Growing up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., Kemi Nonez went to public schools that were far less diverse than Durham Academy.
“I didn’t have another African-American girl in my class until seventh grade. That was the only experience I knew, but I knew something was off. I knew that identity, diversity, all those things mattered, and we talked about it in my home. That’s how I am passionate about the work that I do here at Durham Academy.”
As Director of Diversity, Equity and Engagement, Associate Director of Enrollment Management and a member of the school’s administrative leadership team, Nonez wants all DA students to see themselves reflected in the student body, to be included fully in the life of the school and to feel comfortable here. She wants them to have what she lacked in her school life.
Nonez had only two African-American teachers from elementary school through high school, and “not until I got to high school did I have a huge experience of having other African-American students, Latino students, in my actual day-to-day academic environment.”
The neighborhood she lived in was not diverse either, but Nonez’ parents “always did a good job of making sure I knew who I was in terms of my own self identity and what I needed outside of my school environment.”
Her parents believed it was important for her to be involved in social justice organizations. “From a young age I was involved in that work. When I was in high school I was the secretary of the Montgomery County Youth NAACP group. I started on a path that I knew was important.”
That meant continuing the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and being connected to the community.
“I was lucky enough to be exposed to a lot of culture in the D.C. area, to be able to meet [South Africa civil rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner] Desmond Tutu at the Kennedy Center. That weighed heavily on me. To hear Stevie Wonder sing happy birthday in honor of the King celebration. All those things ring true. To see that Martin Luther King Day became a holiday when I was growing up. All these things were a big impact on me, and to be in a city that had so much culture really carved a way to who I am.”
Nonez and her NAACP youth group would talk with other young people, many of whom were attending historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
“We would be very heavily active in the HBCU environments. A lot of the folks who sat on committees with me or were involved with that, most of us went to historically black colleges or universities. That’s how I got to Durham [to attend North Carolina Central University]. I knew that I wanted to be at a historically black institution because it wasn't an experience that I was familiar with.
“Being able to go to a historically black college or university allowed me not only to only see professors who mirrored my image or were on the trajectory I wanted to be on, but also to have peers, my friends. I was able to complete that full circle of what I was kind of craving and missing in my experience growing up. So I owe a lot of who I am to my HBCU.”
When Nonez was growing up, her heroes were her parents and their friends who were “part of a generation where they might have been the ‘first of’ in lots of fields [they were working in].”
She heard her parents talk about “what was important, what they had to do, the things that they had to get over. My mom grew up in the Charleston, South Carolina, area, so it was a very different experience than my dad's experience growing up in New Jersey.”
Nonez’s father was an engineer who worked at Howard University and the National Academy of Sciences. Part of that relationship was “making sure that African-Americans and women really had a place in engineering, making their mark… he became somewhat of a liaison with Georgetown and helping recruit black engineers. NSBY [the National Society of Black Engineers] was really pivotal for my sister, who went into mathematics and engineering, and my husband, who is an engineer. Back then, you didn’t see a lot of blacks in the STEM fields.”
Nonez’ mother worked in the public school system for many years as a science teacher and “also had an entrepreneurial spirit, so she had her own florist business. She is still strong and going at it. I look up to her as one of the strongest women I know.”
Education was important in Nonez’ family — “there was no conversation of life after high school not being in a college setting” — and when it was time for Nonez and her husband, Patrick, to look for a school for their son, they attended a tour and information session at Durham Academy.
“After that tour and information session — ironically that’s what I do now (in Enrollment Management) — my husband felt that it was the place that he could see his son thriving as a young African-American male with independent thoughts, independent desires, and that was important to us as a family unit.”
Their son, Xavier, came to DA in Preschool and graduated in 2017.
Nonez joined her son at DA in 2009, leaving a career in banking to join the Enrollment Management team and in 2011 she took on an additional role as DA’s Director of Diversity & Multicultural Affairs, managing a team of diversity coordinators in each division. This month, Nonez realigned her team’s title to Diversity, Equity and Engagement to more accurately define their mission, and launched a newsletter to increase awareness of their work. This summer Nonez was recognized with a Rising Star Award by the Enrollment Management Association, who cited her role in helping streamline financial aid and promoting diversity at her school and in the greater community.
Nonez believes DA is a model school and “it needs to remain a model school in every aspect that we have. If we’re not leading the charge in technology, what can we do better? If we're not leading the charge in diversity, equity and inclusion, what can we be doing better? … I think we’ve taken baby steps but people would be surprised at the presence we have on a national scale, the work that we’re doing in diversity, equity and inclusion. You talk to other schools and they’re like ‘oh we’re not there yet’ or ‘no, we’re not doing that.’
“While it can be frustrating for some families or individual situations and even for my son, we have to recognize that this is work and it is fluid. We have to continue to strive to make sure it is the most inclusive environment, that everybody, every student has the ability to have an equitable experience.”