Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioners need to be able to shift gears quickly: Between stakeholders and their wildly varied needs. Between conversations designed to put people at ease and those designed to push comfort zones. Between celebrations of identity and solemn acknowledgements of individual and collective pain and trauma. Lisa Palmero McGrath embodies the ability to balance those conflicting demands, as quick to laugh as she is to lend an empathetic ear.
“There's a lot of excitement and a lot of joy in the work, but there's a lot of urgency and there's a seriousness, too,” Lisa said. “We're talking about people's lives. People's lives are at stake.”
Lisa comes to Commonwealth School as its new Director of DEI in August. Keep reading to learn more about her and the deeply personal path that led her to this work.
From One of Many to One of Few
Hailing from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Lisa was supposed to continue her education in the Philippines—then her older sister saw Dead Poets Society. Enamored with boarding schools, her sister managed to convince the family to change their plans. So the sisters found themselves at Kent School in Connecticut, a private boarding school on the banks of the Housatonic River with brick buildings and manicured grounds that could easily be mistaken for a college campus.
”Before Kent I had attended a small international school that was basically like a United Nations for expat kids,” Lisa said, learning alongside students from Pakistan, Egypt, the United Kingdom, India, Lebanon, and elsewhere. At Kent, Lisa and her sister were the only Filipinas in a small pool of international students. “I was completely culture shocked,” she said. But despite feeling “very out of place,” Lisa found her niche and confidence in music.
“I was all about music and performing on stage,” she said. A highlight was getting into the auditioned female a capella group. “That's how I learned to beatbox, which I'm really proud of,” she said. (The group was poised to ask someone from the male a capella group to perform the “vocal percussion.” Lisa stepped up and taught herself how to do it instead.)
After graduating, Lisa attended Ithaca College “with the plan of being a Broadway musical star.” But early in her tenure, another student of color, having experienced discrimination of her own, warned Lisa to prepare to be relegated to the chorus because of her ethnicity, despite her talent. Lisa decided not to test the theory—she “wasn't in it enough to be in the background.” So her college days centered around community service, residential life, and student government, including becoming Ithaca’s first woman-of-color student-body president. (She got her performing fix by continuing her involvement in a capella groups.) She ultimately earned her B.A. in sociology, with designs to attend law school. In the midst of studying for the LSATs, she became the Director of Student Activities at Wilbraham and Monson Academy, a co-ed boarding and day school with 400 students and sixty-six faculty. It turned out to be a “dream job.”
“I got to do what my mentors at Ithaca College were doing but in an independent school,” Lisa said. “I was teaching humanities. I was teaching middle schoolers about people and culture. And it was really hard work. I fell in love with it.” She became the school’s Associate Dean of Students only three years later, at twenty-four years old. “It was one of the best decisions, I think professionally and also personally, that I've made,” she said. Still, as one of two women on an administrative team of thirteen people, the youngest, and the only person of color, the position had a “very steep learning curve about microaggressions and what it means to be a BIPOC female professional in a very male-dominated space.”
Digging into the Diversity Director Role
The lessons learned in seven years at Wilbraham and Monson would carry over to Lisa’s next role, Diversity Director at Hopkins School in Connecticut—even though, at the time, Lisa “actually didn't know what a diversity director did or that the position even existed.” Her sister again shaped her fate, explaining why the role was a perfect fit: “it was all about identity and students and journeys and working with teachers who wanted to support each other.”
At the larger (715 students and 130 faculty) Hopkins School, Lisa spent a lot of time furthering socioeconomic inclusion, she said, advocating for low-income students facing food insecurity and lack of at-home study space and time. She also advanced institutional support for transgender colleagues and students, such as the creation of gender-neutral bathrooms. She worked in admissions at the school, too, giving her insight into recruiting initiatives. “I think I've always been a diversity practitioner, when it comes to understanding and being interested in identity and the way systems and institutions work,” Lisa said. Even when she doesn’t understand or agree, she says she’s comfortable with the discomfort.
Lisa continued her path in DEI at Westminster School, in Simsbury, Connecticut, serving as Director of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs and, later, Dean of DEI. There she oversaw a broad swath of inclusion work for the 400-student school, including leading a coalition of faculty and trustees in developing institutional strategies that support Black Lives Matter and address anti-Black racism and institutional discrimination; designing faculty workshops on cultural competency, unintentional bias, deep listening, and hair in the Black community; and launching affinity groups for all of the school’s constituents, such as Parents/Guardians of Students of Color and a Peer Leaders group. From curriculum design to hiring and retention to extracurricular activities, Lisa’s work touched on every corner of Westminster’s operations, every member of the community, in some way. “I fell in love with the people,” she said. ”For me, it's been very much about people. I was really moved by everyone that I met at Westminster, and then Commonwealth.”
