Boardroom: Getting the Board On Board with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Work

Fall 2018

By Matt Levinson

There is a saying that one finger cannot lift a pebble. There is no truer statement related to the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The work cannot live in one person’s role; instead, a school must cultivate leadership among students, faculty, staff, trustees, and parents and guardians to ensure broad-based commitment to strengthen the school community. Perhaps most important, though, the work needs to reside at the governance level of a school to create accountability and commitment to follow through and to implement strong, actionable plans, as well as clear messaging to the community about the value and importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

At University Prep (WA), a grade 6–12 school of 580 students, we approached our DEI work through the lens of leadership at all levels. We recognized that board leadership is critical, and over the course of three years, we began to build the board’s capacity, skills, and understanding. “While it is becoming more common to have a diversity and community board committee, some of the challenges independent schools are facing revolve around setting clear strategic goals for this important work,” says David Beitel, our board chair. “The day-to-day work around diversity can be challenging as we look to change historic norms and biases, so having a solid strategic plan and annual action plan are important to keeping the work grounded and true to mission.”

Building Our Understanding

In September 2015, we formed a board committee on diversity to establish accountability and work toward annual goals for the community. The first agenda item was to craft a diversity mission statement. (See “Mission Statement” sidebar below.) The board diversity committee developed this statement and invited feedback and input through focus-group conversations with students, faculty, staff, parents and guardians, and trustees. It would have been more expedient but less effective to have a small group write and approve the diversity mission statement. We determined that the process we used to arrive at our diversity mission statement needed to reflect our commitment to inclusion. “We made it clear from the beginning that diversity is not about the number of people of color at our school, that it goes much deeper than that,” says Shahina Piyarali, a trustee who was the chair of the diversity committee at the time. “True educational equity, inclusion of different perspectives, and expanding student understanding of social justice lies at the heart of our diversity strategic planning process.”

In 2016, the board started working with Alison Park of Blink Consulting to build shared language and to grow in its understanding of how diversity, equity, and inclusion strengthen the learning community and deepen the academic experience of our students. “Typically in schools, we think of diversity, equity, and inclusion as being the responsibility of the teachers, administrators, and staff,” Park says. “While this is true of DEI in operations and programs, setting the strategic priorities and direction for DEI is the board’s work. A baseline fluency in DEI is as critical as financial literacy is for trustees to execute their fiduciary duties.”

Throughout our two-year work with Park, the board focused on a key principle that diversity makes us smarter. In a well-known Scientific American article, Katherine Phillips, a professor at Columbia Business School, writes, “This is not only because people with different backgrounds bring new information. Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints, and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.” The board’s discussions added to the moral argument for the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and focused on how diversity transforms the learning experience of our students. 

Developing Ambassadors

Park also helped empower board members to explain and articulate the value of why University Prep has an annual Social Justice Day, when we suspend classes and invite our faculty, staff, and students to engage in critical dialogue on issues of identity and community. Now in its sixth year, Social Justice Day is the day when, in the words of one board member, “We all row in the same boat to create lift to propel the boat forward.” To prepare the board to become empowered ambassadors, Park used a case study in which small groups of trustees answered the question, “Why does UPrep have Social Justice Day?” As frontline representatives for the school, our trustees needed to be emboldened to provide a strong answer to this question. 

Given the recent Starbucks incident in Philadelphia and the need for increased focus and training in the area of unconscious bias, the answer to why we have a social justice day has crystallized even more. A core tenet of college preparation has to include a commitment to teaching about bias and privilege so that students are prepared to live in and value diverse communities. In commenting on the Starbucks training in a Washington Post article, Leslie Culver, an expert on critical race theory at California Western School of Law explains, “Participants will also have to recognize their own privileges—whether they be rooted in race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. The training can show employees how they can use their own privilege to both act responsibly and be an ally to others.” Park’s work with our board helped to sharpen our commitment to see the power and influence trustees have to help shape and define school culture, particularly in the area of diversity and inclusion. We recognized that it was not a one-time effort; instead, the board needed to commit to ongoing work as a whole group and at the committee level. Our dialogue has improved and issues of equity, access, and social justice more routinely enter into board discussions. 

The Diversity Strategic Plan    

Equipped with a shared understanding of language and rationale, and a clearly articulated diversity mission statement, the board turned its attention to creating a diversity strategic plan in the 2017–2018 school year. Again, process informed product. Through yearlong focus groups and discussions, students, faculty, staff, parents and guardians, and trustees provided input and helped to determine priorities for the school. Shavette McGhee, University Prep’s director of diversity and community, in partnership with Mark Horn, the chair of the board diversity committee, steered the work to create a diversity strategic plan that was a direct outgrowth of and complement to the school’s Strategic Plan 2020. 

“What I believe is distinctive about the approach University Prep has taken is to define specific tactics, which are implementable and measurable,” Horn says. “The school leadership team and community are committed to making sure our plan is not an artifact but a roadmap to where we want to go as a school.” Horn worked hand in hand with McGhee to shepherd the plan through to completion. McGhee brought her wealth of knowledge about internal practices and insights from her role as director of hiring to complement Horn’s professional expertise in strategic planning. 

The path to diversity, equity, and inclusion in a school community has to include all stakeholders and cannot rest in the hands of one individual. “No longer is the diversity work solely owned by the diversity director,” McGhee says. “Now, with the diversity strategic plan, the work is owned by all of us, the whole school. It feels more tangible. More real. Weightier. Our school has put into words for the world to see our goals as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion. We’ve put our stake in the sand and it feels good.”

Lessons Learned 

One of the key attributes of University Prep’s success has been the close partnership between trustees and school leadership. Here are five key lessons we learned along the way. 

Be patient with process. It’s easy to rush to product. Bringing the community into the conversation to help set the direction ensures broader reach and also provides the opportunity for meaningful dialogue. We found that, with patience, we were able to engage a wider number of stakeholders in the crafting of the diversity mission statement and the corresponding strategic plan. 

Embrace discomfort. Moving a community forward requires being able to embrace discomfort with conversations around difficult, personal, and sometimes emotional topics. Lean into the discomfort with a commitment to skill-building. In the book, So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo writes, “There is a good chance that you, regardless of race, have tried to have these conversations in the past. There is also a good chance that they have not gone well. So ‘not well’ that perhaps you have been afraid to ever have these conversations again. If that is you, you are not alone.”  She continues, “People are afraid of getting these conversations wrong, but they are still trying, and I deeply appreciate that.” 

Stay the course. There will be challenging moments and important soul searching for the community.
See the work through to set clear, actionable direction. The board needs reminders about this, and it’s important to call it out frequently at meetings. 

Make diversity, equity, and inclusion a strategic priority. When the board commits to DEI in this way, it makes a powerful statement. The board is held accountable to the community as is school leadership. It makes the work visible. 

Forge strong partnership between trustees and school leaders. This is perhaps the most important lesson of all. We were intentional in building a strong team that included trustees and school leaders that would work in tandem and in sync. Each worked from the same playbook. Our efforts would not have been possible or successful without this mutual understanding and trust.
Matt Levinson

Matt Levinson is head of school at San Francisco University High School in San Francisco, California.