Committing to the communal work of anti-racism: Moving together through new territory

Moving from individual to school-wide action

Teachers come to Watkinson because they believe in taking students seriously, putting students in the center of their own education. This is a natural and obvious driver for Watkinson’s intellectual program. But it also sits at the heart of Watkinson’s other deep commitments.

The school’s continuing progress toward becoming an anti-racist institution is regularly updated in letters to the community and documented on the school website.

In addition to other internal work, Watkinson has also engaged the organization Pollyanna, a national nonprofit helping to advance systemic change in equity, inclusion, and diversity. This spring, faculty and staff have been attending regular Pollyanna workshops: white faculty and staff meet with Pollyanna leaders, while BIPOC faculty and staff meet with Equity and Social Justice consultant Martha Brackeen-Harris.

The school-wide sessions mark a new scope for Watkinson, which has been pursuing goals of diversity and equity for decades but often in smaller cohorts without much coordination between them.

“I’ve been involved with the Equity and Social Justice committee since I started working here,” says English teacher Anna Alferi, “but largely I was doing training by myself or with small groups of people. This year we’ve talked a lot about working in isolation and about how that’s part of the reason we’ve fallen short of where we want to be, because it was all little silos of conversation. 

“Whereas now, with the Pollyanna work, I just have more people to talk to about the work the committee is doing and and where we’re going with it, whether it’s curriculum design or school culture or just basic classroom management/procedural type of things.

“The Pollyanna workshops open a lot of doors for these conversations, because we’re all required to do it. And there are a lot of opinions about that, right? I’m getting my Master’s in organizational psychology, and something we talk about is forcing people to do training and whether that’s effective or not.”

Sessions like this can bring up questions about authenticity, Alferi continues. “We do these studies, we do those sessions, but how much does it actually affect me? I’ll say the words out loud in the workshop, but how likely am I to apply the ideas in my professional life, my actual work?

“That’s the entry into this work: preparing students for the actual world”

“But here’s the thing,” she says. “The genuine aspects of who we were before we started this work catch up with us. For some people, the social justice and anti-racism work we’re doing might feel inauthentic, or heavy-handed — not that they don’t believe in those concepts, but rather that they might wish we were going about it a different way. But the people here all do share a belief that students are at the center, and that we’re preparing them for the bigger world. And we were already, all of us, authentically doing that. We might have different opinions about how to do it, but we agree on the importance of doing it. 

“As we continue to discuss and live these issues, I think every teacher is coming to understand that, without this kind of direct anti-racist work, we won’t actually be able to prepare students for the world in a genuine authentic way. 

“If we sugarcoat the issues, which we’ve been doing for centuries in the United States — if we just say, oh, it’s okay, things were bad, but they’re better now — then students are not going to be prepared for the world, and they’re going to find themselves in the same situation we’re in right now.

“So that’s the entry into this work: preparing students for the actual world. Everybody’s committed to that. That’s why they’re here at Watkinson in the first place, teaching in the way they think is best for the students they get that year. They’re saying to those students, ‘I’m here for you, and I’m going to be better for you. I’m going to do what it takes to learn how to do that.’”

Challenges shaped the learning… but didn’t stop it

Redesigning the curriculum: taking student feedback seriously

Committing to the communal work of anti-racism: moving together through new territory

“Not just talk”: concrete investment in a different future