“Diversity is the work of the self; without knowing who we are, we cannot know others in our community and offer them the same humanity we want for ourselves. At The Children’s School, we start with the phrase: ‘I am always all me,’” said Head of School Nishant Mehta.
When you hear the words “my authentic self” at The Children’s School, you know it’s more than a phrase – it represents how we explicitly and intentionally create an environment of inclusion, belonging, and cultural competence because we value who each individual is, what they bring, and recognize that we are collectively incomplete if we don’t invite all voices.
Why My Authentic Self?
On Nov. 3, The Children’s School invited over 150 voices from nine Atlanta-area independent schools and two visiting independent schools to a day-long diversity conference where participants openly engaged in meaningful dialogue to deepen diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts both inside and outside of the classroom.
“DEI work cannot be siloed from our work in education. We have to be doing this work, otherwise, we are doing our students a disservice,” said Caroline Blackwell, NAIS vice president of equity and justice and conference keynote speaker.
The “My Authentic Self” conference, falling roughly one week after three national tragedies, provided the space and illuminated the urgency of now, more than ever, making this critical work a priority in our schools, homes, and communities. As the first school in the southeast invited by Pollyanna to host the conference, and the first to adopt the model for middle school students, The Children’s School focused on the intersection of race and gender.
“One of the misconceptions about intersectionality is that it’s really about the multiplicities in our lives and it’s not about how we, in fact, integrate all those multiplicities and how those multiplicities, in fact, magnify and amplify who we are,” said Caroline.
Middle school is such a crucial time for children to question and grow into their true identities and it’s up to us, as adults, to ensure they are fully supported and protected in that process.
“We are honored to host the conference,” said Morgan Darby, director of student life and inclusion at TCS and conference coordinator. “By bringing everyone together, we can engage in meaningful dialogue and form a community of schools who recognize that equity and inclusion are centers of education – not the periphery.”
Inside the Conference
Small groups, broken up by constituencies including administrators, DEI practitioners, faculty members, parents, trustees, and middle school students, spent the morning sharing experiences and effective practices and asking questions about what our schools are facing when we recognize how the intersections of our identities (particularly that of race, gender, age, etc.) both affirm and also challenge our efforts to create a more inclusive and empathetic community.
“TCS is my children’s second family, and I could not be more proud to be a part of it. I, personally, feel incredibly lucky and connected (after the conference). I got several spontaneous hugs from other moms who have very different struggles than mine, but who saw something in me and knew we could connect. I saw something in them as well,” said TCS parent Maggie Kottke.
In between sessions, the middle school students laid a powerful foundation for the planning portion of the conference by using their voices to speak up and present skits about their personal stories and struggles in navigating the complexities of their own identities and how those experiences have impacted the way they view themselves.
“I’ve always been taught to be proud of my history, race, and ethnicity. Our school has international trips and one of them is to Morocco, a country in Africa. I heard a kid say that he wasn’t allowed to go to the African country because of the danger and crime. His friends reassured him with the fact that it’s ‘like a European country so there won’t be any crime,’ showing the association with European = good and African = bad,” said one student during the presentation.
“But who’s responsible for introducing these issues of race and gender in our communities? We all are. Adults, it’s not solely dependent on you to fix this alone. We understand that we need to educate our peers and lead by example. But we ask that you break these insensitive habits at home and try to send your kids out of the house more aware of the world around them,” said another student.
“Entering ‘My Authentic Self,’ I had high expectations of the student outcomes – after all, these were adolescents who chose to spend their entire Saturday in a vulnerable state, in difficult conversations, all with strangers. What I quickly realized is that there was no level of expectation that could accommodate the tremendous character and leadership inherently within our student delegation. The self-awareness and openness to share difficult personal stories in order to better others’ understanding solidified my optimism for the world when this generation ascertains their power in society. If these adolescents are representative of what’s to come – which I believe they are – the future is brighter than we can imagine,” said Erin Joyner, TCS middle grades counselor and student conference coordinator.
Attendees then came back together with their respective schools to begin problem-solving and identifying solutions to support the lives of their students. Each school created collaborative action plans, and spent a lot of time and thought in strategizing, vision-mapping and aligning priorities and goals.
I hope the kids learned that their voice has real power and when their full identity is used as a method of regulating their intelligence, the outcome is ten times greater. The name of the conference, ‘My Authentic Self,’ is truly a moniker that kids should use to navigate the world,” said Oman Frame, coordinator of equity and inclusion at The Paideia School. “What I hope to take back to my school is a renewed sense of passion and urgency and the fastidiousness to actually get it done.”
Our call to action is to do the courageous work to solidify equity and inclusion as centers of education, not peripheries, for all children. Then, and only then, can we journey forward.