Black@: Using the Social Media Movement to Dig Deeper

Winter 2021

By Jan Abernathy

“That Browning has not yet had its own dedicated Instagram page should bring us no solace. If the present moment has demonstrated anything, it’s that no school or institution has been vigilant enough in dismantling the systemic and structural ways in which institutions deliver unequal experiences on the basis of race. The Browning stories surely exist, and it’s our community’s responsibility to make sure not only that these stories are heard, but that they are acted upon in ways which allow us to fulfill the mandates of our mission.”
That is what John Botti, head of school at The Browning School (NY), wrote in his June 24, 2020 blog post.
At the time, the Black@ movement was just starting to grow and take shape on social media. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) alumni, students, and employees were sharing their experiences at predominantly white institutions, stories of deep trauma and profound exclusion that span decades, demonstrating that the racist acts some might have thought disappeared from our schools decades ago, were still occurring today. These Instagram accounts expose a far different narrative than the one told through website photos and admission viewbooks.

As a racial reckoning in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and others has continued unabated, there’s scarcely a sector of the business and nonprofit world that hasn’t been touched, including independent schools. According to a September 2020 “NAIS Snapshot Survey,” nearly nine in 10 (88%) diversity practitioners are very aware of the Black@ movement, and more than half (55%) of them report that students have posted on social media to share their experiences at the school.

Although many schools have been called out with Instagram accounts, there are many others that haven’t. But this is not an indication that the schools that haven’t had their turn in the unforgiving social media spotlight won’t—nor that the kinds of experiences and stories shared widely in this movement aren’t currently echoing in their halls. As the number of Black@ accounts grew over the summer, I wasn’t the only communications director obsessively checking to see if it was my school’s turn in the crosshairs.

Once the Black@ movement started gaining momentum, we reached out proactively to Browning’s Black alums. We hosted our first Black alumni focus group just a few days after our head of school published his blog post. More than a dozen men whose graduation dates ranged from the early 1970s (making them among the first Black students admitted to our school) to 2019 attended. Now even more BIPOC alums are connecting with our current students and families, participating in activities such as admission open houses, affinity groups, and college nights and getting involved in a broader way with alumni activities. One is even a new trustee. (See “In Their Own Words” below for more.) I believe that we are in the place we are today because we took the first step in communicating with our Black alumni.

But Browning is hardly alone as a school that avoided a media maelstrom and yet proactively sought to address systemic racism within its walls. Despite the relentless demands of an expanding global health crisis, independent schools across the country have made significant strides in forging deeper connections with all parts of their community—even though their flaws hadn’t been thrust into the spotlight.

Digging Deeper at a Committed  Institution

At Lowell School (DC), equity and diversity has always been in the foreground. “Our founders described racial diversity as being an unspoken part of the mission,” says Head of School Donna Lindner, noting that the school is known locally and nationally for its diversity work and integration of social justice into the curriculum, even at the earliest ages. “After the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, there was never a doubt in the board’s mind that I needed to write a letter to the entire community,” she says. But that was only the start, and another letter about the Black@ movement soon followed.  “We told our constituents that just because there was no Lowell page now doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be,” Lindner says. “We couldn’t pat ourselves on the back or assume that people weren’t negatively impacted by our behavior in school.” 

As part of its response to the impact of the Black@ accounts, Lowell is embarking on a series of initiatives this school year, including creating a working committee to investigate the ways it responds to student behavior related to issues of race. This year the school plans to launch the NAIS Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism survey, host a series of events for current families to become informed about anti-racism, and continue curriculum mapping against Teaching Tolerance standards to ensure that even at the youngest ages, ideas around social justice are fully incorporated. 

Even in schools where the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are embraced by the community, the work is never done, Lindner says. “Like other schools, we must continue to unpeel the layered onion of complexity that surrounds these issues and operate in ways that show our commitment to being the strongest, healthiest institution we can be in spite of our reputation. We may have unpeeled more layers than other schools, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have work to do.”

Identifying Blind Spots

For Jim Eagen, head of school at the Synapse School (CA), a clarifying moment came as Northern California protests continued through the early part of the summer and his faculty and staff became heavily involved in them. “Even at a staff meeting on Zoom, I could tell there was deep tension regarding the situation. I decided to meet with our equity and inclusion committee—where I was told in no uncertain terms that I just didn’t get it,” he says. Faculty and staff members felt that the school, which has relatively few Black students, needed to do something far deeper—“from the board right down to how reports are written,” he says, adding, “I clearly have a blind spot here, and I need help.”

The school, which once focused on gifted students (including the since-abandoned use of IQ tests as an admission tool), is in a heavily Latinx area. And Eagen, who is its first head, had been working hard to become “a good neighbor,” partnering with Peninsula Bridge, a local organization that supports underserved, highly motivated students, to admit more Latinx and Pacific Islander students. But the school didn’t really talk about its DEI work, and although the school had made “good progress” he says, it was time to do more.

