Inclusion: Latin’s Past, Present, and Potential
April 5, 2022
Boosting inclusivity at Latin is essential, but it has proved a difficult endeavor for the school.
Senior and co-Head of the Asian Student Alliance (ASA) Ben Martinez said, “Latin has become a little more inclusive and the school has focused on some important topics, but usually it takes way too long and or way too much prodding from the student body.”
Students themselves, in particular affinity heads and members, were the ones to demand Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work be a priority for the school in the summer of 2020. Two years later, students can still be credited with bringing many inclusion-focused workshops and presentations to life.
But while some students prioritize DEI, others push it aside in their ever-busy schedules. Junior and ASA co-Head Sanaiya Luthar said, “Asking people to choose in an environment like Latin, where everybody is so academically competitive and focused, of course they are going to choose school over a social issue a lot of them don’t feel is very relevant to them, unfortunately.”
Senior and ASA co-Head Avi Vadali said, “If you can demonstrate to people that DEI affects them, could be beneficial to them, will be important in their lives, then you turn it from saying, `You have to care about these people,’ to, `This is something that will affect you and so you should learn about it.’”
Another senior and ASA co-Head Andrew Young pointed out the exclusivity in Latin’s inclusion plan itself. “Asian-Americans weren’t really included in Latin’s DEI plan,” Andrew said. Neither were a plethora of other minority communities. Latin’s work as it is laid out focuses on the inclusion of Black and Latine students.
Eager to understand how in particular Latin has gone about creating a more inclusive school environment, The Forum interviewed both Director of DEI Eleannor Maajid and Head of School Randall Dunn. Ms. Maajid presented some specific efforts, such as increasing affinity offerings, providing transportation for commuting students during the pandemic, and offering programming on empathy and belonging. Mr. Dunn said, “We have been more intentional in discrete moments about saying how we will be more inclusive.”
Despite experiencing Latin for the first time through a computer screen last year, sophomore Payton Rice, a Black Student Union (BSU) and Multiracial Student Coalition member, found the community welcoming. “[Latin] tries to be accommodating to make sure that you can thrive, which is really cool,” she said. At the same time, Payton added, “Overall, Latin is not a safe space in the sense that you can go around without fearing for anything.”
Junior Anaitzel Franco, a member of the Latin American Student Organization, echoed Payton’s feelings. “If you are not feeling comfortable raising your hand in class or sharing a comment or joining a group because you are fearing the backlash,” Anaitzel said, “that’s no way to succeed.”
Junior Madison Vanderbilt, a co-Head of Latin’s Intersectional Feminist Alliance and a BSU member, shared another perspective. “There’s this unspoken contrast in the hard work we do in classrooms, affinities, and clubs to be inclusive, versus the messages told to us in gatherings,” she said. “If we could find a way to take the skills that we have utilized in small groups into the greater Latin environment, I believe we will be in a truly wonderful, open place.”
So, where does Latin go from here?
As trying as undoing years of exclusion can be for an institution like Latin, a school similar to Latin in both demographics and academic reputation has succeeded in improving its culture of inclusivity.
The University School of Nashville (USN), a private K-12 school with just over 1,000 students, can serve as a model for successful DEI work, broken down into three categories.
At USN, there are up to 60 faculty members sharing leadership of DEI initiatives. While Latin’s DEI team is primarily led by just four faculty members (Ms. Maajid, Dean of Community Learning Suzanne Callis, White Identities and Anti-Racism Coordinator Kate Lorber-Crittenden, and DEI Curriculum Coordinator Brandon Woods), Latin does have an extended council that includes almost 20 other members.
But unlike USN, Latin’s DEI Council is composed entirely of faculty that already hold a leadership position at the school in some capacity. Though engagement from division directors and other senior administrators is crucial, the faculty that engages with students on a day-to-day basis are teachers. Communication and implementation of DEI goals may be more successful if kindergarten teachers and P.E. coaches, among others who are not members of Latin’s administration, were part of the teams outlining those very aspirations.
