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Roundtable Discussion: Reflecting on Our Anti-Racism Work, One Year Later

The June 30th anniversary of Packer’s Anti-Racism Action Plan prompted a roundtable conversation among several school leaders about the past year’s efforts to make Packer more inclusive for every child. Hear their perspectives on the achievements we've made as a community — and the insights they've gained.

Karin Storm Wood, Director of Communications: It’s been one year since we issued our Anti-Racism Action Plan. What are the most meaningful changes it has generated in our community? 

Maria Nunes, Head of Upper School (below): We've normalized discussions about equity and race. They don’t feel like something hidden under the surface. And all the work we’re doing — it’s not a special initiative, it's part of who we are.

Elizabeth Hastings, Academic Dean and Associate Head of School: It's part of the fabric of the school. The actual lift of “we're doing this, and we aren’t opting out of it” — that feels different. 

Bill McCarthy, Head of Preschool and Lower School (below): We've moved beyond the oversimplification that diversity encompasses everything we’re trying to do. This year we centered the deeper goals of equity, inclusion, and justice, whether in the work we did in Academic Council, divisionally, or all-school. And these conversations are happening across the whole school community. And everyone is responsible for having them. 

Head of Pre and Lower School Bill McCarthy

Maria: We’ve stepped away from binary thinking — you’re with us/you’re against us; it’s right/it’s wrong; now/not now. I’m proud that our Upper School students developed a better understanding of the complexity of issues of belonging, of the intersectionality of race, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, and all that makes us unique. We’re seeing this shift in the student-led Change Committee and in our revamped Student-Faculty Justice Committee.

Elizabeth: Another big change is in our teaching practices. Our evaluation system has explicit questions and goal-setting around equity and inclusion. When we do mid-year check-ins with faculty and classroom observations, we’re asking, how are you making sure you’re teaching in an inclusive, culturally responsive way?

Jen (below): We want instruction at Packer to be centered on seeing each child and all the aspects of who they are. Part of that is helping the adults at Packer to develop a deeper awareness of how we contribute to that identity development. 

Jennifer Weyburn

This goal was deeply embedded in our approach to professional development (PD) this year. We provided full-year PD programs that looked deeply at instruction through an equity lens — for example, Liza Talusan’s training with the whole faculty and staff, and the equity coaching work that Elizabeth led on the Academic Council [composed of division heads, department heads, deans, grade-level coordinators, program leaders, and community engagement and diversity coordinators]. 

Elizabeth: When you boil it down, that equity-coaching training was about the 40 of us strengthening our ability to process emotions, including uncomfortable emotions. It’s normal to feel anxious about conversations on certain topics — people don’t want to be called out or embarrassed. It’s up to us to recognize this reaction and help them work through it. 

Maria: That's a huge point, Elizabeth. That’s been a shift in education — that we adults need to understand our own personal identities. 

The discussions this year have been deeper and more nuanced. We’re addressing our own experiences with race and identity, how we parent, how we see our kids developing. We’re sharing our hopes and our worries. 
— Jen Weyburn, Head of School

Jen: And examining the dynamics of race and power in predominantly white institutions increases our attunement to differences generally, which helps us serve kids of all kinds of identities: religion, nationality, gender, sexuality, etc. 

The other accomplishment I want to mention is that we’ve prioritized engaging our families in our equity learning. Before, we mostly offered identity- and equity-related events through the Diversity and Equity Office or the Health and Wellness program, and self-selecting parents would seek them out. But we now know that, as parents, each of us plays a role in creating an inclusive, equitable school community for all of our kids. And the discussions this year have been deeper and more nuanced. We’re addressing our own experiences with race and identity, how we parent, how we see our kids developing. We’re sharing our hopes and our worries. 

I experienced this in the sessions we created for all our Ninth Grade students and families. I have been a history teacher myself, and yet the presenter, Ayo Magwood, offered me new ways of thinking about the origins of race in our country. And it was wonderful to have our kids learning alongside us.

With the strong support of the PA, we also launched groups specifically for Packer families to discuss and celebrate identity: the Black Families Affinity Space, the Packer Asian Families Alliance, White Awareness & Accountability Space, and LGBTQ Families. 

Semeka Smith-Williams, Director of Diversity and Equity (below): This is the first time in my fifteen years at Packer that we have had the engagement and input of every constituent group. They are all contributing to our diversity and equity efforts, and the energy, self-reflection, and intergenerational dialogue has been powerful. 

