Dana Hall commits to anti-racist work, on campus and off

In June and July 2020, the @blackatdanahall Instagram account gained momentum in the Dana Hall community, as students shared experiences of racism and bias from their peers and teachers. In response to this account, Ms. Katherine Bradley, Head of School, and the School’s administration published an “Anti-Racist Action Plan” this summer.

Over Family Weekend in October, Ms. Bradley and Ms. Erica Ramirez, Director of Community Equity and Inclusion (CEI), broadcast a Zoom call for students and families in grades 5-12 to explain this updated action plan. Dana Hall announced that, in addition to implementing the recommendations made by Diversity Directions, which had been incorporated into the Vision 2025 plan, the School is committed to taking further action that will benefit the Dana Hall community. 

In previous commitments to CEI, Dana Hall had been focusing on all types of diversity, such as socioeconomic, LGBTQ+, and neurodiversity. In Dana Hall’s anti-racist plan and its update, Dana Hall pledged to place more emphasis specifically on race in light of national outrage sparked by the death of George Floyd, which occurred last May. Ms. Bradley explained that, “as the @blackatdanahall account grew momentum, we realized that the work that we had been doing around community equity and inclusion, which we had been working on steadily since 2016 when I arrived, needed to do a little bit more laser focus on anti-racism.”

In creating this updated plan, Dana Hall sought input from diversity practitioners in the Association of Independent Schools of New England’s (AISNE) as well as community members such as Ms. Jessica Keimowitz, Director of the Upper School; Ms. Nia Jacobs, Academic Dean; Dr. Lauren Goldberg, Director of the Middle School; and many alumnae and parents.

Previous and updated anti-racism plans

Prior to the creation of the Anti-Racist Action Plan, Dana Hall had a strategic plan, “Vision 2025,” with the theme “E Pluribus Dana: Many Backgrounds, One Community.” This plan aspired to “identify and implement a set of initiatives to support a unified Dana community and create a spirit and reality of inclusion that defines life at the School.” Also included was the commitment that Dana Hall “will also review structural elements… — calendars, schedules, events — and revise them to promote collaboration and inclusion.”

Based on the findings and recommendations of the spring 2018 Diversity Directions report, Dana Hall’s primary goal was that all students would have access to the resources that the School offers and “for each student to know that she is valued, seen and heard.” Through updating instructional programs, including the Forum program, Dana Hall hoped to promote a curriculum highlighting diversity, equity, and inclusivity. The curriculum would also “provide training in unconscious bias at student orientation,” with the plan to expand the conversation to include mental health, body image, and wellness.

The Vision 2025 plan states that “Interactions between students of different ages, backgrounds, and nationalities provide some of the best opportunities for learning and growth.” The plan’s “ultimate goal is not just cultural sensitivity but cultural competence — a key skill to prepare our students for the future.”

The School also hopes to “become a leader among independent schools in the work of community, equity, and inclusion” in terms of faculty and staff as well, seeking to accelerate the recruitment and retention of faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds. In order to accomplish this, Dana Hall has provided additional training in unconscious bias, increased funds for participation in conferences on issues of inclusion and community, and sponsored and “encourage[d] regular social events for people of color, and LGBTQ faculty and staff.”

The updated anti-racism plan includes increasing the number of BIPOC students, faculty, and staff, increasing the diversity of domestic students, promoting the new SHADES Alumnae Chapter, and creating an Upper School Diversity Consortium.

Ms. Ramirez mentioned curricular changes that have been the recent focus as “Developing antiracist orientation programs and required Peer Education night focused on addressing Microaggressions,” especially in predominantly white institutions.

Furthermore, Ms. Ramirez explained the development and expansion of “Anti-Racist Forum cirriculums…. an interdisciplinary planning tool” that was made accessible for use by August 2020. 

Creating an inclusive environment at Dana Hall

In the Family Weekend forum on the updated plan, Ms. Ramirez outlined Dana Hall’s commitment to creating a more inclusive environment. Inside and outside of the classroom, Dana Hall pledges to provide ongoing training for adults and students on how to more effectively engage in discussions surrounding race.

Academic Dean Ms. Jacobs explained that “much of the faculty work is about creating equitable and culturally responsible classroom spaces,” and that teachers are undergoing “professional development and having teams of people go to Diversity Directions and throughout the year sending groups to diversity conferences.” Ms. Jacobs commented, “I would love to see classrooms continuing to be not just safe spaces but brave spaces, places where students feel comfortable expressing their values and saying ‘here is how this conversation has landed with me.’ It is about faculty members saying, ‘okay, what goes into the creation of a space where students feel seen and heard and valued?’” While curricular changes have been made, Ms. Jacobs recognizes that “change is a process and not an event.”

From an academic standpoint, Dana Hall is working to increase enrollment of BIPOC students in honors, AP, and advanced level courses. According to Ms. Ramirez, it “became clear from the black@ account that [a lack of BIPOC representation in AP/Honors courses]  was a theme, and that we were unconsciously or consciously placing these deficits on students. If from the beginning you are not in an advanced course, your chances of moving towards an advanced course is limited. Initiatives have been taken to look at where barriers are in each department.”

Ms. Ramirez enumerated the questions that Department Heads have been asking about student advancement in each department: “We have been looking at the current AP application process and identifying where the problems are. For example, is the timed writing  the problem? We are also asking the questions, where is race playing into issues of the applications? How are we looking at scores? Are we encouraging students of color to apply for these classes ? What prerequisites prevent students from applying? Where are there unidentified barriers for certain people? We are looking at each step of the process and asking if there can be a racial equity analysis of this process in each step.”