This past summer, the school partnered with East Ed, an organization that helps schools establish equitable, anti-bias, multicultural environments. In addition to working with faculty and staff—and establishing affinity groups for teachers of color for the first time—the organization will also assist with board training and a cultural and curriculum assessment as part of a two-year commitment. Eagen tells his staff that although they are facing a pandemic, they have to handle this new reality too. “I remind them that they are multidimensional people, and that anything that is worth doing is going to be hard,” he says. “If it is easy and simple, it may not be the right choice. If it’s difficult and complicated and the problem being solved is complex, it’s often worth doing.”

A Call to Action

For Princess Sirleaf Bomba, director of unity and diversity at The Wheeler School (RI), her employer’s response to the events of the summer had personal resonance. “I am also a parent, with a recent college grad and one entering his junior year,” she says. “I’m starting my eighth year in this role, but my 18th year of being on the campus.” Although the school had no Black@ account and had been doing intentional anti-racist work for many years, she and others at the school knew that they could be doing so much more. 

“We had a call to action for white faculty and staff. I wrote a letter to my colleagues, talking about my own pain and what I was experiencing as a parent of Black boys in the United States,” she says. “White members of the community took what our Black community was going through seriously. They took the burden away from faculty and staff of color and began creating time, space, and resources to hold anti-racist discussions about action steps that they could take individually.” While white colleagues were meeting over the entire summer, Black colleagues had their own meetings where “feelings were very raw, and they were able to highlight our school’s mistakes and deficits.”

Ending the school year this past spring with eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence in honor of George Floyd was one potent way in which the school signaled the importance of the racial reckoning to the community. Bomba says the school is also looking very intentionally at language such as “master class” or “master teacher” and its impact on the environment at the school. “There is a sense of urgency on this from the board of trustees on down,” she adds.

With a prominent call to action on its web page, Wheeler continues to solicit reflections from alumni about how their race may have impacted their time at the school and offers a multipoint list of the school’s anti-racist activities. The school’s Equity Task Force will be reporting to the board of trustees with their findings and proposals in January.

Building Capacity for Anti-Racism Work

At New Canaan Country School (CT), the summer’s racial unrest drew a tighter focus to some of the work that the school’s strategic planning committee had been doing around the issues of diversity and community, says Aaron Cooper, head of school. “The members of this group, which includes all of the adult constituents of the school, had really deliberated about putting a stake in the ground about being anti-racist and what it means to do that,” Cooper says. “The unrest really brought the conversations to the surface in a way that they hadn’t been before.”

The school’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion, Kojo Clarke, who started in 2019, has been focused on building capacity in the faculty and staff for doing the hard work of reflecting on their own identities and systematic racism within the institution. “Faculty are the driving force in the culture of a school,” Cooper says. “We had optional gatherings to discuss these issues—people told their own stories and that was important.”

In a school where just over 10% of the faculty are people of color, Cooper says, “Our focus for this year is to try as an employee cohort to first realize that many of our fellow colleagues, particularly colleagues of color and other marginalized groups, may not feel comfortable to bring their full selves to work. We must ask ourselves the hard questions of what we have to do as an adult community to change to make it safer for them to do so.”

Communicating More in a Diverse Environment

With 56% students of color and more than 20 languages other than English spoken in its community, The Elisabeth Morrow School (NJ) is one the most racially diverse schools in the country. Yet administrators realized that they needed to be proactive in conversations around equity and inclusion. This summer they created “listening sessions,” guided conversations designed to check in with families and hear their concerns, particularly because the history behind the American context of race might be less familiar to many of the school’s first-generation or ex-pat families, and the need for proactive equity and inclusion programming would likely require greater explanation.

“We learned that we need to be much more communicative—even when we think that we are communicating too much—so that families really understand what’s going on throughout the school in terms of equity work,” says Phoebe Search, director of diversity, equity, and inclusivity and the parent of fourth grade twins at the school. “The gaps in knowledge, particularly if your child is younger, can be stark.”

As an employee, Search says, “I often forget, as a parent at the school, how much information that I have from working here.” She notes that one issue raised in the listening sessions—families’ belief that there were too few faculty of color—had already been partially solved. “Recent hiring in our early childhood and lower school divisions increased the number of faculty of color, so these families had all these worries that they should not have had. That was eye-opening to me.”

In the 2020–2021 school year, Search says, the school is looking at “how we can guide colleagues toward asking the questions that show interest in different families’ experiences and invite families into our work. We are partnering with our parents association’s equity and inclusion committee around parent programming, communication, and how I can be a resource to them in terms of communication with other faculty and staff.”

Learning from the Comments

The University School of Nashville (TN) is known for being forward-thinking in terms of diversity and inclusion. And though USN alumni did not create a Black@ account at the height of the summer’s protests (a private account with seven posts surfaced in September, and has not been active for some time), the school did hear from some alumni that an annual fund reminder on social media was insensitively timed too closely to George Floyd’s death. “We had shared only a very general statement of our commitment to diversity and inclusion work at that time,” says Juanita Traughber, communications director at the school. “I think that largely flew under the radar, and then the next social media post was about that school fundraiser. When we saw the comments on the post in response, within the hour we began reaching out to people whom we could identify,” she says.

