Scroll: What is your job description?
MY: My job is to help Deerfield Academy think about all issues related to diversity – gender, ethnicity, race, religion – and help the administration look at how we are addressing all these issues. I get to work with everybody on campus, Dr. Curtis and the Dean of Students included.
In my first year, I am mostly observing Deerfield so that I can draw up a plan for how Deerfield can be intentional in including everybody in the community.
Scroll: Why has Deerfield decided to create the role of the “Director of Inclusion”?
MY: Many schools in the league of boarding schools that Deerfield belongs to have a director of diversity. These schools try to keep competitive and mirror each other’s movements. The goal of the Director of Diversity is to make sure that non-traditional boarding school students feel welcome. By non-traditional boarding school students, I mean students who don’t have a legacy here. The families of these students have a gap in experience, because they need to figure out everything from the financial to cultural aspects of sending a student to a school like Deerfield. Small things like figuring out Parents’ Weekend or transportation to and from home are easy for families that have sent multiple kids to boarding school, but not so much for a family that is sending their child to boarding school for the first time.
Scroll: Is it a misconception that students believe that your administrative role has more to do with racial diversity than other kinds of diversity?
MY: Absolutely: I think it’s a big misconception. In America, broadly speaking, whenever we bring up diversity, race is the first thing that people’s minds go to. Big as racism is, diversity is much bigger than that. I address mental health issues by working with people in DA’s health services, I am part of the curriculum committee, and I am also looking at day students, to see how we can make them feel more like a part of the Deerfield community. My job spans across the entire community, but I think a lot of people generalize in saying “She’s just here to sustain students of color.” In fact, the very first sustained dialogue that I held was about gender issues, not about race.
Scroll: What exactly is sustained dialogue? How is it any different from conversations we’ve had about inclusion in years past at Deerfield?
MY: The idea of a sustained dialogue is that it’s a conversation over time. Part of talking about the issues is not just raising questions, it’s coming together and getting to know each other, then getting to talk across differences. And once you identify a problem, there is an action step that allows the people who held the discussion to take action, or induce another group, say the administration, to take action.
You could have a conversation with a group of friends if something goes bad during the day, but for such a conversation to qualify as sustained dialogue, you would have to ask yourself whether you are revisiting that issue, whether you are taking action, and whether you are asking the institution to look at the problem in a different way.
Scroll: When is sustained dialogue happening?
MY: The first group that participated in sustained dialogue met in fall term. We met every other Thursday during faculty break. I originally invited the… entire school to participate in these sessions, and sent out another reminder after MLK Day as well. But after the second sustained dialogue, I had to close the group so that we could start to do real work with the people who were regularly coming to the meetings. The point of sustained dialogue is to reach an action step, and the worry was that this couldn’t happen if people were coming in and out irregularly. These meetings have been fruitful, and this group of seven students meeting over six times has led to the proposal and adoption of the open-dorm pilot program.
Scroll: Do you think student culture can be changed by the administration?
MY: I think it’s a two-way street. I definitely think there are strategies that can be put in place to facilitate change. One example is the open-dorm policy. There was a general consensus during our sustained dialogue meetings that girls and boys are often segregated at Deerfield. The impetus for the proposal was that we want girls to feel comfortable just walking into a common room in a boys dorm to hang out.
In a sustained dialogue, you recognize that you can’t do everything, but you pose the question of what you can do, realistically speaking. Our goal is that, for the next grade coming to Deerfield, the stigma around boy-girl relations and “hookups” will not be a norm.
Scroll: Many students called the school meeting at which we were introduced to sustained dialogue superficial. What are your thoughts?
MY: I think they’re absolutely right: that school meeting was definitely not the ideal way to hold sustained dialogue. But my goal was to whet the appetite of the community for this group [faculty- break sustained-dialogue sessions]. I think my first year here is a time for me to figure out how the community is going to respond to initiatives I take.
Scroll: Many students believe the race issue has been blown out of proportion in the sustained dialogue model at Deerfield. Do you think this is true?
