A Beginner’s Guide for Practicing Diversity: How to Explain Diversity and Inclusion to Parents and Administrators at Independent Schools

Parents with their children in a classroom setting
Parents with their children in a classroom setting

Explaining diversity and inclusion to adults can be challenging, especially when parents and administrators at independent schools may dismiss it as “political correctness” or not see its value. Closing the diversity, equity, and inclusion gap is naturally an uphill climb, but through connectedness, empathy, and patience, it can be tackled without putting too much social pressure on others.

Because parents have become a bigger part of school life than ever before, administrators and teachers are spending more time focused on their demands and concerns. Communicating the need for diversity and inclusion becomes even more important in this context.

More than 16 years ago, clinical psychologist and author Michael Thompson, PhD, penned an article out of frustration because his colleagues at an independent school were “not understanding kids of color.”

The piece, titled The Psychology Experience of Students of Color, is still utilized in diversity training and writing today.

“It was kind of a psychologist’s plea for people to understand, for a kid that comes to school who’s a different race, his or her experience is going to be very different,” Thompson said.

Thompson, also author of “Understanding Independent School Parents,” says when it comes to talking to parents, it’s about finding a “golden mean,” or a middle ground where the discussion is neither too frank nor too sensitive.

In his book, Thompson says parents are genuinely disoriented by the vast difference between the pedagogical practices in today’s classrooms compared to those of the past. Therefore, easing into a loaded topic such as equity and inclusion is the best way for parents to jump on board.

“You can’t get up and do an anti-racism training because they didn’t pay for that and they didn’t volunteer for that,” Thompson says. But it’s wrong to avoid how complicated the school climate has become since the “old days” when schools intentionally sought homogenous populations, he adds.

Though school segregation is still a widespread, well-known phenomenon, adults still have trouble comprehending the significance of accommodating and supporting people from different backgrounds in schools.

Research points to unconscious bias as a part of the problem — they may unconsciously have trouble identifying with people unlike themselves. Unconscious biases are a natural part of the human psyche and children as young as 4 years old tend to exhibit racial and gender prejudices, according to a Northwestern University study.

“The identities that most matter to us are the ones that we pay most attention to,” says Shakil Choudhury, an award-winning educator, co-founder of Anima Leadership, and author. Explaining diversity and inclusion depends on who the audience is. Choudhury says it’s easier for people to empathize and care about an individual rather than an entire group of marginalized and oppressed people.

“In order to get it to where everyday people understand, we have to tell stories that engage them, that connect them, that make them care, that also help lift them through a process of learning,” Choudhury says. Overt hatred seen in viral videos is usually the example that comes up when discussing racism. However, microaggressions and subtle racism, homophobia, or xenophobia affect people more frequently.

“The reality is that very few organizations have the overt bigot that you can identify,” Choudhury says.

Microaggressions are intentional or unintentional phrases or behaviors that deliver a negative message about a “non-dominant group,” according to the American Psychological Association (APA). The following statements are examples of microaggressions: “Can I touch your hair?” “That’s gay!” “You’re pretty for your skin tone.” “What country are you from?”

In his book, Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them, Choudhury forms a connection between compassion, justice, and psychology. Choudhury says his book is written for a mainstream audience who doesn’t understand diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Most often, the senior leaders of organizations do not start this work. Rather, it’s up to the people who care to initiate change, according to Choudhury. He suggests five steps for diversity practitioners to follow:

● First, be willing to learn and do the work. “Leaders have to be on board to be diversity champions. They don’t have to know all the answers. In fact, it’s actually better that they show up with their vulnerability.”

● Integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion into the legal aspect of the business. It’s a legal liability to not be knowledgeable in diversity and inclusion. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that discrimination lawsuits have been on the rise for several years.

● Collect data. Demographic data should be collected at the school. Schools should look at who they’re hiring, who’s leaving, and who the students are.

● Consider potential biases in every situation. Although humans have natural biases, try to pay attention to where people may slip through the cracks, such as in the student selection process or ways students are being supported.

● Educate. Educate. Educate. The good thing is schools don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on training groups in order to get people on board with diversity, equity, and inclusion work.

Celeste Payne, an Upper School diversity coordinator at Westtown School in Pennsylvania, says leaders can look at what other schools are doing through social media or websites such as Teaching Tolerance, and attend conferences with workshops.

“One of the reasons to be thinking about [diversity, equity, and inclusion] work is to give a positive learning experience for all students,” Payne says. “These students get to college. They get into the workforce and they had those experiences and can work more effectively with people who have viewpoints different than themselves.”

The conversations may be difficult, but they are necessary, Choudhury says.

“Diversity and inclusion are ongoing work. It’s unfinished work and as we say it’s a journey, not a destination.”

Mariah Stewart is a staff writer for DiversityIS. This article ran in the fall 2019 issue.