There’s a must-read article for educators, families and students who are in, considering or were once part of the independent school world in last Friday’s NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/21/nyregion/for-minority-students-at-elite-new-york-private-schools-admittance-doesnt-bring-acceptance.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0). In “Admitted, but Left Out,” Jenny Anderson connects the dots of a conversation that is happening across independent schools about the struggle to be a student at a private school when you’re a racial minority without the financial resources to go on class trips, go on vacation over winter break, buy designer label clothes, go to camp or even eat out for lunch.
I won’t summarize the article–but please do read it and pass it along. Instead, I’d like to share some thoughts about what all of this means for us as folks who have the agency and responsibility to create communities where diverse children and adults can thrive (and again, “diverse” includes everyone, not just the minorities):
According to Anderson, “The [independent schools interviewed for the article] point to efforts to hire diversity directors, create forums for discussion about race and privilege, and design mentoring programs to help students find connections.” This is necessary. And it’s grossly incomplete. The minority students interviewed for the article “report feeling estranged, studying among peers who often lack any awareness about their socioeconomic status and the differences it entails. They describe a racism that materializes not in insults, but more often in polite indifference, silence and segregation.” And there it is. The solution is not just trying to protect or connect the kids on the fringe: it’s developing self-awareness, intentionality and cultural competence among all members of the community. Each person who works, studies, coaches, volunteers or in any way engages students at a school needs to cultivate:
- self-awareness (recognition of who I am and my relationships and impact as I engage with others)
- intentionality (an understanding of and commitment to inclusion and equity in my interactions with others), and
- cultural competence (the skills to enact and realize inclusion and equity)
The “effort” schools make needs to be 360. Otherwise, it’s perpetuating and adding to the inequity we’re trying to address. Because let’s face it: racial minority and financially-constrained students and families don’t have a choice about self-awareness and cultural competency when they come to an elite private school: it’s learn and adapt… or leave. So they’re already doing a lot of the heavy lifting. What about everyone else?
As head of the Calhoun School Steven Nelson says, “Students, and these are nice kids, too easily assume ‘I’m a white kid in this nice Upper West Side school, and that kid is a brown kid in this nice Upper West Side school; my understanding of us can stop there. Conversations have to move beyond the surface.” UMass Amherst professor Sonia Nieto would agree that, “Nice is not enough.” Schools have to acknowledge that it’s their job to teach the nice kids, educators and families how to make that move. Schools need to articulate their expectations regarding inclusion and equity, provide personal and professional growth opportunities and hold every member of their communities accountable for making their schools places where people can thrive, not just survive.
In order to mobilize a sustainable (and not just polite or afraid of looking racist) whole-community effort, schools must make the case that this work is vital to everyone. I’ve sung this song before. (Read Scott Page’s The Difference for the bottom line argument that diverse groups outperform homogeneous groups in ingenuity, creativity and effective problem-solving. Want kids to learn better? Diversity helps.) Understanding this is imperative, especially given the fact, as Anderson reports, that:
Spending on financial aid at the [Calhoun School] grew to $3.6 million last year from $1.7 million a decade ago. (It now represents 14.8 percent of total expenses, up from 14.1 percent over that same period)… At Trinity, where 37 percent of students are from a minority group, financial aid spending ran to $5.7 million last year, up from $2.7 million 10 years ago (13 percent of expenses, up from 11 percent). Minority students represent 38 percent of the student body at the Dalton School, on the Upper East Side, where financial aid totaled $7.8 million last year, up from $3.9 million a decade earlier (13 percent of expenses, up from 12 percent).
I can hear it now, the quiet murmuring about how much it’s costing people who are paying full tuition to support those kids. I mean, it’s nice and all, but is it our job to pay for them? (And, in silent looks, because we know better than to say it aloud: maybe their parents should work harder so they can provide for their kids?)
And this is where we need to acknowledge systemic inequity. Despite what Ruby Payne says in A Framework for Understanding Poverty, poor people as a group are not solely responsible for their own poverty. Yes, there are poor (excuse the pun) individual choices, but those are equal opportunity: I live in an affluent neighborhood and see lots of poor choices every day. So when Payne lazily stereotypes the generationally poor as abusing drugs, watching too much TV and lacking strong family ties, please ask yourself whether those claims apply just as well to rich and middle-income folks. Rather, as Dalton Conley argues in Being Black, Living in the Red, the distribution of wealth that we see today is inextricably linked to racist systems and laws, both defunct and ongoing. (That’s right, ongoing. See “predatory lending.”)
I offer this in response to Anderson’s almost bewildered reporting that “a connection persists” between racial minority families and financial aid. Yes, there is a connection because there’s a wealth legacy in this country based on historical, social and economic white-privilege. Add to that: private schools often tend to recruit for this demographic. It can be challenging for a poor white student to get a full financial aid package at some schools because that school would like to kill two politically correct birds with one stone by giving that package to a brown or black student instead. I am not arguing that it’s harder to be a poor white kid–let’s not get into a meaningless oppression run-off here. Rather, I’m saying that private schools may unintentionally stereotype prospective students, thereby helping to perpetuate the white-wealthy/of color-poor divide. Which is again, why we need to require and cultivate self-awareness, intentionality and cultural competency in every office, classroom and hallway in our schools.
And on that note, while this divide persists (and we should be prepared for that, even as we work to diversify access to opportunity and resources), we need to educate ourselves to how this dichotomy matters, in student experience and in our efforts to create more inclusive and equitable communities. For instance, inclusion and equity education for wealthy folks may need a stronger foundation in compassion skill-building (see my 10/9/12 post, or go directly to some of the research on how socioeconomic status impacts compassion: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_poor_give_more/). So the tools and processes by which we build awareness, intentionality and cultural competence are necessarily going to involve some awareness, intentionality and cultural competence in their design.
One final note about this article, and then I’ll let you go read it yourself: Anderson notes the critical role of documentary films about student experiences in raising awareness. And I even got a sense of a movement: more films being spawned, meaning more students being filmed and more witnesses to their voices. This again is necessary, vital work.
And. We cannot be content to put the responsibility on students, current and former, to educate us. We must step up. We must redefine our responsibilities as schools that “value” diversity; as parents and guardians who, at least in part, choose schools for “the diversity”; as parents, guardians and alumni who have been or see how hard it is to be the poor kid of color at a private school; as nice, well-intended folks of all ages who had hoped that things were as nice as we always intended…
We can’t just wait for and watch the documentaries. We need to stand up, speak out and act. That means me, and you.
*Thanks to my colleagues SK, CK, KF and GS for the article.