Seven Reasons Heads of School Should Attend the Diversity Leadership Institute

Despite an increasingly diverse leadership corps of women and people of color, the majority of headship roles at independent schools remain filled by individuals who identify—like we do—as white and male (54%), according to the most recent data from NAIS’s Data and Analysis for School Leadership (DASL). If we focus on race/ethnicity, the gap is more significant, with 90% of all heads of school identifying as white.
This June, we both attended the six-day NAIS Diversity Leadership Institute (DLI), held at Episcopal High School (VA). As heads at two very different schools in Maryland and Massachusetts, who didn’t know each other before the institute, we chose to attend DLI for similar reasons: our personal commitment to the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in our schools; our desire to extend and consolidate our practical and theoretical DEI knowledge; our need to explore and process humbling experiences for which we felt our previous leadership training left us unprepared; and our hope to connect with similar colleagues who care deeply about equity and social justice.
It was an extraordinary and transformative experience for both of us, yet only three heads of school were in attendance as participants. As we left the conference, we came to a similar conclusion: DLI should be considered an essential professional development experience for heads of school, equivalent to NAIS’s New Heads Institute. 
It’s akin to immersing oneself in a futuristic experience—where every colleague sees DEI work as part of the core educational mission, where power and privilege is discussed openly, where healthy conflict is seen as essential to the growth process, where the leadership reflects the true identity texture of our society, and where every member of the community is valued and embraced for their unique intersectionality.  
1. The head’s role in DEI leadership in independent schools is essential.
One obvious and essential reality for DEI work in schools became very clear to us immediately: In almost every context, the head of school has the greatest capacity to accelerate or obstruct DEI work.  An older paradigm suggests that this work is the purview of the director of DEI, and as such, the role of heads is simply to hire well and leave the daily work to them.
Much of the progress we seek to generate and benefit from in our schools relies on “systems” work, and heads occupy the fulcrum role. Heads have the capacity to guide boards to a deeper understanding of DEI issues; create appropriate space in the school schedule and calendar for essential DEI work; support various student-centered DEI initiatives; drive curricular change; shape a budget that reflects the DEI values of the school; and create procedures and policies that lead to the hiring, nurturing, and promotion of educators with the skills to respond effectively to DEI opportunities and challenges. 
A newer paradigm distributes DEI work across our schools’ faculty and staff in order to support positive school culture. That distribution needs to be orchestrated and supported by the head of school, working in concert with the DEI director and/or a school’s DEI committee.
2. DLI’s strength is its length and depth.
For many heads, the most recent time we attended a conference beyond two or three days was NAIS’s Institute for New Heads. Before registering for DLI, the time away from school gave us pause. Can we afford to be away for six days? We learned that the sustained, uninterrupted DEI professional development reinforces the notion that DEI is not peripheral but central to the work we’re doing in our schools every day. As the week at DLI unfolded, each day brought a deeper level of insight and trust. For us, the most profound conversations and learning occurred during days four, five, and six.
3. The ears and voices of heads are needed.
During DLI, we recommend that heads heed the adage from Epictetus: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” We live in an era where elementary school students often receive more DEI education and programming than current school heads have received throughout their entire educational careers. Early career professionals in our schools almost always possess a depth of theoretical and practical DEI knowledge that exceeds that of school leadership.  
At the same time, heads of school possess broad insight and experience into the philosophy and pragmatics of governance, strategic planning, the change process, school finance, enrollment management, human resources, communications, risk management, and fundraising—all of which are essential to running a complex school organization.
DLI fuses these two knowledge bases. Participants shared dozens of anecdotes about the perceived impact of heads in the support—or obstruction—of DEI initiatives. And nonhead participants asked: What is a typical head’s thought process for problem-solving? What are the best ways to create a mutually supportive relationship with my head? What are the competing pressures that heads experience? How do the dynamics of identity intersect with the head role? Heads’ responses to these questions will necessarily be different, but if school heads are not present at DLI, these questions are posed in a vacuum.
DEI directors are eager for these conversations with their heads of school, we learned, and we found that these conversations helped us to craft plans for work with our own schools’ DEI directors.
4. It is intensively research-informed.
We both arrived at the institute with a reasonably high baseline knowledge of DEI theory and pedagogy. But DLI faculty members presented personal stories with a growing body of validated DEI research in a coherent and systematic fashion.  
We absorbed research-dense insights in the domains of privilege and power, conflict, identity development, cultural competencies, leading/managing, ability, gender and sexuality, race, socioeconomics, and the neuroscience of bias. 
5. It offers powerful and practical tools to promote DEI work in our schools.
At every point of the experience, the DLI faculty sought to close the gap between theory and practice. Participants learned innovative and practical strategies, ranging from inclusive classroom practices to hiring strategies; student discipline to admission; working with students on financial aid to parent relations; and assessments to community education.
6. It models the “brave space” we want our schools to be for our students.
As Caroline G. Blackwell, NAIS vice president of equity & justice, said during the institute, “We’re not trying to create a ‘safe’ space at DLI, but instead a ‘brave’ space.” For heads, DEI work in our schools is often a place where tensions run high. It can sometimes feel nearly impossible to respond in a manner that is both authentic and supportive. At DLI, however, there is a shared commitment to honoring Brené Brown’s principle of “rumbling with vulnerability.” That rumbling takes practice, and the intensity of the week provides participants the opportunity to practice extending ourselves—in risk and in support—which strengthens our ability to guide school communities.
7. DLI is a community.
There will be moments of discomfort on our campuses as we return to work, and we can’t predict where and when those moments will occur. What we do know is that situations requiring brave conversations and open dialogue in the realm of DEI work can be isolating for heads of school. Having a network of professionals to call on will be an enormous boon as we wade through the kinds of thorny scenarios we practiced in various sessions at DLI. 
It’s not just other heads we can consult with now. Though we often find ourselves immersed in professional development experiences exclusively with other heads of school, DLI participants are teachers, deans, department chairs, division heads, heads of school, and diversity practitioners—often in complex, compound roles.  They serve in schools of every shape and size from across the country and around the world, reflecting many backgrounds and identities. We came to know others facing a wide range of challenges, and we look forward to continuing our connections with them as we address challenges of our own.
We live in an era in which learning to embrace difference is becoming the educational norm. “Diversity leadership” is still frequently presented as a siloed domain, different from regular leadership. DLI explodes this premise and conveys to all participants that diversity leadership is the essence of school leadership itself.

2019 DLI participants catch up during a session break.
John Lewis
John Lewis

John Lewis is head of The Gunston School in Centreville, Maryland.

Ned Parsons
Ned Parsons

Ned Parsons is head of The Rivers School in Weston, Massachusetts.


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