Story by Leslie King
Three parent groups have been at the forefront of families’ engagement efforts around diversity, inclusion and racial justice reform at Durham Academy. They have partnered with the school through Diversity, Equity & Engagement Director Kemi Nonez, who leads a schoolwide team responsible for cultural competency training, diversity and inclusion programming, and multicultural events and education at DA.
The Diversity and Inclusion Parent Advocacy Group formed in August 2019 and is a multiethnic, multiracial group of current parents engaged in informing, supporting and amplifying the school’s diversity and inclusion efforts. They hosted their first meeting for interested parents in October 2019 and outlined four main priorities: diverse hiring and hiring practices at the school; enhancing curriculum around ideas of diversity and inclusion; providing parent-facing training for conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion with children at home; and creating a supportive environment for authentic, transformative parent conversations about diversity and inclusion. Bryan Batch and Evan McCormick co-chair the group.
The Parents of Black and African American students formed in May 2020 for mutual support during the pandemic and following the murder of George Floyd. In July 2020, the group began conversations with DA’s Administrative Team and Board of Trustees, and provided suggestions for implementing policies to improve racial equity at DA. The group’s mission is to support and facilitate DA’s implementation of a more welcoming and inclusive educational and social environment in which Black and African American students can grow academically, socially and emotionally, to become happy, moral, productive members of the DA community.
The Parents Council Diversity Committee is part of the governing body of the DA Parents Association and was formed about 10 years ago. Committee chairs work with Nonez, division coordinators, parents and students to plan and administer initiatives and programs that are an integral part of DA life and curriculum. Monica Newkirk and Rashaunte Mitchell are the 2020–2021 co-chairs. This fall, they coordinated a training session for council members, parents, faculty and staff about how to create an inclusive culture, facilitated by Brodwynn Roberts.
Although these interviews were conducted separately, representatives from each group talked about their group’s origins and the need for their work, the unique momentum around racial justice at this moment in history, their group’s short-term and long-term goals, the potential challenges to the sustainability of their efforts, and their hopes for the future.
Parent Group Origins
Bryan Batch, co-chair, Diversity and Inclusion Parent Advocacy Group
Clearly, the events of the summer just really struck a nerve with people. It [George Floyd’s murder] was such an egregious occurrence that people couldn't quite look away from it. … And then people were at home and working and kind of in the throes of COVID where people were just more available, I think. … I wanted advocacy to be in the name because I didn't want it to feel like it was just another meet-and-greet, show-up kind of group. I wanted people to have the feeling and I wanted the impression to be that we were actively involved in what change agents at the school were doing. … I think the fact that a group on diversity and inclusion was created with a Black woman and a white man [Preschool/Lower School dad Evan McCormick] is really important. That it's not just the parents of Black and African American children who typically are going to push the envelope on these issues. … It's just such a good reminder that people are just about it. That there is a real interest in saying, look, we’ve got to work on these things. This is not going away. We're going to keep plugging at it. We're really going to try to make it happen.
Kelly Robinson, Parents of Black and African-American Students
Murders of unarmed Black citizens have happened for hundreds of years, and no one cared. Thankfully, technology in the form of cell phone cameras has been capturing the horrors that have been suppressed until now. Also, I think in Trump’s America, a small number of virulent racist voices have felt comfortable rearing their ugly heads. Their conspicuousness has forced everyone, not just African Americans, to take a closer look around at what is happening. The Parents of Black and African American Students at DA evolved organically through shared experiences, concerns and desire to make DA an institution that is equally as welcoming to and supportive of Black and African American students as it is to other races.
Monica Newkirk, co-chair, Parents Council Diversity Committee
When it came to looking at diversity and inclusion, particularly with Parents Council, when I was asked to remain in the role, I knew that I wanted to be more than the messenger from the diversity office of the school to Parents Council. And so I think what ignited that thought and that feeling and that passionate drive that I had in that conversation was because of all the happenings in 2020.
Rashaunte Mitchell, co-chair, Parents Council Diversity Committee
One of the things that Monica and I were able to do was to really create a committee. And so with that committee, when you have a small group, you're able to get ideas and different perspectives from different individuals. … And so my hope is that within the committee or the diversity group, that we will really serve in many ways visually, in our thought and perspective ... as a mirror of what the Parents Council should be from a holistic perspective or from a broad lens.
The Need for Parent Diversity Groups
I think people who are empathetic and sympathetic try to identify with what the experience of others is. But on a day-to-day basis, if you don't have to think about it and you don’t have to prepare your children to go into the world to battle with it, then you just don't. It’s not a part of who you are day-to-day, you just don’t think about it as much. That's not because you're a racist person or because you're a bad person, it's just because it's not your reality.
When you look at the Parents Council in general, it is the heart of the school. Certainly without the families and children that are involved, there would be no DA community. And so within that community and even at the Parents Council level, I would think that one of our charges is to, number one, be a true representation of the DA community. And then the second thing is to identify and to connect as families should about the issues that concern us all. … Since the Parents Council is the hub of the school, it really reflects the mission and the vision and where I think the school desires to go.
I would like every student at DA to have an equal opportunity to experience the amazing educational and social experiences offered at DA. As long as there is implicit bias, racism and white privilege that has to be culturally unlearned in our community, which is just a microcosm of community outside of DA, our children just won't get it. There will be a barrier in place. I think in order for all our children to live their best moral, happy and productive lives in the present as well as the future, racial justice reform at DA is a non-negotiable.