“Our director Vince Durnan had shared several emails with the school community about the school’s position about everything that was going on, but we hadn’t posted those on social media,” says Traughber. “So the conversation with alums went from, ‘The school should not be having a fundraiser right now,’ to, ‘Actually, USN says that it’s diverse, but there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done.’” The school apologized and canceled the fundraiser.

Roderick White, director of the school’s office of diversity and community life, noted that this summer’s events highlighted an opportunity to look at the privileges of independent schools—“that sometimes even we as people of color in them don’t see”—and allowed for conversations to flourish at a deeper level than before. Black administrators and high school faculty created a Summer Salon Series, four discussions examining race in America and the movement for Black lives that were open to high school students and alumni. School leaders have also developed an Equity, Justice & Inclusion Tracker to measure the school’s progress toward goals related to, among other initiatives, hiring and retention of underrepresented faculty of color, recruitment of underrepresented students of color, adoption of anti-racist and anti-harassment policies, and enhancement of curriculum materials and course offerings. (See “Measuring the Response” below.)

For schools—whether or not they have been “Black-atted”—that are struggling with how to respond to these times, Quinton Walker head of high school USN says, it starts with self-reflection. "I think schools this summer were caught in a pretty bad spot if they hadn’t really done the requisite work.” Schools shouldn’t think that they can call in a consulting firm to solve their problems, he says. “I think about how leadership, and especially white male heads of school, really need to start working on how they realize privilege and oppression and marginalization. How does that show up in their own lives, and how does it show up in their work as they interface and meet a community?”

The events of this past summer and the Black@ movement represent a sea change for our schools. “There’s no way that our schools can move backward, which is not to say that some schools won’t try to,” says Elisabeth Morrow’s Search. “The lasting impact will be a call to action that will be ongoing, and it will say a lot about a school’s board and administration—they all allude to DEI so, here’s your chance, folks: What are you going to do with it?” 

In Their Words

Browning School Black alumni recently created a group, We the Panther Mentors, which is working closely with the school as it seeks to provide even greater support to students and families of color. Here, three alumni describe the school focus group that brought them all together and how they will stay involved.

I anticipated a public statement from Browning pertaining to the Black@ movement, but not an invite to a conversation. If I am completely honest, I was a bit skeptical of the school’s intentions at first. … The initial focus group was cathartic in many ways. As for what made us continue to meet, for me, it was the amount of love and laughs in the room. Despite having endured significant traumas due to systemic inequities, no one in the room was scorned.

“My relationship with Browning is the strongest it has been since graduation day. I have met so many wonderful people since getting involved with this initiative. I have so much respect and admiration for Browning’s current leadership. John Botti and his team are deeply passionate about making impactful changes to ensure that the experience of a Browning gentleman is not one that is predicated on race or socioeconomic status. We have an opportunity to be a part of something incredibly special, to leave a legacy that will influence the experiences and perspectives of the entire Browning community forever. We often say it’s not ‘Black@Browning’ but ‘Black with Browning.’ It’s easy to stand with an institution that is accountable and willing to do the work to make it right.” —Nate Garcia (’06)
I thought the school’s intentions were to get ahead of the curve given the issues that other private schools were facing and show its support for Black alums during this difficult time and provide a platform for us to vent to and reunite. … It was uplifting to talk about my experiences at Browning that were truly amazing and to hear similar stories from other alums of color.

“To now be in a position in which I am able to offer mentorship and uplift students during this transformative period in their lives, I feel as if I am able to be the support mechanism to students that I so desperately wanted when I was their age.” —Graig Springer (’98)
I was slow to respond to the invitation but Caroline Axelrod (director of alumni affairs) reached out to me, and I realized how serious Browning was in having this discussion.

“The Panther Mentors would like to offer both mentorship and financial support to Browning through increased donations. We also want to work with Browning on the implementation of the requests we shared with the school on improving the experiences of students of color. We feel that our personal experiences, positive as well as negative, gives us the insights that students of color can relate to. We also want to share our success, as Browning alumni, with students of color so that they can see where they can go after Browning.” —Dennis Coleman (’72)

Measuring the Response

The University School of Nashville’s Equity, Justice & Inclusion (EJ&I) Tracker was developed by Black administrators and faculty with the school director, division heads, and several other administrators and staff supporting the work. It puts in one place the EJ&I work being done throughout the school and identifies areas where USN can improve.

The six categories being tracked include school initiatives and ideas from conversations with alumni, parents, and students:
  1. Response to June 2020 social media posts
  2. Examining our curriculum: conversations around inclusivity
  3. Building our community: hiring and retention of underrepresented faculty
  4. Building our community: recruiting and retaining underrepresented students of color
  5. Reflecting and sharing our work: EJ&I progress and accountability
  6. Caring for and equipping our community: support of community members
Jan Abernathy

Jan Abernathy is the chief communications officer at The Browning School and a trustee at Grace Church School, both in New York.