Making up 8% of Latin’s total revenue and 6% of USN’s in 2021, donations from families and alumni are an essential part of an independent school’s operating budget. But fundraisers organized in the wrong way have the potential to spotlight a school’s wealthiest families, excluding much of the community.
Latin’s famed scholarship dinners—often held at fancy homes and racking up a costly dinner bill for the hosts—are perhaps not the most inclusive for a community as diverse as Latin.
It would be naive to deny the importance of Latin’s scholarship fund, as well as the fact that the scholarship dinners contribute significantly to the school’s ability to provide tuition assistance to 13% of students; the 2020 event raised more than $1.6 million. However, Latin could trade in these showy events for a model that better appeals to the diversity of families at the school.
USN has abandoned such benefits and now holds all fundraisers on their campus. “This is for all of us; it’s not just for a certain kind of family,” said USN’s Head of High School Quinton P. Walker.
Latin’s Director of Development Anne Hobbs said that Latin is making an effort to hold more inclusive fundraisers. She noted that most events are held at the school, and the reason for models like that of the scholarship dinner is purely cost-based; it is much more expensive for Latin to host such events on campus.
“We continue to proactively consider and revise our event structure and format to improve the experience for our entire community,” Ms. Hobbs said. This year, the $175 fee to attend the spring scholarship benefit will be removed in an effort to make the event more accessible to all Latin community members.
Similar to Latin, USN regularly gathers data from its community to assess everything from mental health to feelings of inclusion. USN partners with Authentic Connections (AC), an organization devoted to helping schools create meaningful change in their communities, informed by diligent surveying.
AC co-Founder and CEO Nina Kumar believes strongly in transparent communication when it comes to collecting data. “Some schools are more scared of sharing things out or worried about how [the data] will be interpreted,” she said, “but we always advocate for sharing the results out, because change can only really happen if everybody is on board with the way things are and the way things need to change.”
When Latin last shared the school’s climate assessment results almost a year ago, community members were left largely in the dark, especially when it came to the quantitative data. At USN, survey results are available, in full, to students, teachers, and the broader community.
“That way, it holds us as leaders of the school accountable,” Mr. Walker said. “If we are seeing things that are problematic, I know that everyone knows, and I need to make sure that we are leading a community that is going to do something about what we are seeing.”
Latin’s cryptic data-sharing blocks potential accountability from the community, because possibly useful information may be hidden from the very people it represents. Only Latin’s DEI consultant, Dr. Derrick Gay, and his team get to see the data in full. Even Latin’s DEI leaders don’t get a complete report.
Ms. Maajid said her sole concern about sharing Latin’s full climate assessment with the community is that in a relatively small school, the anonymity of the survey might be lost. Once she knows the grade level, gender, race, religious affiliation, or other identities of a respondent, Ms. Maajid could make a strong guess as to who that student might be.
“I don’t want to be data driven,” Mr. Walker said, “but I want to be data informed.” USN’s triannual surveying is no PR stunt. Transparent analyses of results impact course offerings, faculty hiring processes, relationships within the school, and more.
From USN’s most recent survey, Mr. Walker shared, “Students of color—both as a general group and subgroups within that community—are reporting higher levels of learning efficacy (feeling like they can learn and engage successfully at school) and are reporting lower levels of anxiety than previous surveys.”
When it comes to surveying at Latin, Madison recognized the potential value in such a practice. She did share that she feels as though mass surveying, especially multiple choice questions, can result in incomplete representation of a group. “I find that most of the time during gatherings, bias trainings, or other Upper School-wide activities, most of the silenced voices we have discussions about are simply narrowed down to statistics or generalized ideas of identities,” Madison said.
Undoubtedly, no school is perfect. USN’s commitment to inclusion is ongoing, but Latin could learn from some of their strategies that have already generated visible progress in a similar independent institution.
“I won’t back away from the fact that our schools are inherently exclusionary,” Mr. Walker said. “They are. It’s not a criticism, it’s just a condition. We owe something to ourselves and to a larger society to do something about that.”