Dana Hall has been working with a consultant group, Diversity Directions, to redesign the hiring process at the School. According to Ms. Ramirez, Dana Hall has developed a thorough, equitable process, but so far, it “has not yielded as many candidates” as the School had hoped for. When seeking to fill a position, the hiring manager asks candidates questions such as “how is diversity important to you?” Ms. Ramirez said that, “If a candidate cannot answer these questions, it is a red flag.” She added that applications continue to be taken until there is an applicant of color in the applicant pool. In particular, Dana Hall is committed to having a BIPOC counselor accessible to Middle and Upper School students.

Ms. Jacobs leads the hiring process for faculty members, and Mr. Robert Mather, Assistant Head of School, does the same for staff and administration. Both Ms. Jacobs and Mr. Mather have undergone bias training and “are aware of where bias comes up in the interview process,” according to Ms. Ramirez. No matter what candidate is chosen for any position, they “make sure that everyone, including white applicants, are committed to CEI.” Ms. Jacobs also noted Ms. Bradley’s support and commitment of both time and finances to increase the numbers BIPOC faculty members. 

According to Ms. Ramirez, a significant goal is expanding and improving affinity group programming. “First, there needs to be more education to the community as to why affinity groups are important. Many freshmen of color have trouble on campus, and [during the pandemic] the remote students feel very segregated from the hybrid students, who are majority white, which is not representative of the diversity at school.” There is also a struggle to accumulate momentum in affinity groups, as “students of color don’t always want to add going to affinity groups to their schedule, but it is important to understand why affinity groups are important for students of color. Without affinity groups, students express that they feel isolated and they cannot find their people. These groups act as one way to find your place.”

Another goal is creating a reporting and tracking system to analyze patterns of microaggressions and other problems. As Ms. Ramirez noted, “affinity spaces offer students a safe place to vent and express their emotions, and tell stories that have happened to them, and adults need to learn to recognize when an experience needs to be reported and when to recognize microaggressions.”

There is currently “no one set process” for reporting racist interactions. For many students, Ms. Ramirez said, there are questions of what happens after a report is made, “and anonymity can make updating the individual challenging.” Darline Desforge ’22, one of the co-heads of SHADES, is concerned that “There are no consequences for when students [of color] were discriminated against by students or teachers.” According to Ms. Ramirez, a new reporting protocol is “almost ready” to publicize more widely, and she “wants to make sure it is well executed.”

Another aspect of the Anti-Racist Action Plan is the addition of a parent program to address the complex interdependence of racism, privilege, and economic systems of oppression in the ongoing history of predominantly white institutions (PWI), such as Dana Hall. Their goals are to “build a community of anti-racist adults, support Dana Hall community members, and establish urgency,” according to Ms. Ramirez.

The Board of Trustees is also receiving more extensive CEI training. Ms. Gretchen Cook-Anderson, Chair of the Board’s CEI Council and mother of Layla Anderson ‘23, said that “the goal is to step up the training so everyone is on the same page with learning, definition of terms, language on diversity.” The first of these Board trainings was on October 22. Ms. Cook-Anderson added, “We have brought in some consulting teams and have done broad diversity training. We would like to break those up into more topical trainings that focus on individual themes such as microaggressions, allyship, and Black Lives Matter.”

For many students, “Board members feel far off in a distant place, but they make decisions that impact students on a daily level. This is why we want to engage with students to help get to know the rich diversity of students and help students get to know the Board, because the Board is fairly diverse with regards to gender and race and economic class. We also want to make connections and communicate how we do what we do and why, which will serve both sides,” commented Ms. Cook-Anderson. Ms. Ramirez feels similarly and wants to better communicate the work being done by the Board of Trustees, as well as more clearly communicate the composition of the Board and the lenses the members bring to work.

Working as the Chair of the CEI Council has been a very important and personal experience for Ms. Cook-Anderson. Drawing on her own experience of attending Spelman College, a historically black women’s liberal arts college, makes her “passionate about education for women.” Moreover, being the mother of a current Dana Hall student has brought “immediacy” and “passion” to her contributions. However, it is “not just about my daughter. It is also about all the young ladies that come after her. Every student now and later should feel celebrated, seen, and heard across the arc of their experience.”

Community perspectives

Co-Head of SHADES Jainah Etheart ‘21 said that, in the wake of the @blackatdanahall Instagram account and the new Anti-Racist Action Plan, “I hope that the community as a whole will be less ignorant. In an environment where there are administrators, nothing can completely fall on the students; however, I think students need to take responsibility as well.”

The other Co-Heads of SHADES, Darlene Desforge ‘22 and Jude Meares-Garcia ‘22, both noted that the current model of pandemic schooling, with students in both hybrid and fully remote circumstances, has made anti-racism work even more difficult. According to Jude, “Dana is doing the best that they can with the resources that we have and the hand we have dealt. It is difficult to invest in anti-racism when the learning model itself is non-equitable and segregated.”

Novia Nguyen ’21, Co-Head of the new Asian affinity group, seconds the call for action, saying that, “I’ll believe what I see going into action. We need more support systems for people of color, and faculty needs to be racially educated and on other topics such as different socioeconomic statuses, neurodiversity, ethnicity and more.” 

Novia makes a call to action to her white peers and teachers, stating that, “Your privilege directly affects another person whether you choose to or not. Even though racism might not feel like it directly affects you, it affects those BIPOC members of your community. Use the privilege you have to benefit others.”

Image: Dana Hall School’s Instagram post on June 18, 2020.

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