Throughout this fall, I have found myself immersed in conversations and learning environments that share an unmistakable thread.  Earlier this fall, the National Association of Independent School’s quarterly magazine arrived in my mailbox with a spotlight on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) work in independent school communities. On October 12, a group of St. Anne’s 7th and 8th graders attended a full-day diversity and inclusion leadership conference where they participated in honest conversations about stereotypes, the media, bias, racism and more. The next day, I attended the CIRCLE Conference on inclusion and diversity at the Colorado History Center, an event drawing over 100 educators from the Denver area. Less than two weeks later, St. Anne’s administrators and board members invited renowned DEI consultant, Dr. Derrick Gay, to lead them in a half-day workshop on Cultural Competency. October 26, Eli Saslow, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Rising Out of Hatred, and son of a former St. Anne’s teacher, spoke to our community about reporting, and what he learned in the writing of a story about a white supremacist who experienced a change of heart and mind.  Finally, on Halloween, a group from the Colorado Shakespeare Festival performed an abridged version of Macbeth and held workshops for our middle schoolers around the importance of being an upstander.

The frequency and similar theme of these events have reaffirmed in my mind the importance of the added emphasis we’ve been placing on diversity and inclusion work at St. Anne’s over the past several years. But while our recent efforts from the growth of affinity spaces to the normalization of DEI trainings have served us well, we know that this work must be ongoing and unrelenting for us to continue to be an inclusive community.  Nationwide, school communities are realizing this same understanding and are also creating a variety of spaces both in and out of the classroom to have purposeful conversations around race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, identity and more. I firmly believe, though, that those conversations are more successful and valuable for all involved when a tool box of understandings and cultural-competency skills is possessed by those participating.

But what is cultural competency? It is certainly a phrase gaining a lot of attention, and while there are variations in how people define it, I rely on a definition that considers two components. The first is an inward reflection and understanding of our own identities, biases, and privileges, and how that influences our own world view. The second component refers to our ability to communicate and interact with those of cultures and identities similar to and different from our own. I’ll go further and share that I believe cultural competency also should include having a positive respect and appreciation for the differences of people of all backgrounds. With each generation getting increasingly diverse across all social identifiers including race, gender, and religion, it is important to me that as a school we are not only providing a welcoming environment for all students, faculty, staff, and families, but that we are also empowering our students to go out and create welcoming environments outside our walls as well.

In the middle school this year, both the sixth grade spring curriculum and seventh grade fall curriculum will include a dozen classes focused explicitly on building our students’ cultural competency toolboxes. This includes doing simulations and activities followed by candid conversations around bias, privilege, identity, and allyship.  Prior to beginning each class, we review ground rules around assuming good intentions, respecting differences of experiences, speaking from the “I” perspective, confidentiality, and an understanding that “what’s learned here, leaves here.” Below, is just a sample of the key understandings we hope to instill in our students as part of this curriculum:

1) We all have biases or inclinations that have been formed as a result of experiences or messages from media over time.  Most biases we are unaware of, and without reflection, they can have adverse impacts on relationships and experiences we have and could pursue. Everyday bias includes a boy not pursuing a school club because he feel that “only girls sign up.”  Not exploring a certain school for high school based on a few people you know that you do not like or because of chatter you heard from someone who went is a bias we try to counter in our 8th grade high school support process. Being aware of one’s own biases allows us to take action, which is essential to having inclusive communities and allowing us to pursue diverse experiences. Examples abound in the real world of anti-bias measures that have led to positive impacts. For centuries, orchestras were entirely dominated by men, but once they used blind auditions and had applicants remove their shoes (the heels, they discovered, made noise on stage that preserved gender bias), the orchestras became much more balanced gender-wise.  There are many studies that have shown racial biases can dramatically impact a hiring process, which has led many companies to explore concrete practices aimed at mitigating that bias. Beyond being aware of our own biases, a particularly critical skill today is being able to detect biases from sources of information. Knowing whom the story is coming from is often as important as knowing what story is being told.

2) When it comes to identity, we only see and often only know the tip of the iceberg of other people’s identities. Not only are certain aspects of others’ identities not always visible to the outside world, but sometimes people choose not to share parts of their identities for various reasons. The iceberg analogy proves to be a powerful reminder that what we see is only part of the picture, so taking the time to get to know others’ stories can help us have a greater appreciation for the complexities and intersectionalities of our different identities around race, religion, ability, family structure, gender, sexual orientation, and more. When asked how Eli Saslow gained the trust of those about whom he was writing stories, Eli shared, “When you invest time in people and show them that you are genuinely interested in them, they trust you.”  Building trust can lead to the foundation of a relationship. When we develop relationships with those that share different identities from our own, it can help us counteract hurtful and inaccurate biases in ourselves and others as evidenced in his story. Moreover, it can build empathy for others and encourage us to make better decisions about our behaviors, comments and humor that shape how welcoming an environment we are creating for all.

3) Privilege refers to more than just having greater economic means. It can include unearned benefits that we do not have to think about in certain situations. At 6’7” and with a booming voice, I do not have to worry about whether I’ll be able to see at a concert or if I can get everyone’s attention in a room if I want to speak to a group. As an able-bodied person, I have the privilege of not wondering whether there is a ramp to get to the front door of a party I get invited to attend. For years following the attacks on 9/11, I began to expect to be selected for additional “random” screening at airports while my white friends would pass by and not worry.

Privilege comes in a variety of forms and plays a significant role in how we experience the world, and very often, we are unaware of both our own privilege and that which others may lack.

4) In order to be an ally to someone who lacks privilege, you must first be aware of your own privileges.  The phrase, “Sometimes you’re a caterpillar, sometimes you’re a snail,” has proven to be a “sticky” mantra  from this fabulous video which speaks to how all of us have times where we have privilege and other times when we lack it. When we have privilege, it doesn’t mean we need to feel guilty, but it does mean we should be aware of it.  After all, being aware of our privilege and how not everyone experiences it can allow us to be better allies. Being an ally means being a good listener, a safe space, and not being a bystander. An ally knows that if they are willing to speak up or take action, it can have a positive impact on how others feel about their identities and the sense of belonging they experience.  Allies know that being an ally is an everyday thing, not just when it is convenient.

As mentioned, this is just a sampling of the conversations we’re having as we try to build the toolboxes for ourselves and for our students. We are still learning and have plenty more work ahead for us in our training, our curriculum, and our programming. As a PS-8 school, our students may not leave us with a Master’s Degree level proficiency in cultural competency. However, I do believe the time and space we are providing them will help them have a stronger sense of self, be an ally and supportive space for others, and have an appreciation and respect for differences of all people.

St. Anne's Students attending STAMP Leadership Conference 
-Sumant Bhat
Head of Middle School