There are a couple of moments in the year when diversity practitioners in an organization are called upon to weigh in on a conversation: during a crisis and in preparation for cultural heritage days/months. While this is not necessarily a best practice, this is true of most institutions that claim to value being diverse and are striving towards equity and inclusion for all its members.
This week’s “crisis” (although I am not sure it really qualifies as a crisis, but for the sake of this post, I will call it that) was puzzling and admittedly quite humorous. I gave the best recommendation I could, given the information I had, and I have to admit, to the chagrin of my extremely religious parents and grandparents, it made me laugh. On Tuesday, a mysterious shrine appeared in the bathroom on the second floor of the Upper School. Notes, photos, flameless candles, even a bit of cash were positioned as ofrendas, or offerings, to none other than actor Danny DeVito. Amidst laughter and confusion, I was consulted by some of my team to determine if this altar was appropriate. Could this bizarre display of affection towards a random celebrity be perceived as hurtful towards another member of our community, or anyone really, especially those of a faith or cultural tradition that designate shrines as sacred? We googled, debated, discussed, and ultimately determined that the impact of this prank was harmless, and more than anything, its presence made people smirk.
As we tried to gather some more information about the origins of this project, there was a moment when I questioned my qualifications to determine if something is harmful or offensive towards another. I wondered if somebody would feel comfortable enough to speak up if they were hurt by what I perceived to be a benign prank. I am fully aware that I have both conscious and unconscious bias that impact my behaviors and judgments. It brought me comfort to know that I am part of an amazing team of vigilant colleagues, who have studied symbols of hate and the history of oppressed groups in order to stand up against injustice. But, what if we got this one wrong? How do we ensure that we respect and affirm all members of our community for who they are and what they value? The truth is, I cannot ensure this. Nobody can. We can, however, create a culture of integrity that encourages people to be their authentic selves, bold enough to dream up quirky bathroom pranks, and brave enough to call somebody in when they misstep.
At Dana Hall School, we strive each and every day to cultivate an environment in which all of the students and adults feel seen, heard, and loved. As adults, we do this by participating in best in class trainings and professional development conferences to help us expand our perspectives and improve our craft. We build curriculum that challenges our students to think critically about topics, beyond their own perspective, while still allowing room for respectful disagreement. We design leadership workshops to develop student leaders to be inclusive and create clubs and organizations that foster a sense of belonging among the students. We build relationships, as teachers, advisors, coaches, counselors, and mentors, that facilitate courageous conversations between adults and students.
These are only some of the ways we create a culture of authenticity. There is no doubt that at times we have fallen short. However, we acknowledge our faults and commit to learning from our mistakes. I know I have so much to learn and more blind spots to discover and correct. In the meantime, I am waiting for the DeVito shrine creator(s) to reveal themselves so I can interrogate them, and more importantly thank them for bringing a smile to my face.