By Jason Robinson, Head of School, and Kristin Elliott, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
On June 27, 2020, in response to the tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and the nation’s continued reckoning with racial injustice, St. Albans shared a letter with the school community, signed by our board chair and the entire Senior Administrative Team, “to embrace our responsibilities as an institution and to respond to the profound moral claim that this defining moment—and the movement it has inspired—makes upon St. Albans School.” With a profound sense of how much work remains to be done, our letter outlined a series of tangible commitments that aspire to put our school on a path towards greater justice, equity, and inclusion: to become more fully a sacred space dedicated to the dignity and humanity of every person as a child of God. We have spent the summer and early fall advancing a number of these goals and establishing a framework for their ongoing realization. This is the first of a series of updates we will provide to the community about the progress we are making and the lessons we are learning.
The conversations we have been part of over the past months have been difficult but important ones, as alumni, families, faculty, staff, and students of color have spoken poignantly and courageously about the ways in which their experience at the school has fallen short of our mission and the sacred promise we make to all members of our community: that every boy will be known, loved, and honored in the fullness of his humanity. The passion that surrounds this conversation reflects how much is at stake and how deeply people care about the future of this school community. Love for this institution—and a desire to see it become the fullest version of itself—compels us all to speak and to act, to insist that we live in ways that honor the soul and conscience of our school, and to embrace our responsibilities as a moral, civic, and educational leader.
While only a beginning, here is an update on some of the progress that we have made since our June 27 letter:
Continued Community Engagement and Listening Sessions
We spent time this summer engaged in dialogue and listening sessions with valued members of our community willing to join us in the work of living out our school’s mission. These sessions included Town Hall Zoom meetings with our Black families, Black alumni, Black students, and Black faculty and staff, as well as an all-alumni Town Hall. We also devoted considerable time at our opening faculty and staff meetings to ongoing diversity, equity, and inclusion training. We will continue these conversations and outreaches in the fall, beginning with a Town Hall meeting with St. Albans families in October. We have also assembled a parent task force to select two parent-shared texts on diversity, equity, and inclusion topics and to organize discussions for each.
Building on the work we began last spring, we have now established seven student affinity groups in the Upper School and will be extending affinity groups into the Lower School this fall, beginning with Forms A, I, and II. Some of the initiatives emerging from our student affinity groups include two assemblies that will be hosted by our Black affinity group (one this fall and one for Black History month in February) and an assembly hosted by our Latinx affinity group in connection with Hispanic Heritage Month.
Black Alumni Alliance
Recognizing that the value of affinity groups extends beyond students, we worked this summer with the school’s Alumni Office and Black alumni to lay the groundwork for a Black Alumni Alliance. Many individuals were involved in this important effort, including Jason Cross ’95, Tom Duckenfield ’82, Blake Sparrow ’00, Chima Ogbuokiri ’94, and OJ Johnson ’97. And we hope many others will join in shaping its future direction. Besides providing an important space for Black alumni to find support and solidarity, this is also part of a broader effort to connect Black alumni more meaningfully to our school and our current students. In furtherance of this effort, we will hold an Upper School assembly in October where a panel of Black alumni will address our students.
The Governing Board’s Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
The Governing Board will engage in diversity training with a leading diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioner at our October board retreat (the same practitioner who held three training sessions for our faculty and staff over the past two years). The Governing Board has also strengthened the mission and mandate of our Board Diversity Committee under the leadership of Perry Fergus, a current St. Albans board member and former president of the Parents’ Association.
Increasing the Diversity of the School’s Faculty and Senior Leadership
Recruiting and retaining a more diverse group of teachers, mentors, and school leaders remains a very high priority for the school. We are actively exploring the creation of fellowships that would attract top educators of color to our community. And we are in dialogue with a recruiting firm that specializes in placing outstanding candidates of color in a variety of different employment sectors, including education.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Our Programming and Curriculum
Summer Reading and Conversations
As noted in our June 27 letter, faculty and staff read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me this summer. We had two training sessions and conversations based on these books during our opening faculty and staff meetings, and we will continue these conversations and training sessions during our October faculty and staff professional days.
Students in Forms I-VI read Coates’s book as well. Forms I and II began advisory discussions on the book in September. And we will hold a Town Hall meeting with each of those forms this fall—Form I in September and Form II in October—with continued engagement with students in their Form I and II history classes. The Upper School began discussions of Coates’s book with an assembly and advisory discussions in September. Upper School students will continue to engage the book through advisory discussions and within their English classes.
DEI Curricular Audit
During the summer, we began a comprehensive audit of our formal curriculum and will have more to share on the results of this important work in the coming months. As the beginning of an ongoing effort to infuse our curriculum and student experience with greater cultural competency in diversity, equity, and inclusion, Kristin Elliott—as our DEI director—will be holding workshops with our Lower School students this fall, beginning with C Form.
