You may not like this post

19 Oct

I said something the other night at a school event that was received with some nods, a vehement objection and general silence:

“Rich people are in a contradictory position in independent schools. They are simultaneously appreciated for their wealth (which the schools depend on to operate and grow) and blamed for making others feel excluded or inferior, by the sheer fact of their affluence.”

By now, some of you have stopped reading and maybe even put me on your do-not-read list. Maybe you heard me say that the super-rich are victims who deserve our pity (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/rich-people-demonized-for-flaunting-their-wealth-are-under-attack/2011/09/28/gIQAcJn4AL_story.html).

So let me be clear: by no means am I suggesting that the woes of the rich are the same as or greater than those of the poor or the working-and-just-getting-by. I’d like to avoid the Oppression Olympics (wherein we need to rank misfortune, and only the three most exceptionally unfortunate victims get a medal). But I am suggesting that the rich have issues, too. Issues that aren’t just theirs. Issues that independent schools need to consider, if they’re serious about inclusion and equity for all, not just some.

This is a “yes, and…” proposition. When we talk about socioeconomic diversity in communities, we need to address the very real, persistent and steep hurdles to access and inclusion for individuals and families with less financial resources. We also need to acknowledge the experience of being socioeconomically identified for all families and individuals. Just as we recognize that some members of our community have to explain their limited resources to their children, to the admissions office, and even to the teacher who assumes that everyone can afford to buy a sweatshirt or bring pocket money for a field trip; we need to recognize that other members of our community are struggling to adjust and remain financially solvent when their formerly comfortable circumstances have shrunken drastically over the past few years. Meanwhile, other members of our community feel compelled to coach their kids not to brag (i.e. mention their vacation or chauffeur), so that they aren’t labeled “entitled (brats)” by peers or even adults. Still others resent being blamed for having money and distance themselves from occasions when people they’ve never met may judge them.

We need to recognize all these experiences of socioeconomic diversity because, quite simply, money matters in our daily lives and as integral aspects of our identities: we are the people who shop at Whole Foods, the people who just attend the silent auctions for the free food (because we can’t afford to bid, but it’s a nice night out), or the people who wear clothing donated to us by our employers. And if schools don’t address how having money (and the status that goes with it) affects people’s experiences and interactions, the misunderstandings and judgments accumulate, and our communities end up factionalized into self-identified groups of have’s and have not’s (and semi-have’s, otherwise known as the middle class).

The opportunity in recognizing the full spectrum of socioeconomic diversity is that we have the opportunity to educate all people on the norms and expectations of our community: while many schools work to help financially-constrained families to understand how to be in the community (ex. accessing resources and opportunities), they could also be working to help financially-comfortable families understand how to be in the community (ex. doing the most good with their resources in a way that fits the school’s values of inclusion–perhaps by reconsidering the fees associated with “open invitation” parent/guardian events, or understanding that all donations are recognized equally, regardless of amount).

So when I said we need to recognize the untenable position that wealthy families and individuals are in and incorporate their roles and experiences into our conversations about equity and inclusion, it’s not because they’re “poor rich” people whose needs are more important than their less affluent peers, but because at the very least when we ask the question, we can discern what the issues are and how important they are to us. We can decide if equity and inclusion are really about charity for some (to make them a little more equal), or justice for all.

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