Member Voices: A Q&A with Ralinda Watts

Winter 2021

Photo_025.jpgRalinda Watts
Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
The Buckley School
Sherman Oaks, California
Photo by Jonathan Adjahoe
This is an excerpt from the NAIS Member Voices podcast.

What keeps you up at night?

How we can keep remote learning equitable for all of our families and accessible to our students. We are in unprecedented times, which has called for us to pivot and be creative and innovative in how we think about remote learning and how that can still be a transformative learning experience for our students. It’s incumbent upon us as leaders to be thinking about how we can provide an equitable experience so that every student feels like they can succeed in this distance learning model.

How have you been addressing that?

We’ve been ensuring that our students have the devices they need so they can fully participate. We’ve been working with teachers to ensure that we are delivering content and information in an equitable way. For example, in our teaching practice, how do we ensure there’s equity in student participation? So, we’re thinking about the full experience, and applying an equity lens in our practices and problem solving. Equity has to be at the center of the work.

What steps have you taken to move your school along the anti-racism path in school activities and operations?

As a diversity practitioner, I have always been leading these conversations—along with so many others in my role—pushing for change and supporting students who represent a very low percentage within their school communities. In this moment, everybody else is here with us now. Perhaps this will give more teeth to some initiatives and programs that practitioners have been leading in their schools and allow them to be supported in ways they weren’t previously.
I’m optimistic that some real institutional change will happen as a result of everyone paying attention. I hope this isn’t a trend right now; this is not a moment but a movement. As schools think about the changes they want to make, they need to ask if they are just putting a Band-Aid on something or making real, meaningful, substantive change that will have an impact on the institution for years to come and will create welcoming, safe environments for students of color.

How should school leaders be reacting to the [email protected] movement?

The [email protected] accounts are the most authentic racial audit that a school could receive. And they received it for free. Everything that a school needs to address are in those posts. They speak to deficits in curriculum, deficits in hiring, deficits in student body composition body, the social experience on the ground, the use of the “N” word on campus without consequence, the disparities within disciplines—they cover the gamut.
When you see graduates from an institution as well as current students speaking to the same issues, they’re telling you exactly what you need to address. I applaud the courage and bravery of the students and alums who have used that platform because you can really get a sense of the racial trauma they experienced at their schools. They want to hold their schools accountable, and that’s really an act of radical love. The alums are saying that they want the institution to be better. And they want to call attention to this so that no other student has to experience what they experienced.

What are some things a school needs to do to cultivate anti-racist spaces of belonging?

There has to be a self-examination and the honesty to tell the stories that we don’t want to tell. No school wants to think that its environment is creating racially traumatic experiences. But we have to be honest with ourselves and ask what policies and practices show up within the institution that create two systems, that create a racial hierarchy, that reinforce inequity.
Being an anti-racist or attempting to be an anti-racist school community is on the shoulders of everyone. That means everyone has to do that self-examination and ask, “Where does this show up inside of me? Where can I begin to learn more and challenge and question my thinking and actions?” And then the external work is thinking about where these things show up in the community. How do we interrupt, disrupt, and dismantle the systems within our schools. This work is tiring and messy, and it can be exhausting. And that’s when you have to push and keep going further.
For so long this has been seen as the diversity director’s responsibility, and quite frankly, on the shoulders of the Black folks in our respective schools. But you can’t have those that are oppressed trying to solve oppression. Everyone has to actively work to be anti-racist. We have to reimagine what it would look like to be in a school that is anti-racist. What are you willing to lose to create this anti-racist community? You’re going to gain so much, but we are going to have to shed a lot of what’s in the ethos of our schools. Change isn’t silent!

What’s your interaction with students like?

Working with students is the best part of my role in this work. I continue to be a solid support for all of the students, but in particular our students of color, our Black students who feel the pain of these micro- and macroaggressions. I want to help empower their voices, which I’ve always done, but now they’re concerned about what’s going to happen. What does this mean? Do they really care? So, it’s incumbent upon me to hold the institution accountable because these are the concerns our students have.
And then, for our white students, I really want to help them see that they have a place in this work. We didn’t create the system, but we all function in it. So, as a white student, you have the opportunity and the responsibility to create this anti-racist community. What does that look like? I want to help them see the ways that they can show up for themselves, do better, but, more importantly, show up for their peers who are from minoritized identities and be cocreators of change.
We’ve held many spaces for students to talk and process about this. I think this conversation now is in the ears of many who didn’t think they had to be paying attention.

How have you approached working with parents?

Prior to the end of the school year, I held sessions with all of our parents, K–12, on how to unpack the recent events, thinking about racial injustice and police brutality. I also held sessions on race and parenting, thinking about how to talk to your children about race. We had candid conversations on how that work needs to happen at home as well as
at school.
We continued those conversations throughout the summer, and I’ve also met with the parent/guardian affinity groups, and parents and alumni associations to ensure that there are multiple spaces in which the conversation is happening. Let’s be in conversation. I will give you tools and resources, but this is not something that we can check off the list. This is not something we can avoid. This is something we have to do to create a better future for our children.

What are you most proud of?

When I think about the diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice work, I’m really proud of seeing so many former students who are doing amazing things, and they share that they were sparked to do good work by being in proximity to me as a teacher. I’m proud that I’ve been able to build a strong program that put diversity, equity, inclusion and justice work at the center despite the pushback.
And I’m proud to be a mom. It’s such a challenging time to parent right now and to parent a young, confident, and strong-willed Black girl. We went to protests here in Los Angeles, and she wanted to be in the fight for us as Black people. I was so proud to see that she wanted to be out there, and it was beautiful. 

Listen to the full interview with Ralinda Watts 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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