MY: No. I think it is very hard for people to understand a reality that they don’t live every day. Just because we live in America doesn’t mean that we have one “American story” that looks the same for everyone. I think that when people hear other people’s stories, they can either embrace them, or reject them, saying “There’s no way that happened here.” Sometimes it’s easier to choose the latter, but if you really listen to these people who tell these stories, you realize that these are everyday parts of their lives and they really happened.
Scroll: What do you think of students who say our frequent discussion about division are discussions that are very Deerfield-specific, which they will never have to hold again?
MY: We can say Deerfield is an artificial environment, this is not the “real world,” but this will happen again in college. You will have to study with, live with, and work with people who are very different from you in your life after Deerfield. The world around us is changing rapidly in terms of demographics. We cannot say that issues about race and gender are issues we will never have to address again beyond high school.
Scroll: Do you think diversity alliances are divisive?
MY: I think people need to understand why diversity alliances exist in the first place. I wonder how many critics of diversity alliances have actually been to a diversity alliance meeting. There are several goals for diversity alliances. One is to educate our campus about that particular culture, with the International Dinner for example. Another goal is to have a time and space for people who are marginalized in institutions like Deerfield to relate to people who are like them.
Scroll: A lot of the accusations about diversity alliances being divisive have been towards ethnicity-based groups, rather than Christian Fellowship, GSA, or JSA. Why do you think this is?
MY: We need to realize that we live in America. There are systems in place that were established way before we were born. America is a country that has a history of slavery, a history of immigrant populations being discriminated against, a history of hierarchy, and a history of religious persecution. These things are real, and we have inherited them. I understand in some way when students say they feel penalized for wrongs they didn’t commit. But nobody is blaming them. Marginalization is not just perpetuated by the student population. We live in a system that values certain characteristics, personalities, and skin colors over others. We live in a country that is racially and economically divided. But for us to say, “This is not my fault, and this discussion makes me feel uncomfortable,” is not the right way to approach any problem. We need to take responsibility for our reality. You need to lean into your discomfort to have meaningful conversations.
Scroll: What do you think defines the “dominant culture” here at DA?
MY: There are families who have been attending Deerfield for many generations. I consider them dominant because they have knowledge and confidence in sending a kid here that puts a family that is sending a child to boarding school for the first time at a disadvantage. The dominant culture comprises people who are familiar, well-versed, know the ins and outs, and can really take advantage of being at Deerfield. Is this bad? Not necessarily. But we need to figure out a way to make sure that the people who don’t start out with those advantages can adapt to Deerfield life, too. The Deerfield administration is currently trying to bridge that gap.
Scroll: What can we do about socioeconomic differences here? Can these differences be bridged through administrative efforts?
MY: A sustained dialogue about socioeconomic differences is not going to be the type that has a resolution. But the goal here will be a mutual understanding, and a better awareness of the lifestyles and cultures that other people come from.
Scroll: Many students have expressed discomfort at attending diversity alliance meetings where they are not part of the dominant ethnic group present. Thoughts?
MY: If white students go to a diversity alliance meeting and feel uncomfortable, these students must realize that there are students of minorities who feel uncomfortable every day. And although some of this is a product of the environment, it is also the responsibility of each one of us to overcome that feeling of being different whenever we happen to be in the minority in a room full of people.
Scroll: There have been calls for the creation of a White Student Alliance. What are your thoughts?
MY: I think that is a very interesting proposal. What I want to know is whether students want a White Student Alliance as a means of retaliation because Asian students, black students, etc. have their own alliances. If students could form a WSA with a vision, to address actual issues that involve this group and need to be shared with the administration, that would be valid. But “white” is a very broad term, and there is a danger in that. Dominant culture people are always connecting with each other. They are “the group.” There is a large population of people on this campus, who, when they look around, see 50 more people who look like them. I think for these students, the opportunity to talk to and connect with others like them present themselves in every moment of the day. I would ask these people to remember that the point of diversity alliances is not to embrace certain student groups at the expense of other people. Institutionally, there are support groups for everyone, academic and medical, among others.