Semeka Smith-Williams

Bill: And we’ve been intentional about bringing together constituents from different areas of the school to engage in dialogue. The Anti-Racism Action Plan established the Packer Anti-Racism Council, which includes trustees, administrators, alumnae/i of all ages, faculty, staff, families, and current students, to build engagement and accountability. And partnerships across different groups — for example, between the PA’s White Accountability group and our internal White Educators for Racial Equity (WERE) — ensure that conversations about anti-racism and anti-bias are built in cross-community interactions, not in isolated silos.  

Maria: We now invite the Parent Association to share their anti-bias efforts with Upper School students and vice-versa. And I talk about this work with our PA grade reps. Across every constituency, we've made these commitments to anti-racism and anti-bias work explicit — in our hiring and in our parent meetings, from our admissions open houses, right through orientation and our family meetings. Again, we’re making it part of who we are and what we do. 

Elizabeth (below): We talk about inclusion in terms of our community, of everyone’s perspective and experience being valued — from every student to every family to every teacher. 

And I think because of our work this year, we’ve seen an increase in voices of people communicating how they want to be a part of the community, and what changes might be made to achieve this — ideas they wouldn't have brought to our attention a year ago. The Upper School Art Works for Youth club brought student art into the Student Center to make the space theirs. Middle and Upper School teachers created a form for anonymous feedback so students who aren’t comfortable expressing their concerns to them directly are still heard. 

We’re also working to strengthen how the curriculum connects to our goals of promoting belonging and developing global citizens. Who gets included and whose narrative is dominant? How do inclusion and exclusion impact how our students interpret the world? It’s a significant challenge — 

Maria: And there’s a recognition that we're not going to have an easy answer, and we need to sit with curriculum decisions for a while. There's less of a rush to resolution but we are committed to doing it transparently. 

Elizabeth: Part of that is bringing the kids into the conversation on curriculum. This is not only about providing transparency about the complexity of choices about the curricula, from PreK to 12th Grade. It’s about broadening our perspective, and it’s evolving continuously. 

Bill: Another change is that we have a more balanced approach to conversations about race that we think is making space for Black empowerment and Black joy. This year's Packer in Action was a beautiful example of that. [For another example, read about “The ABCs of Black Excellence” in the Preschool.] And it uplifts us all. 

Jen: Just adding to that, last June, I was deeply affected by the stories shared by our then-graduating students of color and some recent alumnae/i of color, the variety of perspectives about being people of color at Packer. This year it’s been a top priority to spend time listening to students and understanding how race plays into a student’s lived experience.

Karin (below): That recalls BlackatPCI and the debt we owe to its creators and contributors for conveying the burden that many Black students and other students of color have experienced here. Do you think BlackatPCI shifted the conversion at Packer?

Bill: BlackatPCI has been a catalyst for discussion and an anchor for us. One change is we're not trying to intellectualize or rationalize the issues that those posts surfaced in our larger community. BlackatPCI keeps us looking inward. It keeps us from trying to compare ourselves to other institutions, like "We're not like that school” or “We're doing better work than this school." And we need to keep looking inward because those experiences are still happening and will keep happening — hopefully more rarely and with greater accountability. 

Semeka: Right. Working to address incidents of racism and bias doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to end them. We’ll continue to address them and hopefully prevent them from happening again.

The BlackatPCI stories keep us looking inward. And we need to keep looking inward because those experiences are still happening and will keep happening — hopefully more rarely and with greater accountability.

— Bill McCarthy, Head of Preschool and Lower School

Maria: BlackatPCI jump-started the conversation. It gave voice to students, as well as to some faculty and families. And when we had moments in the year that were very difficult for some members of our community — because it's difficult to hear, it’s difficult to contemplate change — we didn't drop the conversation. For me, those were the first waves of discomfort and resistance, and hopefully each wave is less powerful as we move forward. 

Jen: Many of our families are excited about the deepening anti-racism and anti-bias work we're doing. Some are less sure that they want to be part of this work. That’s true with other changes and shifts Packer has made in the past. And it’s not only Packer: throughout my career, there is often some tension when changes are made to a school’s program. Often it’s about how schools approach sex ed, or even math. 

Semeka: The difference, though, is that you don't have to convince most people that math is important for their kids. At Packer, we’re saying, anti-racism and anti-bias work is important — for all of our kids.  

I do believe that more families in our community are on board than not. They want their children, and their children's friends and teachers, to feel valued and validated, and not feel a burden just by being people of color at this school. But being a person of color here can be challenging in small yet complex ways, and I don’t think that’s always apparent to the rest of the community. I think some people are only thinking of overt aggressions.