As soon as Lisa learned of the open Director of DEI position at Commonwealth, everything she read about the school seemed to resonate, she said: the small size, the philosophy, even the mascot. (An abiding love for the music of The Little Mermaid didn’t hurt.) Moving to Boston will fill a cultural void, too. “I realized I really wanted Andrew, my [two-year-old] son, to get to know me and my full self,” she said. “That meant being in a more diverse community and also having access to a Filipino community.”
Lisa comes to Commonwealth a little over a year after George Floyd’s murder. Over that time, defined not just by the pandemic but widespread cries for racial justice, even a seasoned DEI practitioner had lessons to learn. “I've learned about the importance of decentralizing myself and helping others grant themselves and each other the grace that comes with discovering where our strengths lie,” she said. “I've also learned that it's easy for students and teachers to identify what needs to be better.” Identifying what’s going well and should be built on is sometimes harder.
Schools need to think about students’ intellectual progress, mental well-being, and emotional growth beyond their time in the classroom, too. “We're not only teaching the thirteen-, fourteen-, fifteen-year-old,” she said. “We're also talking to the person who will someday be twenty, twenty-one. How will they digest and process what they remember from this moment?” And if a person walks away bruised by their high-school experience, how do we help that alum heal and return to the community where they had those experiences?
Lisa emphasizes that DEI work in schools isn’t just about helping students—it entails learning from and for them which skills and support systems they need to thrive. “There's no form of reading and writing that would have prepared us for the world we're in right now,” Lisa says. “It's all uncharted territory.”
While urgency has been a constant in her DEI work, Lisa has felt it even more so during the pandemic, when connecting became so much more difficult—and the country saw a sustained surge in anti-Asian violence, harassment, and bigotry, coming to a head when six Asian and Asian-American women were gunned down in Atlanta in March.
The racial reckoning in the context of a global pandemic has unearthed “a lot of truths that people are being forced to face, truths that BIPOC communities, transgender communities, have known existed. And it's forcing people to take a stand,” she said. “Neutrality doesn't exist if one is an educator, even when one is trying to be neutral. I think you can show both sides, but if we're talking about social justice, I think neutrality is dangerous.”
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Practice
Balancing student, faculty, parent, and administrative needs. Considering qualitative and quantitative metrics. Understanding, deeply, the lived experiences of a variety of identities: The DEI practitioner’s work is broad, and the expertise needed is vast.
“At the end of the day, it's about knowing the school and knowing the people in that community, and identifying the types of spaces that students and faculty in the community need in order to be their best selves,” Lisa said. “People do their best work when they're most comfortable in their own skin. And so for me, it's what are we doing so that everyone here is most comfortable in their own skin, so that they can produce their best work, whether you're a teacher, a staff member, a student, a member of the alumni/ae community, a board member.”
Accordingly, over her first months at Commonwealth, Lisa said she will focus on getting to know the lay of the land and the people. “I'm dreaming about the excitement of getting to know people and being creative,” she said. “That's what's so much fun and also challenging about DEI work: it's thinking outside the box.” She wants to “tap into what people are passionate about” and figure out what they wish they could be doing but aren’t, what they’re determined to continue and why.
So, what does an inclusive and equitable school environment look and feel like? For Lisa, it starts with:
- Stories: Whose stories are highlighted? Whose perspectives are shared? And whose voices are missing?
- Identities: We all carry a broad swath of identities within us—and every institutional decision needs to take into consideration which communities and identities might be affected and how.
- Access: Inclusion means access to people with shared identities and backgrounds, and access to opportunities.
What this looks like in practice will vary from school to school and student to student. After all, at one point or another, a student can be one of a few or one of many, Lisa said. The goal of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts is to foster an environment where every student feels like they can be their full, authentic self, regardless. In the absence of these efforts, school communities can be inadvertently exclusionary (at best). And students pay the price. In one pointed example, Lisa recalled times when adults have declined to use a microphone in a large school space, confident in their ability to project and be heard—and not knowing about the hearing-impaired students in the audience. “That's one identity, for instance, I often think of, because I've had students who've decided not to wear their earpieces because they don't want people to know [they were hearing impaired],” she said. What might a more inclusive environment have wrought?
Commonwealth’s eagerness for an in-house DEI practitioner has been apparent throughout the conversations she’s had thus far. Let’s have a carnival of ideas, Lisa said, then work together to zero in on the right ones to try. “Good intentions are good, but it's about coming up with a plan,” she said. “So long as we're moving in a way that will allow us to leave the world a little bit better than it was when we first showed up in a specific community, then we're moving in the right direction.”
This feature appears in the summer 2021 issue of Commonwealth Magazine (CM).