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

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Students talk about diving in and seeing progress

How do students feel about the work that’s been going on at Watkinson this year? Students across the board give Watkinson high marks for how they’ve handled COVID-19.

“The teachers have been just — amazing,” said Olivia L. ’21. “It almost feels just the same until I remember that I have a mask on.” [Hear the full interview on the Story Vault.] Seniors, originally skeptical about the feasibility of carrying out their senior projects in a year of social distancing, found not just silver linings but golden opportunities in long-distance Zoom mentorships.

As for the anti-racism work, students felt much like the staff and faculty — by turns eager, frustrated, excited, hopeful, disappointed, confused, proud, angry, and grateful.

Nary Oo ’21, a student representative to Watkinson’s Board of Trustees, talks about feeling glad to be seeing progress: “It’s never easy for a school to hear that it has issues,” she says. “But the truth is that there isn’t any school without issues. Because that’s the society we live in. But I think it starts with accepting that there are problems in the community, and understanding and acknowledging people who feel a certain way. And instead of ignoring it, the best thing we can do as a community is to bring attention to it and take action.

“For my peers and I — to see that our school is starting to not just talk about these issues but really dive in — that’s been a good feeling this year. To be honest it took longer than we students would have liked, but we’re really glad it’s happening now.

“Of course we want our school to be this perfect environment. But the moment you come out and acknowledge that there’s a problem is the moment you can start to heal, to really begin to overcome these issues that have existed not just in the past few years but in the past decades. How can we involve our students, how can we involve our faculty, how can we make our BIPOC students and faculties feel safe?”

The Board of Trustees takes action to diversify the adult community of the school

One piece of action that’s being taken has to do with resource allocation. In order to attract and retain BIPOC candidates to Watkinson’s open positions and also support and add positions to focus on community, equity, and inclusion work, Watkinson’s Board of Trustees has announced the most significant endowment draw in the school’s history.

A press release from the Board announces, “Because of the Head’s Scholar Program, Watkinson regularly reports that its student body consists of more than 30% BIPOC students… Standing on the shoulders of those who shared the same responsibilities and vision for our school, the board is investing these dollars to make the same lasting, systemic change in terms of diversifying the school’s faculty. 

“Both the board and school leadership recognize that we must diversify our adult community. Simultaneously, they recognize that our anti-racism work has progressed as far as it could without additional funding. 

“Though our five-year strategic plan, adopted in May of 2016, was prescient in its statement of the school’s inclusion goals, the plan didn’t know the extent to which the world would change. Now, it is critical that our school acknowledges the heightened need for educational institutions to lead in the area of anti-racism work. With these additional resources, Watkinson can be more than a spectator in this work, we can be an agent of change.”

“The years of work and dedication that have already been put in” are what keeps momentum going

Reflecting on what’s happening overall, Equity and Social Justice consultant Martha Brackeen-Harris says, “When I was first asked to come back to Watkinson to consult about these issues of equity and inclusion and the community work of anti-racism, I knew what I had to pay attention to, I was there on purpose to look directly at those places that needed attention. 

“And of course there were things to look at. But I think I saw more of the positive, the great movement that was happening, than the people did who were in the midst of it. And that makes sense, right? When you’re working, when you’re trying to figure things out, when it’s hitting all of your emotions, in the middle of the crisis, you can’t see much more than the crisis. 

“People were feeling paralyzed in their work… yet the work went on. What is that? What was it that made the work go on? What’s the energy that allowed things to continue? Here’s what it is: It’s the years of work and dedication that have already been put in, so that even when you’re feeling like you are not doing what you should be doing, it’s automatic that you do it.

“In the middle of the year, I had the opportunity to go to some Zoom conferences with other organizations and institutions, other independent schools as well, talking about diversity and equity and what was being done. And these other schools I’m seeing, they were talking about things that Watkinson had already solved. They were frustrated with issues that Watkinson has already dealt with, sometimes years ago. 

“So many of the other schools weren’t anywhere near the work that Watkinson has done. The bar here that is already held around anti-racist work, around diversity and inclusion, is so high, that even when people feel they’ve stopped making progress and are getting it wrong, they’re still in a place that’s unusual for our society. Watkinson’s normal is not the normal. You hold yourself to your normal and, even when that seems to be less than you feel it should be, it doesn’t negate that you are still far ahead. 

“One example is Watkinson’s use of ‘BIPOC’ terminology — most people don’t know what it is and what it means, yet it’s already such an embedded part of the vocabulary that everybody at Watkinson uses. Now we have the introduction of the new position at leadership level, which isn’t just a goal but includes funding. How we spend money matters. There are limited resources everywhere, so for the school to make the commitment at that level, you know — that’s where the commitment speaks.”

Brackeen-Harris continues, “It’s telling, I think, that the title of the new position is Director of ‘Community, Equity, and Inclusion.’ Community is right there, the first word. I wish I had been the one to suggest it but they didn’t need me for that; it was just so natural. And, for me, that’s the subtlety of the work that goes on at Watkinson. Because community really is the basis of all this work. It’s both the means and the end. And it frustrates me sometimes, because not everyone can see what’s happening here. But I can see it — the depth and the subtlety of the good work happening.”

Not wasting time

The evident consequence of the work is heartening, says English teacher Anna Alferi, even when it’s hard. 

She says, “With COVID, and the anti-racist work, and everything else that’s happening this year, even though it’s messy, this is the one year that I feel like I’m not wasting time at all. There’s nothing I’ve done that isn’t very important to be doing. So although it’s been extremely challenging to continue with momentum and energy, you get so much energy from the things you are doing that I think that’s why we’re sustaining. And not just sustaining — growing.

“When you get home at the end of the day, and you’ve got that drained feeling, you’ve also got so much that’s meaningful to reflect on. It feeds you. Even if you’re exhausted, you’re also ready for the next day. You’re ready for the work to go on.

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