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Lisa Palmero McGrath and Jennifer Borman ’81 having a conversation in our Head's Office.
Conversations with the Head: Lisa Palmero McGrath, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

It has been a year of transition for Jennifer Borman ’81 and Lisa Palmero McGrath, to put it mildly. A quick recap: Both women joined Commonwealth's staff in the summer of 2021. Lisa comes by way of Connecticut, with nineteen years of independent school experience and a uniquely international childhood, growing up in Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, behind her. Jennifer is Commonwealth's first alumna Head of School after leading a school in Rhode Island for fourteen years and working at Brown University for a decade.

Though they meet regularly, Jennifer and Lisa welcomed the opportunity to step back and reflect on a first year spent "trying to get a sense of all the people and traditions and strengths and needs," Jennifer says. Their shared work in furthering diversity, equity, and inclusion at Commonwealth requires a deep commitment to relationship building (bordering on coalition building), high-level awareness of socioeconomic and demographic trends, and granular familiarity with our community—as they note in the conversation that follows.

You both recently celebrated your first Commonwealth Diversity Day; what was that experience like?

Jennifer Borman: I loved it. I thought the most exciting parts of the day were the sessions students facilitated—I wish I could have gone to all of them. The ones I did attend, like "The Beauty of Islam & Arab Culture," were so thoughtful and celebratory. I also went to "Your Roots & Commonwealth," where students asked each other to reflect on their journey from different schools, different communities. It was incredibly moving to see the kids open up with each other. Students from all kinds of backgrounds talked about feeling intimidated and unsure of themselves here at times, but they also talked about how much they appreciated the support of not only their teachers and advisors but classmates.

Lisa Palmero McGrath: The students were the stars of Diversity Day, and they all really celebrated their peers leading presentations. When I think about standout moments from this year, I think about debriefing with one of the students who presented on Arab culture: she brought in oud [a sacred incense in Islamic countries], and that scent is everywhere in Saudi. It just immediately brought me back. When I told her, we started laughing and talking about home. Every day is full of moments like that—of things to take in and figure out and absorb. And that's been really fun.

So often when we talk about DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion], we talk about numbers and stats and new words that people can use to describe who they are, how they are, where they are. And, yes, those are a big part of the work. But it all comes down to relationships.

Why the emphasis on relationship building?

LPM: I'll tell you a story about my son, Andrew, who's three, as an example! He did not want
to share this toy with his four-year-old cousin, Poppy—so many toys and of course they both want the same pot! When we were talking about it later, I said to him, "Can you imagine how different this world would be if countries and neighborhoods shared all their resources? But you have to start here at home with your cousin!" As it turns out, my sister was listening in the other room, and she started laughing. She goes, "Really, Lisa? Even at home? Even with your three-year-old?" Yeah! Because social justice boils down to relationships and community.

This is why I appreciated our Diversity Day keynote speaker [Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler] and her research on conflict resolution. When you discover and agree on what's causing conflict in a community, you can try different ways of solving it together. But that takes trust and relationship building. And relationship building is not necessarily about liking each other—although that's definitely important. It's about figuring out what respect looks like and how we talk about what we believe.

We will always have a new incoming class, we will always have faculty and staff who are new to our community, and there will always be new ways to help welcome them and help them find their way at Commonwealth.

Can you tell us more about other DEI developments this year?

LPM: I think the affinity group work has been quite profound this year, starting with Sisters [for women and non-binary people who identify as Black, African American, and mixed race], then FLI [first-generation independent-school students from low-income communities], Oy. [for Jewish American and American Jew students who want to talk about spirituality, tradition, and culture], and most recently Asian American and Latinx affinity groups. They are all student driven.

I've started affinity groups before, and there are so many unhealthy and painful ways a community can react to them, but that has not been the experience at Commonwealth. It says a lot about our school and about the students who started these groups: It takes courage to make yourself vulnerable and say, "I want to have the space." And it takes trusting a community to know other students will honor that space and not question why it exists.
                        