So we do need to dispel that misperception. And we need to be clear that this moment in history has required us to focus on anti-Black racism: it doesn't necessarily require equal attention to every identifier right now. When we talk about equity, a lot of people are thinking equal in the sense of, everyone gets the same thing, as opposed to equity in the sense of, you adjust to address varying needs. And I think we can agree that BlackatPCI showed that there is a need for this particular focus right now. 

It’s really important to dispel the perception that this is a zero-sum game, that if we're focusing on X, it means we’re ignoring or don’t care about Y.

Maria Valentina Nunes, Head of Upper School

Maria: We also learned this year that it’s really important to dispel the perception that this is a zero-sum game, that if we're focusing on X, it means we’re ignoring or don’t care about Y. For instance, talking about anti-Blackness doesn't mean that we don't care about anti-Asian or anti-Semitic behaviors. Inclusion is not a competition based on who has suffered the most. It’s about our community really understanding what it means to work for justice and belonging for everyone.

Karin: This brings us to the elephant in the room, which is the question a lot of you have been fielding: “Why is Packer spending so much time on diversity and equity work?” or even, “why are you always talking about race’?” 

Maria: We're preparing our students for the world that exists today and that will continue to exist, rather than the one that existed decades ago. It's important for us to help students be able to thrive now and in the future and do what's right. We're an institution that's committed to learning and to justice. 

For some, there’s an initial discomfort in talking so explicitly about race generally and anti-blackness specifically. But it’s important to acknowledge that we are a society with a history of anti-blackness and that anti-blackness is real and harmful. And I think it’s important for a learning institution like Packer to address that.

When there is doubt, I’ll take people through a thought exercise: Imagine you're walking by a group of white boys on the street corner. What do you feel? Now imagine they are black boys. What do you feel? And there's not one person who won’t say, "Oh, right. I felt differently." Then I ask them to recognize the difference of experience that many of our children of color go through every day, even at Packer.

Bill: I refer back to our mission — teaching children to be empathetic, globally-minded and responsible individuals — and to our core values. We have been very clear that equity, inclusion, and identity are the core of our curriculum in the Preschool and Lower School. It's a big part of social studies. It's about hearing multiple perspectives and different voices. It’s about challenging assumptions when certain voices aren't as apparent in history. It's what we've been doing and focused on for the last five years.

And during that time, we've educated our families. Our students are having these conversations at home. And our teachers have done a great job by giving families the tools they need to engage with their children on these issues, like our "Ask me about" prompts.

Jen: When families share reservations or concerns about an activity that addresses race or other differences, I always start by encouraging them to ask the teacher to explain it because sometimes they have an incomplete understanding of the activity. I’ll also unpack the idea that it’s okay for white teenagers to feel some discomfort in conversations that may be unfamiliar. What we're saying is, it’s a part of growth. 

Equity learning is becoming a fundamental element of a comprehensive, excellent education that prepares students to live in this world. My hope going forward is that we can continue to deepen the dialogue among us adults — and as I mentioned before, listen to each other, engage with each other, and learn together. 

Colleges today expect students to demonstrate social-emotional and cultural competency, for them to have self awareness and social awareness. That’s what we’re doing here. — Semeka Smith-Williams, Director of Diversity and Equity

Semeka: Our diversity mission says that children will feel safe and challenged.  Sometimes when parents hear from their kids about discomfort related to equity work, the response is a full stop, as opposed to unpacking the discomfort. We’re trying to advance the understanding that discomfort is part of the learning process — academically, socially, emotionally, and culturally. The fact is, there's a lot about school that's uncomfortable. So the question is, how do we teach our kids to engage that discomfort so they can grow?

Maria: Exactly. Helping our students engage in constructive conversations about race and other identity differences strengthens the skills they need when they’re faced with any challenging situation, academic or otherwise.

Semeka: It’s the promise we make to community members when they are admitted and/or hired. We want to develop students who are just as committed to extending care to their peers as they are to their academic success. And colleges today expect students to demonstrate social-emotional and cultural competency: students have to have self awareness and social awareness. That’s what we’re doing here. 

Maria: Right. And for some of our families, I think that's somewhat new. That's where our world has changed.

Jen: The work we’ve done to understand our students’ experiences at school through the lens of race is helping us be better for every child. I think we’ve achieved a more evolved notion of equity, and it makes me feel a lot of optimism for our students and for our school.

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