As noted in our June 27 letter, we are also examining our “tacit” curriculum—“the messages we send, the perspectives we privilege, and the experiences we marginalize by the traditions, stories, and images of the school—so that those elements reflect the most inclusive and textured version of our history, while also capturing the full sweep of our future aspirations.” To this end, we have been discussing a range of projects and initiatives which we look forward to sharing more about in the near future.
Chapel and Assemblies
In the Lower School, we have in recent years commemorated important days and traditions that reflect the diversity of our community, such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover; Ramadan; Nowruz; and Indigenous People’s Chapel. We will reaffirm and deepen this commitment in the Lower School and will create similar opportunities for our Upper School students. We will also hold assemblies commemorating important inflection points in the struggle for civil rights, such as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. And, as noted above, our Black Student Affinity Group and Latinx Student Affinity Group will also host three assemblies this year. Our DEI theme for this year, like last year, is Allyship; and in furtherance of this goal, we will again engage in social action teach-ins this year and provide students with multiple opportunities to engage with the concept of Allyship.
New School Policy on Respectful Discourse and Hate Speech
In our June 27 letter, we committed to developing a new policy for inclusion in the Student Handbook that specifically addresses racial hate speech and misconduct; the school’s unequivocal condemnation of such behavior; how we will educate our students about these fundamental community expectations; and the process we will use for investigating and eradicating such behavior from our community.
One of the issues that has afflicted educational institutions in recent years is the mistaken belief that principles of intellectual freedom and respect for the feelings of others are somehow in conflict. At St. Albans, there is a genuine effort to see these principles as part of a larger unity, bound together by the conviction that love of knowledge and love for others are sacred obligations that rest on the same moral and spiritual foundation. At St. Albans, we aspire to live in the grace of these two forms of love.
As an academic community grounded in the liberal arts tradition, we believe that the free and vigorous exchange of ideas promotes the intellectual and personal growth of our students and prepares them for life in a complex, diverse society where citizens often disagree on matters of fundamental importance. As a moral community grounded in the spiritual principle that all humans are entitled to equal dignity and respect, we believe that discussion and disagreement must always take place within a context that affirms the humanity of every person in our school family.
We welcome speech that advances learning and enlarges our perspectives on complex issues. But there is no place in our school community for speech that demeans or marginalizes individuals based on their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or any other category. “Freedom of speech” is not a sanctuary for those who weaponize language to hurt and intimidate others. For freedom of speech to serve its intended goals—of advancing learning, deepening understanding, and helping us thoughtfully navigate the disagreements that are inevitable in a complex democracy—it must rest on a foundation of mutual respect and trust. Freedom in this deeper sense is not a condition that spontaneously comes into being. It requires work. It is a collective achievement made possible by our commitment to educating young men in the thoughtful, discerning, and responsible use of freedom. Hate speech erodes the foundations of a true learning community. Only when all members of our school family feel a sense of value and belonging can meaningful discourse—and meaningful disagreement—occur.
We will soon be translating these principles into a formal written policy and look forward to sharing it with the community in the near future.
Healing and Reconciliation
A recurring theme in the conversations we held over the summer was that a vigorous examination of school programs and policies, while important, will not be sufficient unless it encompasses the human stories and human dimensions of racial injustice. Many have shared that the path to a more just and equitable school must go through this complex and painful emotional landscape, not around it. It must be about people, not just programs and policies. We are actively discussing how best to address this concern through a thoughtfully constructed process, and we will have more to share on this important topic in the near future.
We recognize that our continued work in these efforts is a moral imperative; and we see these goals, not as boxes to be checked, but rather steps upon a continuum of unending work. While we are called by recent events to meet this moral challenge with renewed purpose and determination, this call draws its strength from ideals that have always been at the core of St. Albans’ mission and identity: the inherent spiritual dignity of every human being and the idea embodied by our school motto, Pro Ecclesia et Pro Patria, that education exists to serve causes larger than our individual selves, drawing our boys into lives of moral leadership and thoughtful civic engagement with the great questions of our time. As we say to our seniors each year at our traditional Commencement ceremony, “we lay heavy responsibilities“ upon our graduates to “seek excellence in every task they undertake and to build a world where people everywhere may know justice, compassion, and peace,” serving as “examples to others and [as people] whose deeds will help to bring God’s will to this world.” Our June 27 letter was appropriately titled “A Commitment to Change”; but throughout the summer, we have also been struck by the powerful sense of moral continuity that informs our work. We aspire to be a model of equity and inclusion because of the sacred obligations our traditions and values make upon us. Seen from this perspective, we believe that tradition and transformation are not opposing forces but are part of a more fundamental unity, bound together by the transforming grace that has always been at the heart of a St. Albans education.