[We] hope that the DA administration will clarify and consistently and swiftly seek to remedy any situation when racially offensive actions, language or behaviors are reported. After speaking with other parents about experiences when their child has been a victim of a racial slur, for example, the experiences were varied as to how the incident was addressed. There should be more consistency as to how those incidents are handled. Long-term goals include hiring more diverse faculty, admitting more diverse students and equity and inclusion training for staff. We would like to see a racially diverse curriculum including student body, faculty and staff that look more like Durham.
There are three major buckets that we’ve focused on … One of them is around hiring and hiring practices and how we can think about expanding our hiring practice. … The second thing for the parent advocacy group that people were really interested in was curriculum and how we sort of enhance curriculum around ideas of diversity and inclusion. And that's really been a big focus of faculty, I would say, and the school in general this year. … I think that the school has really taken that up as a mantle in a good way. … And then I would say the third is around how do we create social environments for parents where people feel more connected or people can have true and authentic conversations that can actually be transformative in a way that a person who believes in equity and believes in diversity, but is not quite at the point where they feel comfortable speaking the language, or they feel uncomfortable with bringing it up, or want to explore their own biases and don't know how to do that in a way that's safe — how do you create those environments in communities of people?
Our community at Durham Academy isn’t just Caucasian women. So I knew we needed to shake it up a little bit. And I just thought that, what a perfect time in 2020 … to say, hey, look at when you have this meeting scheduled. Is it available to the larger branch of your DA community, to the school? If it’s not, that may be something that you may need to look into. … I want us to go a little bit deeper in looking at ourselves and making it a conscious effort to want to do better, to want to be better as individuals for our children and for us to be the light for the community at large.
You've got to really look at everything and that diversity and inclusion is not just about ethnicity or race. It's about looking at people's cultural norms and deciding to look at their work habits, their life situations, looking at many aspects of their life that perhaps some people have a tendency to take for granted. And considering it all when making decisions to say, oh, we've made it convenient, we've made it inclusive.
Maintaining Sustainability and Momentum
I think it's been really important to focus on what are our key priorities, working closely with Kemi to help support her office in the work and not bite off more than we can chew. So time and effort is always a hard thing. I think the other thing is just trying to figure out what the right way is to engage the community of parents. And it's particularly hard now because, you know, we can't get together in person. … I personally think — and I'm not speaking from a leadership standpoint for any of these groups — but I feel like every environment needs some outside pressure to achieve the goals that are set. I really believe that in the end, if you know that people are going to be asking about the work and holding you accountable, then you're going to be more likely to achieve the goals.
It takes time, right? You can't just jump into 12 feet of water and you really don't know how to swim. You’ve got to start small. You’ve got to start slow. And that is so, so key… I don't want it to appear that we just check the box, because that's not what we want to do. We want to continue to do the work, because, again, it's going to take time and it's going to take all of us being willing and wanting to do it.
As advanced as technology is, there is nothing like face-to-face, human contact. And so it has certainly limited our ability to connect with families. There have been projects that we've been asked to be a part of or to identify certain ethnic or cultural groups, to meet a need. And we were really unable to do that, simply because we did not have the opportunity to build connections. And I think that that's so, so critical.
COVID-19 has affected every piece of the fabric of society: how we recreate, how we eat, how we go to school, how we work. Although African Americans are disproportionately suffering from the effects of the pandemic, Americans of all shades are hurting right now and have had enough. I think one of our challenges is navigating COVID. Our family has chosen the hybrid option of school attendance for our son, but what makes DA special is the community. … It’s hard to get to know families, get to know members of staff, administration through Zoom calls. If I had a magic wand, I would be hosting social gatherings in my backyard for PBAS families and potential DA families, but as of this writing it is just not safe right now to gather in person.
The Vision for the Future
DA, like all predominantly white institutions, needs to grapple with the racial caste system in the U.S. For those on the highest rung of the caste system, recognition of the system, listening and empathy are required. Thank you, Michael Ulku-Steiner and Kemi Nonez, for getting us farther along on this journey!
I think there's a real opportunity on the school side to be able to say we have active parent groups who are involved in the culture of the school, who are involved in the conversations that are happening, and that have been instrumental in building these things that we consider to be priorities… I feel like a bunch has happened, actually. I think that Kemi’s office in particular has just been the most engaged that I've seen in the years we’ve been at the school. I think the messaging from Michael Ulku-Steiner and the Board kind of de facto through him has been really clear about priorities and I've been super excited about students and alumni being engaged. So I feel like there's a lot of good movement forward. … The way forward and the sustainability of the way forward is to build in practices and policies at the school that will outlive all of us, so that the movement is not dependent on a person or a group.
I think sometimes whenever we are in crisis mode, which we are as a country, we're so focused on dealing with one particular issue or one that we deem to be the most troubling. But there is so much more work to be done in regards to making DA diverse. And it's not just about programming, it is about making sure that the hearts and minds and emotions of families and children who are matriculating through DA are intact, that they feel that they have a community and a place where they are fully accepted. … And so I'm just very hopeful.
You want to be one voice. … When you talk about these different entities and different groups or whatnot, you have all of these vehicles. But if we could all just kind of get in this nice SUV and we could all be a part of one accord and have one voice, bringing all voices to the table, can you imagine the melodious sound that would be for our kids? I mean, it would be a beautiful thing.