful acts.
What can you do to teach this truth? How will you model it? How can you assert it in the face of its denial?
This space is reserved for your praxis.