Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging help all students and adults in a school community thrive. The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) supports the work of its 2,000 member schools and associations in this important work.

Diversity of Independent Schools and Diversity in Independent Schools

There are more than 2,000 Independent schools across the United States serving more than a million students in preschool through 12th grade. Each independent school has a distinct mission and philosophy and determines the curricular offerings and other programs that will best serve its students. 

The breadth of educational options provided by independent schools–including progressive schools and more traditional schools, boarding schools and day schools, secular schools and schools with a religious affiliation, single-gender schools and coed schools–means that every family can find a school that will serve their student well. This range  of school types and academic offerings strengthens the American education system.

Similarly, having a school community that is diverse in many ways helps all students thrive. Diversity can refer to any form of difference, including race and ethnicity, social class, neurodiversity, religion, gender, national origin, ability, and many other factors. Research has repeatedly shown that organizations that leverage their  diversity  are more innovative and more successful because the different perspectives people bring enrich discussions and encourage more creative problem-solving.[1]

But that very difference of perspective can also make getting along in diverse communities complex. People must learn to collaborate effectively across difference, acknowledge and respect multiple worldviews and experiences, and learn how to communicate when differences of opinion get heated. Sometimes, differences can obscure the numerous similarities among individuals in a community.

What is DEI?

Diversity, equity, and inclusion work (often referred to as DEI) in independent schools seeks to help community members navigate differences and similarities so that everyone can realize their potential.
  • Diversity refers to the full range of human differences within overarching similarities. These differences can be visible or invisible, mutable or not. Schools foster diversity by ensuring that their communities include people from many different backgrounds and perspectives.
  • Equity means ensuring that everyone has equal access to the opportunities that will help them thrive. Not everyone in a school community will have the same needs; schools can address equity by understanding the needs of each student and providing the tools or opportunities that will support their development. 
  • Inclusion refers to individual and institutional behaviors that show people they are accepted, respected, and valued. Inclusion helps ensure all community members have access to the benefits and opportunities the school provides. Inclusion is also closely related to belonging.
  • Belonging refers to the emotional and experiential outcome of inclusion. All humans share the need to be taken in, cared-for, protected, and valued by a group, community, or organization. Belonging gives people a voice in a community, and encourages and enables them to contribute to it and to expect support from it as well.[2]

Why Are These Concepts Important?

Talking about the many ways we identify and experience life can help students and adults better understand their own world views, as well as the unique perspectives each person has in a community.[3] Supporting open dialogue about difference allows community members to develop empathy and respect,  to show up as their authentic selves, and to know that they belong at the school and are truly valued.[4]
Belonging is a foundation for learning. When students know they belong and feel valued in a school community, they are comfortable taking the academic risks necessary to grow and develop. Belonging is tied to academic engagement and achievement for all students.[5]
Many of the skills gained through education in racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse schools are vital for success in college, career, and life in the 21st century,[6] including critical thinking, empathy, collaboration, communication, social skills, flexibility, and leadership.[7] Students who do not have the opportunity to practice and hone these skills in school will be at a disadvantage in college admissions and in the job market.

What is NAIS’s Role in DEI Work?

NAIS believes deeply that addressing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging helps all students and adults thrive, and the association encourages its member schools to engage in this work in ways that embody and reflect the school’s mission.
NAIS does not accredit schools and it does not mandate that DEI work take a specific form. As a voluntary membership organization, NAIS shares information and resources and serves as a hub to connect individuals within member schools to others who are dealing with similar issues and creating similar opportunities.  
NAIS’s signature event to support equity and inclusion in independent schools is the annual NAIS People of Color Conference (PoCC). PoCC seeks to provide safe spaces for leadership and professional development for people of color, and networking for people of color and allies of all backgrounds in independent schools. The conference equips educators at every level, from teachers to trustees, with knowledge and skills to improve both the racial, interethnic, and intercultural climate in their schools, and the academic, social-emotional, and workplace performance outcomes for students and adults alike.
The NAIS People of Color Conference, the NAIS Annual Conference, multiple leadership and professional institutes, and other member services fuel and support the academic excellence and  positive school climate and culture our families, students, and faculty seek, and for which independent education is known and regarded. 
[1] Katherine W. Phillips, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” Scientific American, October 2014; online at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/; Rocio Lorenzo, “How diversity makes teams more innovative,” TED Talk, October 2017; online at https://www.ted.com/talks/rocio_lorenzo_how_diversity_makes_teams_more_innovative?referrer=playlist-a_blueprint_for_diversity_in_the_workplace&language=en; Franz Johansson, “Why Diverse and Inclusive Teams Are the Engines of Innovation,” Great Place to Work, June 11, 2020; online at https://www.greatplacetowork.com/resources/blog/why-diverse-and-inclusive-teams-are-the-new-engines-of-innovation; Scott E. Page, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.
[2] Ashley Gallegos, "Bridging and Belonging," Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California at Berkeley; online at https://belonging.berkeley.edu/bridging-belonging.
[3] Linda Tropp et al., "Re-Weaving the Social Fabric through Integrated Schools: How Intergroup Contact Prepares Youth to Thrive in a Multiracial Society," National Coalition on School Diversity, 2018; online at https://school-diversity.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/NCSD_Brief13.pdf
[4] Amy Stuart Wells et al., "How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students," The Century Foundation; online at https://tcf.org/content/report/how-racially-diverse-schools-and-classrooms-can-benefit-all-students/?session=1
[5] Jerome St. Amand et al., "Sense of Belonging at School: Defining Attributes, Determinants, and Sustaining Strategies," The International Academic Forum (IAFOR) Journal of Education, Volume 5, Issue 2, Summer 2017; online at https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1156289.pdf
[6] Jennifer Ayscue et al., "The Complementary Benefits of Racial and Socioeconomic Diversity in Schools," National Coalition on School Diversity, 2017; online at https://yourchoicemiami.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/DiversityResearchBriefNo10-Benefits-of-racialsocioeco-diversity.pdf
[7] G. Siegel-Hawley, "How Non-Minority Students Also Benefit from Racially Diverse Schools," National Coalition on School Diversity, 2012; online at https://www.school-diversity.org/pdf/DiversityResearchBriefNo8.pdf