Last week, I listened to Parts 1 and 2 of the four-part podcast Test Kitchen. Hosted by Sruthi Pinnamaneni and produced by Gimlet Media, the series investigates accusations of a toxic and racist workplace culture at Bon Appetit magazine. Before Part 3 could be produced, it was announced that Sruthi Pinnamaneni and fellow Host PJ Vogt were “stepping away” from the project following accusations that they themselves contributed to a toxic workplace culture at Gimlet Media, the company producing the podcast. Ironic? I’d say so. Surprising? Sadly, no.
These are days of reckoning – a time in our history when those who have been long repressed, made to feel invisible, discriminated against, and victimized are calling out bastions of privilege and using the power of social media to amplify their voices. No one should be surprised. From the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s to the Black Lives Matter global protests of 2020, the fight for social justice and racial equality has been ongoing and growing, and with it the volume of its voice and the space it takes up in our social consciousness.
The very public Gimlet Media dressing down is something all organizations dread. Schools are no different. We educate children. We promote a worthy mission and espouse a set of values. The idea that something in our past (or our present) egregiously did harm is tough to hear. Hearing it first on social media brings a special kind of pain.
This year I joined a small group of Heads of School who are all part of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools. We meet to talk specifically about our efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in our schools. We share successes, failures and resources, and support each other as we endeavour to do this essential work. We share in a commitment to girls’ education but we bring perspectives that are varied and based on who we are and where we come from – Ontario, BC, the US (from coast to coast) and South Africa.
Last week, we discussed how necessary, important and challenging it is to respond to the growing demands of students and alumna to undertake DEI work with greater urgency. At the end of our conversations one of the Heads posed this provocative question:
To what extent are we motivated by fear of being called out for not doing enough or for getting it wrong, rather than motivated by the joy of getting to know one another and growing as individuals as a community?
This question, powerful at any time, seemed to have even more weight in that moment as each of our schools was celebrating and navigating Black History Month. It resonated loudly with me because our guest speaker the week prior had upset some students with her opinions and her choice of words. Students emailed me after the presentation to express their thoughts, their own opinions and, in some cases, their anger and indignation. Reading their emails, I had that moment of dread, disappointed that our best effort missed the mark, feeling as if we’d failed. I reached out to someone our school is working with this year to guide us in our DEI journey and told her what had happened, how upset some students had been, how what was supposed to be a celebration of diversity turned into a moment fraught with emotion. Her response was something I will never forget: “Congratulations!” she said. “You’re doing the tough work of DEI. You got students to engage!”
This wasn’t exactly the response I was expecting. Congratulations? Didn’t she hear me? Some students were unhappy. Isn’t it my job to get it right? And right every time? Aren’t I supposed to create a safe space where no one feels discomfort? After a lengthy conversation exploring these questions, however, I came away with a deeper understanding of what it means to move from fear to joy as we undertake this important work within our school.
Here’s the thing I am learning about diversity work. By its very definition, it means that many voices must be heard. It means there is not “one way” to think or one set of beliefs to follow. It means that we will hear things and experience things that may not align with how we as individuals see the world. Some things we will encounter we will agree with, some we will disagree with, and sometimes we’ll encounter things and we won’t know quite what to think. We may feel perplexed.
Embracing diversity means acknowledging we are each shaped by different, individual experiences. Where we grow up, the year we are born and the world events we live through, the religion we practice or don’t practice, the amount of money we have, the language we speak – all these things shape who we are, how we perceive the world and what we may believe. These experiences make us all different and that’s what’s so hard. How do you create a school community or a society where everyone feels included but also allowed to have different opinions, beliefs and ideas?
At Trafalgar, we want to create a BRAVE space that teaches each girl how to think for herself. A brave space is not a space that protects her from the outside world. It is not a space that reassures her there is one correct way to think. It does not allow only for those voices that are loudest or the most passionate. A brave space allows multiple voices to be given room. And above all, a brave space recognizes people will make mistakes, need time to reflect, must be allowed to change and grow. A brave space is one where each individual can share their thoughts or feelings without fear of being publicly shamed or trolled on social media, without being shut down, without being told they are a bad person because others don’t agree with them. A brave space is compassionate. It allows for redemption. It demands we create joy.
We cannot create a brave space where our girls only hear ideas that make them comfortable. I can’t personally pre-screen every guest we invite into our space or every word that is uttered in our classrooms. I can’t ensure that our students are surrounded only by people who think like them or talk like them or live like them – because, in fact, our students do not all talk or think or live in one way. I know that many of us within our own community have different beliefs, different experiences, different family backgrounds. We are all diverse. The moment we insist there is only one way of thinking, that is the moment we betray what diversity is really all about.
If any school or organization tells you they are doing DEI work and everybody feels happy all the time, I suggest that real DEI work is not being done at anything other than a superficial level. Real diversity work is messy. It makes us feel uncomfortable at times. But to feel uncomfortable means we are engaging. We were doing the hard work that DEI asks of us.
Trafalgar Castle is preparing girls and young women to enter a world that is both kind and cruel. We are preparing each girl to use her voice to share her thoughts, but we are also preparing her to use her ears to listen and to try to understand the diversity of voices she will encounter. Some of these voices she is not going to agree with but how she responds will determine the impact she can make and the change she can bring about.
This is the time and this is the place for each girl to learn these skills – here where the stakes are low – not after she graduates where one misspoken word can take away a scholarship to Harvard or a successful career in media. We want to give our girls opportunities here where it’s safe, to learn how to grapple with discomfort. To learn how to respond. And most importantly, to learn how to seek clarification to explore differences of opinion. Sometimes when we take the time to challenge the assumptions we are making about the person in front of us, we find out we are more aligned than the words we heard might have us believe. Sometimes we realize that what we disagree with is the way something was said, not with the person who said it.
Let me end by saying this. I am so proud to be part of this community because I think we are brave enough to do the hard work ahead. I think we can build bridges of understanding. It won’t be easy and it won’t be comfortable – I can personally guarantee you that I will make mistakes along the way even if I try not to. We all will, in fact. But if we live our values, if we seek to understand rather than to attack, if we show kindness – I know we can create the kind of inclusive community where everyone feels they belong. I know we can create a place for joy.