Story by Pat James
As one of Durham Academy’s few openly gay faculty members, Upper School English teacher Dr. Harry Thomas can think of multiple times when it’s been assumed that he’ll address an issue around sexuality on campus.
That, he said, can be irritating. But above all, it’s exhausting, being victimized by homophobia, then charged with telling straight people how to combat it.
Memories of such experiences came rushing back to Thomas’ mind on June 4, 2020, when, in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as well as the subsequent protests, Thomas’ colleagues of color shared their thoughts and fears in an all-school faculty and staff meeting that he described as “gut-wrenching.”
“Sitting in that meeting, listening to my friends who are people of color share their pain, I thought, ‘You need to practice what you preach, Harry,’” Thomas recalled. “Just as it shouldn’t be solely my job to fix homophobia on campus, it shouldn’t be faculty of color’s sole job to fix racism on campus. So, after that meeting, I sent a message to some Upper School and Middle School white faculty. I said, ‘I don’t know what we need to do, but we need to do something.’”
As far as that thinking goes, he wasn’t alone.
In the days following that meeting, Thomas and many of his white colleagues across all divisions exchanged emails, trying to figure out what they could do. Eventually, those conversations led to the formation of the White Awareness and Accountability Group, a group dedicated to ensuring students, families and faculty of color feel welcome and supported at DA.
“I think there’s a critical mass of white faculty who recognize that because we benefit from white supremacy, that we need to take a stand and do the work of helping to dismantle it,” Thomas said. “There’s a zillion tough questions about how to do that work and how best to do it in concert with our friends and colleagues of color without being too presumptive or leaning too heavily on them, but I think there’s a lot of white faculty who know that we need to start having those tough conversations.”
While some tough topics don’t lend themselves to discussing in a virtual environment, the COVID-19 pandemic allowed more candid conversations to take place between members of WAAG.
“The remote format actually seemed to allow for conversations that might not have otherwise taken place, and fostered — in some cases, anyway — an atmosphere of openness and honest communication,” said Middle School language arts teacher Kelly Howes. “It felt different from other such discussions I’d been involved in. Though perhaps farther apart, we felt more together.”
Howes said learning about Building Anti-Racist White Educators, a Philadelphia-based group, helped WAAG shape the structure of its meetings. BARWE provides curriculums and readings to share with participants ahead of time, and DA faculty followed that framework to get started.
“Having the framework of BARWE was super helpful and I think made our initial meetings quite successful,” said Dan Gilson, director of Extended Day and a Lower School diversity coordinator. “I also really appreciated being in a group of people who all hoped the same things; didn't crave the spotlight, but took it if it meant getting something done; and where everyone stepped up to move this along in the various ways that they could based on time, expertise, interest, etc.
“It was and is a great group to be involved with and it makes me smile to see how effective this model of group work is.”
Even then, as the meetings evolved, Howes said the group learned that each person was at a different place in their awareness of whiteness and their journey to becoming anti-racist. For some, that journey began at understanding how race is a major part of every person’s identity. And this could be uncomfortable, as Upper School Spanish teacher Jennifer Garci knows.
In what she now calls “one of the most uncomfortable and at the same time one of the most transformative moments” of her life, Garci attended her first white affinity meeting at the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference in 2001. Until then, she said she’d never considered how the idea of race applied to her. But that changed that day.
“That’s when I began to realize that until I understood that we all have race and that being white is actually a massive part of my identity — whether I understood it or not — there was no way that I could properly understand and teach my students, let alone move responsibly in this world,” Garci said. “So, when someone — a colleague, a parent, a friend — asks me how to talk about race and do so comfortably, part of my answer will always refer to talking about your own race in spaces.”
Garci offers a similar response to anyone who might ask why a white affinity group is necessary.
“Having the word ‘white’ in our affinity group label is of great importance and relevance as to why we are gathering,” she said. “For so long, white people have wanted to talk about race, but generally make it about everyone else but them.”
The fact that many white faculty members are no longer doing that is an important step. But it has to be the first of many for DA to become a place where all white students and employees are engaged in anti-racism work.
“I am thinking of something author Kiese Laymon said: ‘Sometimes the bar is so low that we trip over it and people think we’re flying. We’re not flying,’” Middle School chorus teacher Karen Richardson said. “Should we really be lauded for doing the little we’re doing? For providing a space for white people to talk about their whiteness? That’s not the real work of change. That’s just the beginning.”
DA is also focused on creating spaces for faculty and staff of color to talk about the impact of racism on their lives and their communities and to focus on supporting the students they teach.
This started with the Faculty and Staff of Color Affinity Group and led to affinity groups for students, as well. Members of the Faculty and Staff of Color Affinity Group sponsor these student groups, such as Asian Affinity Groups in the Upper and Middle School, a Latinx Affinity Group and a Black Affinity Group.
Upper School Mandarin Chinese teacher Bonnie Wang — who sponsors the Upper School’s Asian Affinity Group — said these affinity groups provide a platform for marginalized voices at DA.
“While these affinity groups are student-led at the Upper School, our faculty of color provide the structural support and guidance that the students need,” she said. “This, in turn, gives students the space to have conversations that will help them build confidence as students of color, and to inspire them to transfer the conversations into positive action.”
Members of the Faculty and Staff of Color Affinity Group hope for several positive actions to come from their work. Those include — but are not limited to — increased support for faculty and staff of color; the identification of areas of growth for the community, as it relates to equity and inclusion; advocacy for students of color; and support for the recruitment and retention of students, faculty and staff of color. The last of those is especially important to Dean of College Counseling Jazmin Garcia Smith, who serves as an Upper School diversity coordinator.
“This will benefit our faculty because we will continue to learn from one another,” she said. “It will help us pedagogically to connect with all of our students. It will help us think outside of the box when creating our curriculum and to better prepare our students for the real world, which is even more diverse than our community. It will help us as human beings to be more aware of different life experiences and biases we individually hold. It will help us to better examine our own institutional biases and processes, as well. In sum, it will make our community better.”
That’s the goal of everyone at DA. And it will take everyone to achieve it.
“It is my hope that these meetings get added to the yearly calendar and the content evolves naturally and participation continues to grow,” Gilson said. “We definitely want the culture of DA to be one of open dialogue about race and racism where white faculty, staff, parents and kids feel competent in discussing and acting on these issues instead of continuing to push them onto our friends, colleagues, parents and students of color.”