Since September 2019, Rabun Gap Nacoochee School (RGNS) has been engaged in a process of ensuring that our community is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. We want a diverse school that recognizes and celebrates every experience. We desire an equitable environment that maximizes the varied talents and skills of each member of our community. We seek an inclusive campus that gives opportunity to everyone’s opinions and everyone’s contribution.
Under the leadership of Head of School, Jeff Miles, a diverse group of administrators, faculty, and staff from each of our three divisions convened monthly to develop a vision to be realized, goals to be accomplished, and a strategy for making this happen. This culminated in my hiring as the Director for Diversity, Equity, and inclusion (DEI) in November 2019. Six months before I started my new position, I met with students, teachers, staff, and senior leadership to determine where we are as a school and what we can achieve as a community. This was an easy and informative process because Mr. Miles and his team regarded this as critical to RGNS ten months ago. His foresight was prudent because the present social crisis has revealed just how critical it is.
This new school year brings daunting challenges and amazing opportunities. In just over a month, we will be launching the new year in the midst of a pandemic that has shown us the cracks that exist in what we thought were superior systems. We will welcome back students from over 50 countries in the midst of a social crisis that has shown us the deep division that still exists among neighbors, co-workers, and fellow citizens. These are daunting challenges because the call for planning and action at an unprecedented level. These are amazing opportunities because this process will show us and those around us what the RGNS community is capable of accomplishing.
This summer, I began my work as the Director of DEI. It started with a series of Zoom meetings with Reverend Mary Demmler, the school chaplain, Mr. Miles, and RGNS community stakeholders. One of those meetings took place with the employees of RGNS. The purpose of this meeting was to introduce myself and begin a conversation. This conversation’s focus was narrative, the lens through which we see the world and the theme that influences our beliefs and behaviors.
I assert that every community, no matter the size, has four primary elements: social, educational, economic, and civic. My focus for this engagement was the social element, which facilitates the development and propagation of culture through family groups, peer groups, religious groups, and secular groups.
The seventy RGNS employees participating in this Zoom meeting began with the notion that culture, through its elements of language, symbols, values, and norms, shapes a narrative that drives those influenced by it. However, few people take the time to truly examine that narrative. It is possible to move through life, engaging in work, interacting with people, and practicing rituals without ever knowing why. We develop biases, fears, and even intolerance towards people and places because of assumptions and values that are hidden deep within narratives that we have not truly examined.
So, our community was challenged to look at the narratives that drive us and even define us. The theme “The American Dream” was given to everyone. They were asked, in facilitated breakout room sessions, to use the basic elements of a story they learned in elementary school to imagine what that theme was to them.
They were asked to imagine the setting of the narrative that drives them and share it with their breakout group members. This was different for each individual, though they were given the same theme. For some the setting was urban and for others rural. Some were with many people and others with a few. For some it was an idyllic environment and for others it was imperfect. They were then asked to describe the main and minor characters of this environment. It was important for them to describe what the main characters, the protagonist or antagonist, looked like and what stock or foil characters looked like. They shared what characters were allowed to be dynamic and multidimensional and what characters could only remain flat and one-dimensional.
They then had to share, in a general way, the plot of their American Dream. When are characters introduced? What is the struggle? What is the rising action of the story? What is the pinnacle or climax? How does the story decline and how is it resolved? These details are important because this is the story that drives them. This is the story that influences what they believe about who they are and their place in the world. It influences who they believe others are and those people’s places in the world. It impacts how they interact and engage others. It informs their values and their sense of what is right, just, and equitable.
This first step on our journey together was important because each of us needs to reflect on the ideal setting we aspire to create. We need to examine why certain elements of the plot in our narrative, like what we deem as success or failure, gain or loss, friend or foe are significant to us. As we share these ideas with others, we are able to learn why the plot we imagine is different from others and why we place different values on different things. We not only get to understand ourselves better. We get to understand others better.
We need to understand why we see certain people as main characters and others as minor characters. Some where challenged by their narratives because the main characters in their narrative may have only been of a certain religion, skin color, or orientation. There are those that may have seen some people in their narrative as justified for being dynamic and multidimensional, meaning they were permitted by society to express a wide range of emotions and participate in a wide range of activities in society. However, they may see others as flat and one-dimensional, meaning these characters were not justified to express anything beyond what had been defined for them or exist beyond what had been permitted for them. Those who explored their narrative even deeper may have discovered that there are those they view as stock or foil characters, who only exist to make the narrative authentic or reveal the strengths of the main characters.
This process was important for us. It facilitated us learning to discover those biases deep in the narrative shaped by the lessons and rules of our families; the conversations and interactions with our peers; the doctrines and rituals of our religions; and the curriculums and climates of the secular organizations that all influence us. We discovered if we can do this in a way that helps us grow closer as educators, we can help our students do this.
We have students from over 50 countries. If we can challenge them to root out beliefs and behaviors that can lead to micro-aggressions and on a larger scale systemic oppression, we know a ripple effect will occur. We want them to learn early how to change narratives. At RGNS, we are committed to this work because as educators we know that if we can change the narrative, we can change the world.