Member Voices: A Q&A with Luthern Williams

Spring 2022

MemberVoicesCropped-(1).jpgLuthern Williams
Head of School
New Roads School
Santa Monica, California

Photos by Hector Puig
This is an excerpt from the NAIS Member Voices podcast. This is part of a three-episode series focused on cultivating diverse and inclusive communities.

Your school has an interesting history, being relatively young and built with equity in mind. What are you doing to make it more diverse and inclusive?

New Roads was founded in 1995, not long after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, partly in response to the failure of Brown vs. Board of Education. The founders wanted to create a school that is socioeconomically, racially, and culturally diverse and reflective of the city. They believed that if kids live and learn together, they’re prepared to embrace the full spectrum of humanity.
So, the school itself is the program. And we’ve taken steps more recently to integrate neuroscience and understanding identity to more intentionally do what we’ve always done: create an inclusive climate and culture in which students feel free to remove the mask and the armor.
Two concepts defined by Dan Siegel, a world-famous interpersonal neurobiologist with whom we work a lot, are central to our work. He talks about integration, when you promote the linkages and you honor the differences. We realized that for kids to have a sense of well-being, they need to see their identities connected to others and connected to the environment.

What obstacles to cultivating your school community are you navigating?

The political polarization in the U.S. has made it very difficult, especially in the midst of cancel culture. In a K–12 space, part of what children are doing is learning how to become responsible, mindful human beings—mindful with their words and their choices. Along the way, they’re going to make mistakes because as early as age 2, humans are conditioned to have biases about various constructs of identity. They’re in a process of unlearning that social conditioning.
Then the question becomes, what’s the most efficacious approach to promoting learning and reflection? And it usually doesn’t mean that you cancel children. That doesn’t mean that you don’t hold them accountable for their actions, but the accountability needs to be matched with what you hope the outcome is. For me, it’s about an evolution of consciousness.

What ingredients do schools need to cultivate a sense of belonging?

I was an independent school student, and I’m African American. I was able to get a wonderful education in independent schools, a traditional education. But there was a price I paid for that education in terms of my own sense of self because I was in the school, but I was never of the school. I was kind of a perpetual outsider who wore a mask and armor and felt like I had to prove that I deserved to be there.
I’m at a school now where the commitment to diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging is at the foundation. It is crucial for schools to do this work in a sustained way, realizing that we’re all at different points on our journey toward creating a school that promotes the well-being of all students and allows them to liberate their unique potential.

How did being an independent school student shape your approach?

As someone who always was in the minority at the schools I attended, I was keenly aware that I felt like a visitor. Students should not have to sacrifice a positive sense of their identity formation and their racial identity to receive an excellent education. I try to create a climate and culture in which students of color and students who have been traditionally marginalized do not have to check their identities at the door, to work to assimilate, or to be in an environment where their sense of belonging is not consciously and intentionally facilitated.

What have you seen work or fail when it comes to reshaping organizational culture?

For some schools, the movement for change isn’t deeply rooted in the institution. Therefore, it often doesn’t work, it’s not sustainable, or there’s a lot of resistance. Just like with kids and learning, there has to be a zone of proximal development for an institution. That means that the institution needs to look at itself. Diversity and inclusion work often casts a light on things that may not be working in the school more generally, and you can’t accomplish the diversity and inclusion work without fixing some of the institutional issues that exist.

What keeps you up at night?

The extent to which the political polarization in the country has infiltrated schools. How do we remain true to an approach to education that promotes human development and growth in spite of the warring political factions?

Where do you look for inspiration?

I have some incredible mentors—some are currently in my life and some are not, but all have been very influential in helping me understand the head of school role and what matters. One of my mentors was Carolyn Peter, head at The Winsor School (MA) when I worked there. I once asked her what her leadership style was. She said, “I don’t have one. I became the leader that the school needed me to be.” That was incredibly powerful to me because I see myself as a servant leader; I am only a part of an ensemble. I may be the spokesperson, but the school is a story that’s told in many voices.

What books have influenced your approach to education?

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste had a profound impact on me. She looked at the impact of racism on those who are victims of it, but she also looked at the physiological impact of racism on the largely unconscious perpetrators. Until we develop a more global view of the impact and the ills of racism for all people, we’re not going to be able to take on the problem at the level that we should.
I also love Zaretta Hammond’s book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. We do a lot of work at New Roads on the understanding of racism and its impact from a neuroscience perspective.

How would you like to see independent schools evolve?

Because they’re less regulated than public and charter schools, I think independent schools have an opportunity to be laboratories and experiment with how we create schools with a foundation of well-being that are about the liberation of human potential. Well-being encompasses diversity, equity, and inclusion that allows kids to feel a sense of belonging. What does that look like? How can we work collectively with charter and public schools to raise the generation that we need for our society to function in terms of workforce and citizens? I’d love to see the walls between independent, public, and charter schools fall. I think that independent schools can participate in this conversation and make themselves more relevant to society and to the larger educational world. 

Listen to the full interview on the NAIS Member Voices podcast. Download it now at iTunesSoundCloudTuneIn, or Stitcher. Rate, review, and subscribe to hear a new episode each month.
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