Be the Change: Through Diversity Forum, NCS Engages More Fully with the Wide World

Jada Fife ’20 stepped to the lectern at the front of the Cathedral and described the horror she felt while reading a book about the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s. “The injustice of the situation hit me. There is no better way to describe it. It felt like an endless punch to the gut,” she said.

“I knew about it in an intellectual sense,” Fife told an all-school assembly last April, but the book helped her “understand it emotionally for the first time.”

She came away galvanized, “empowered to fight, but most of all to learn about the other injustices that I had been unaware of before. Part of the opportunity of youth is a healthy, energized idealism about what our society could be, not stained by the attacks of countless injustices, and not tired of feeling angry.”

Fife’s homily helped open NCS’s 2018 Diversity Forum, the culmination of months of classroom discussions around the theme of the American Dream. Her powerful words illustrated the intellectual and visceral impact of a program through which NCS students, faculty, and staff explore topics of diversity, identity, and social justice.

“Good research proves that educating our students about diversity and multiculturalism is not just a good idea. It’s necessary for them to be in the world. It helps them develop life skills in flexibility, problem-solving, and critical thinking. It teaches them about the importance of taking risks and asking questions,” said English teacher Jessica North Macie.

Planting the Seeds

At NCS, such education is woven through the curriculum, in ways large and small. By the time NCS had hired Rachael Flores as director of diversity and multicultural education in 2015, Diversity Forum had taken place annually for nearly a decade but as only a one-day event almost exclusively involving Upper School students.

The school’s 2012–2017 strategic plan called on NCS to “increase opportunities for honest and respectful dialogue regarding the lives and experiences of our community members,” and students, faculty, and staff told Flores that one day to discuss issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, and other elements composing a diverse world was not enough. They asked for her help to extend the discussion, and she was glad to agree.

“It can’t just be a one-off thing. It’s good teaching to keep these lessons going all year long,” she said.

Equity Board, an arm of Student Government, and a growing Faculty Diversity Committee joined Flores in transforming Diversity Forum into a year-long program. Their first step was incorporating a theme to center conversations throughout the school year. These have included Allyship (2016), Media Matters (2017), and for the current year, Ability.

“Trying to get the theme more incorporated into the everyday, rather than just one day, echoes not only what Equity Board wants to do but what we’ve been hearing from our classmates. It’s almost for show to have Diversity Forum if we’re not talking about it otherwise, outside of just this one day,” said Nisa Quarles ’21, an Equity Board member who is in her fourth year of involvement with Diversity Forum.

Flores noted, “These themes are really full. There’s more than we could ever do in a day, and we get so much more out of it if we have ongoing conversations, both leading up to the forum and afterward. There’s also a buy-in piece. The more people know the topic or are engaged with the topic, the more they’re going to be bought in to the day.”

Flores provides TED Talks, podcasts, news articles, toolkits, and other resources to help teachers familiarize themselves with the theme. Faculty also are given time to plan how they will incorporate it into their lesson plans.

For example, North Macie annually assigns her 7th-grade students to study a group’s migration story and, based on the research, write a fictional, first-person account. She said this assignment and others throughout the year helped her students gain a broader understanding of immigration and the implications of the American Dream.

Some subjects—such as world languages, social sciences, and English—are easier than others to tie into diversity education, but it works with STEAM subjects, as well. For her data and graphing unit, Lower School math teacher Michelle Kim will find interesting international statistics, such as the positive correlation between women’s education level and lifespan. The resulting graphs get students thinking and talking about the world around them.

“If we start this conversation about multiculturalism and diversity early, then they get it. You can give them the information but also the space to see how it shapes their perspective,” said Kim.

Becca Jones, head of the Lower School and interim head of the Middle School, remembers a Diversity Forum speaker who helped shape her vision for inclusive education as he discussed his coming out as gay while in school. Everyone felt welcome at school, he said, but what mattered wasn’t feeling welcome—it was whether you felt like a guest or a host.

“That was so powerful to me and really spoke to how I feel it should be,” Jones said. “I want every student in the Lower and Middle School to feel like a host—that this is their home, that they want to share it with other people, and that they belong here.”

Jones tries to ensure that students see themselves in the curriculum, particularly in the books they read. The 4th-grade reading list now includes books such as Rickshaw Girl, about a Bangladeshi girl who wants to help her family, and The Turtle of Oman, about a boy who says goodbye to everything he knows when he moves to the United States.

She also encouraged a role for the Lower School in Diversity Forum. When she was hired in 2013, the division had no part in the day. Now Lower Schoolers attend the opening service in the Cathedral with the rest of the school, participate in age-appropriate workshops in Whitby Hall, and often rejoin the older students for the closing talent show—a Diversity Forum tradition.

Growing Community
Once the theme is chosen by students and announced, Equity Board keeps the conversation going by organizing presentations, assemblies, and guest speakers. Lunchtime discussions allow students to drop in and provide input on what they want to talk about at Diversity Forum.

“It’s one thing to say, send me an email about what you want to see this year. It’s another to say, I’ll be at lunch at this time to talk—drop by,” said Zoé Contreras-Villalta ’19, president of Equity Board. After she was elected, Contreras-Villalta was approached by students who sought to have mental health included in this year’s theme of ability alongside physical, learning, and emotional ability. “They trusted me enough to say, ‘This is what I struggle with and want to talk about.’

I want to show that NCS is open to having these conversations.” Students lead the Diversity Forum workshops and panels, sometimes with the assistance of adults including nonprofit leaders, diversity educators, journalists, and alumnae. They learn how to moderate these discussions productively through a training Flores leads.

Quarles said the experience encouraged her to ask workshop participants, “Why did you do that? Or why did you put it in that particular category,” rather than presenting her own assessment. “By approaching it from a question perspective, giving [others] the benefit of the doubt, and taking in their own insight, I could learn something from them too.”

The workshops sometimes result in profound discoveries. Flores recalled one “in which several African American students shared their personal experiences about police shootings and the fear they have for the men in their lives.” A recent graduate described hearing this from her classmates as a turning point, both in provoking her to think more deeply about her role as an ally and in fortifying her commitment to do more on diversity issues.

As Diversity Forum grows, more groups have the opportunity to participate. Last year, a teacher in each division produced a session for fellow faculty and staff. In 2016, Flores inaugurated a pre-forum dinner for parents, where they could experience workshops in which their child would be participating. This year, Flores is starting a book club for parents on the Diversity Forum theme. “Every year, we’re pulling more people into these topics,” she said.

Why continue to expand Diversity Forum? “It’s one of the best ways that we express all the parts of our mission: excellence, service, courage, and conscience,” Flores said: “We help provide the skills for students to go out in their communities and the broader world to interact with others with the hope of creating a more equitable and inclusive place for all people.”
    • Illustration by Jennifer Zee, Middle School art teacher

    • Jada Fife ’20 delivers her homily at Diversity Forum 2018.

    • Head of School Kathleen O’Neill Jamieson joins with Director of Community Service Nadirah Moreland in a school-wide cooperative activity as part of Diversity Forum 2017.

    • Rachael Flores, right, helps Priya Phillips ’20 prepare for Diversity Forum 2018’s opening service.

    • In a 2017 workshop, Naomi Davy ’18 discusses the representation of Muslim women in the fashion industry