JB: It's part of what Lisa says about building relationships: it's very hard to move an organization or a school towards change without people wanting to grow in the same direction, and they're not willing to do that if there's not trust, credibility, mutual respect, and dialogue. I have been in school leadership long enough to know that you need to plan change carefully and strategically. So it's been important for me to take the time to understand the Commonwealth of today—what we're doing well and can build on, and what are the barriers to change. That comes from getting to know people: our students, colleagues, families, alumni/ae, trustees.

But I, too, experience a sense of urgency. Right now [in the midst of hiring], we are aggressively and proactively conducting outreach to make sure all open positions are known to the widest possible spectrum of applicants. But we are still asking ourselves: How can we make our hiring processes more equitable and inclusive? Beyond hiring, how can we continue to build on the success of Dive In and make it even more robust? How can we continue to get to know community organizations that would be good partners in helping us find kids who might want to come to Commonwealth? So on the one hand, we're taking our time. On the other hand, we're not just being passive anthropologists.

How might you build on this momentum next year?

JB: I would like us to continue to acknowledge and embrace the diversity we currently have in our community and to learn from the wonderful range of human experience, family background, and identity in our building. And I would like us to continue to ask ourselves: How do we enroll more low-income students? More Black, Asian, Latinx students? More students who come out of urban public schools who have not had opportunities that many of our students have had? And how do we make sure that this is an academically, culturally, and emotionally welcoming place for them and their families? I think we have progress to make on that front.

Our faculty have been doing meaningful introspection and planning around curriculum and pedagogy, asking in what ways does their discipline speak to different histories, different geographies, different experiences. What do our students need in 2022? How does our curriculum need to adapt and respond to the ways that knowledge is changing and the ways the world and Boston itself is changing? That introspection and that planning has been really fruitful, and I hope to continue to create the conditions where it's part of our ongoing work together.

What are you most looking forward to next year?

LPM: I'm looking forward to familiarity and getting to know people without masks—just being with people in person.                    

JB: I am with you! Transitioning into a new school in a pandemic has been tricky. Gatherings have been so constrained, and it's been harder to meet people. But it feels hopeful now, seeing more of our full faces. And I have found this community very welcoming.  

LPM: And I'm looking forward to getting to know Boston better. We haven't even been to the Science Museum or the Children's Museum yet. I've always liked Boston, but I fell in love with it, actually, because of the way the city reacted to the tragedy of the Marathon Bombings [in 2013]. I was just wowed by Boston's resilience and the way everybody banded together.      

JB: We continue to need that resilience. When I was a student here, Mr. Merrill [Commonwealth's founder and first Headmaster] talked a lot about suffering as a part of the human condition. I do think that life will be inevitably difficult at various moments, and we can grow in our ability to cope and in our knowledge of our own growing strength. I wouldn't say that's a silver lining to the pandemic—I wouldn't wish this experience on anyone, especially young people—but I do hope they can take stock of the ways they've risen to the challenge.                    

What, if any, are the silver linings? Is there anything you'd keep from pandemic-era learning?    

LPM: Even though I'd prefer to meet in person, I would keep Zoom, because it's connected me with people I otherwise would never have met. And like you were saying, Jennifer, the past few years have forced us to grow. I was pushed out of my own comfort zone, both personally and professionally.

JB: Lately I've been thinking about how the pandemic is a shared experience. I'm not saying we all experienced the pandemic in the same way. There certainly were huge differences--if you or a loved one were immunocompromised or you lost your job or you had little kids at home or a host of other factors. But I can't think of anything in my lifetime that we were all collectively a part of, not just in this city or in this country, but all over the world. And I keep thinking there's something to harvest from that.

LPM: I have to say, I can't imagine having gone through this transition with any other Head of School. You allow space for there to be questions, to be brave. When I talk about being pushed outside my comfort zones and trying new things, I could do that knowing that you're behind me as a leader.
                        
JB: Right back at you, Lisa. One of the many attractors for me, coming back to Commonwealth, was the school's commitment to hiring a senior diversity director and saying, we need this expertise, we need this dedicated energy. It's not just your work, Lisa. It's everybody's work. But it's really important to have somebody who will help us grow in the directions we want to. The willingness is certainly there. I think this is a place people want to live up to. 
                    

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