Equity & Justice Work: It's Not Just for Directors of Diversity and Inclusion

As a professional committed to advancing equity and justice in independent schools, I get a lot of questions about the role and responsibility of a school’s director of diversity and inclusion. Often, I will coach schools by using an analogy: Diversity and inclusion work is much like a person’s DNA; it should be threaded through the entire school.
For many schools, this is where the work becomes complicated. “That’s why we have a director of diversity and inclusion,” they’ll argue. While a director is a great administrative role to advance equity and justice, individuals are not the sole proprietor. Working with schools across the country, I have found myself asking a lot of questions of school administrators and stakeholders, especially when they frame the role as a school’s “savior” of diversity and inclusion. It is a dangerous expectation that one person alone “save” or “solve” a school’s issues—particularly in some independent schools in which this person is one of few with specific social identities.
This work should involve everyone in a school community. According to the NAIS Principles of Good Practice (PGP) for Equity and Justice, the head of school should ensure that diversity initiatives are coordinated and led by an individual on the school leadership team—a person who has the authority, support, and training needed to influence policy development, decision making, budget, and management. A review of constituent investment should be explored (teachers; faculty and staff; administrators; parents, families and guardians; trustees and alumni).
When is the last time your school did an inventory of where this work resides, and with whom is this work most pressing? Here are a few more questions to help your school thread its diversity and inclusion work throughout the school community.

Is the director of diversity and inclusion set up to succeed?

In November 2017, Trina Moore-Southall wrote for Independent Ideas about how racial affinity groups saved her life. In this powerful piece, Moore-Southall highlighted her road to affinity groups and a 15-year struggle of exhaustion as the only African-American educator and administrator at a predominately white institution. She also wrote about finding a job description at a different school that completely described her—two years into that role as director of diversity and inclusion, and because of consistency in mission and action, she felt like an effective change agent.
According to the PGP, “The school establishes the foundation for its commitment to equity and justice in its defining documents (mission, core values, and/or philosophy statements).” This language is only a start. Actual integration of these concepts includes support from the head of school and the board of trustees.

Who gets a pass from this work?

Have you ever heard someone refer all responsibility to the director of diversity and inclusion? Have you seen this work be placed only on the backs of specific functionalities (language arts teachers, staff members of color, LGBTQ+ families)? When all stock is placed on individuals, some constituents may opt out of the work. According to the PGP, “The school develops meaningful requirements for cross-cultural competency and provides training and support for all members of its community, including the board of trustees, parents, students, and all school personnel.” It is imperative that all members of the school community take an active role in this work and support the director.

How can schools assess their school climate and involve all constituents?

Often schools think of just students or just parents and families, and sometimes they fail to hear the realities and lived experience from other members of their community. Through my work with the Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism (AIM), I have found that the idea of “constituency” at a school can be multifaceted. Someone might have a very different experience at a school as a parent than they are having as a teacher. Additionally, some schools have been reluctant to include service staff as part of their climate check. There’s a lot you can learn about your school culture and community based on input from all members of your community, including those who you may not interact with every day. Think about who serves on committees. Do you have committees? How is your director of diversity and inclusion positioned at your school? Are they on the administrative team?

How can schools recognize the work being done?

Faculty and staff of color, and others who hold marginalized identities, are already doing this work—and without added compensation. I recently heard Brittney Cooper of Rutgers University give a lecture in which she addressed the reality that many faculty and staff of color in higher education are committing to extra labor by meeting with students of color and other marginalized groups “offline” and outside of their position responsibilities. This same practice exists in independent schools. Do you have any way to recognize or honor this work? What does your reward system reflect? When working with a director of diversity and inclusion, consider the type of work that exists outside of the 9-to-5 work that includes availability and accessibility to community members due to the nature of their position.

In your next all-staff or leadership team meeting, consider the following:
  • What narratives exist around the responsibilities of the director of diversity and inclusion? Is there an expectation that this individual “save” or “fix” something?
  • Who is leading institutional efforts formally and informally? What does buy-in look like?
  • What unspoken expectations exist that are actually limitations to a director of diversity and inclusion? Does the budget reflect support for this person and position?
  • How do committees work? Affinity spaces? Leadership opportunities?
At times, schools believe creating this position will solve issues of diversity and inclusion. Sometimes this hire is a reaction to a campus incident or concern. Without the proper measures in place to assist in the director’s success, the school is setting this person up for failure. Engage with this person. Listen. Honor the work. And most important, thread the work throughout the school community—let this person be a leader of efforts rather than alone in the efforts.
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Michael A. Goodman

Michael A. Goodman is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, studying Higher Education, Student Affairs, and International Education policy. He formerly worked at NAIS, training and advising schools that are conducting the NAIS Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism (AIM).