Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, a group of Commonwealth students and alumni/ae—Mosammat Faria Afreen ’16, Iman Ali ’18, Gueinah Carlie Blaise ’16, Tristan Edwards ’18, Kimberly Hoang ’21, Alexis Domonique Mitchell ’16, Ryan Phan ’22, Alan Plotz ’21, and Tarang Saluja ’18—mobilized to share their views that the school, which prides itself on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), has fallen short in its efforts to address racism and socioeconomic inequities.
In addition to writing a petition, signed by more than 340 members of the community, this group has met with trustees, faculty, staff, and DEI consultants to share their perspectives and demand change. They spent hours developing and sharing the petition, sometimes through stories that were difficult both to tell and to hear. Their actions sparked an unprecedented response in every corner of the school community.
The petition spoke to a range of concerns: creating a curriculum that speaks meaningfully to all students; ensuring the hiring and retention of faculty of color; cultivating a community in which the thoughtless indignities, the microaggressions, students of color encounter are effectively addressed and eliminated. Implicit in all of the proposals was the importance of bringing new voices into the process to ensure it reflects the needs and aspirations of all members of the community.
This push at Commonwealth mirrored efforts around the country, including at many of its peer schools, to support and foster environments that reflect the diversity of the larger community, so all feel included and represented inside and outside the classroom.
Read on to meet the team guiding Commonwealth’s efforts to become a model of equity and inclusivity it has always aspired to be.
With the entire Commonwealth community motivated and invested in making the school a more inclusive and equitable institution, the Commonwealth Board of Trustees recognized the need for a nimble leadership group that could connect constituencies and coordinate the school’s reinvigorated DEI efforts. Enter the team now known as InCommon: John Dowd P’20 (Board Treasurer), Janique Parrott-Gaffney '04 (Alumna and Trustee), Mónica Schilder (Spanish Teacher and DEI Leader), Sophia Meas (Director of College Counseling), and Rebecca Jackman (Assistant Head of School).
Here InCommon offers some insight into their work thus far and its institutional and personal significance.
Where We’re Coming From
“This is real. This is a commitment,” says Mónica Schilder, who has led Commonwealth’s DEI efforts for years both formally as Diversity Director and informally as a champion of the work amongst her colleagues and trusted mentor to many students of color. “We've made a promise to our students that we're in this for the long run, and we’re not going to allow this to fail,” she says. “I'm super excited to be part of that.”
“Getting involved with InCommon is a way for me to make an impact from where I am at this point in my life,” says Janique Parrott-Gaffney ’04. As an alumna, she is uniquely aware of the importance of prioritizing equity and inclusion in the Commonwealth classroom. She also brings the perspective of an educator and advocate to the work (she’s the founder and principal of Literacy Without Limits, a consultancy working to eliminate the barriers that low literacy skills create), and she cites the importance of diversifying the Commonwealth curriculum in particular. English classes, for example, must go beyond the largely Western canon she knew as a student.
Hearing their former and current students’ struggles came as a shock to many at Commonwealth, says Rebecca Jackman, a twenty-year veteran of the school. But she believes the petition and this cultural movement represent an opportunity to reestablish the school’s commitment to racial equity and justice and ensure all students, faculty, and staff feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves into the community.
Part of InCommon’s charge is to help the Board of Trustees understand the reality for students, staff, and faculty, Jackman says. As a Board member and parent of an alumna, John Dowd “felt horrified to learn that the school was missing the mark on such a core issue with many of its students,” he says; if anything, “[the petitioners] weren’t asking for enough.”
Where We Are
While some facets of the curriculum have changed since Parrott-Gaffney’s time at Commonwealth (English 11, for example, now includes a focus on Black voices in America and their explorations of race), deeper and more critical examinations of Commonwealth’s courses are central to the school’s DEI goals for the coming years. A broader selection of authors not only permits all students to see themselves and their experience reflected in their course work, but, true to Commonwealth’s longstanding commitment to close reading, broadens and deepens the experience of all as they encounter and engage with a greater range of voices, both familiar and different from their own.
But equity and inclusion goes far beyond syllabi. It requires reexamination of the programs, policies, practices, and habits of teaching, learning, and working that together constitute the school’s culture. The school has to take an honest look at the assumptions that shape its work with all students, confronting vestiges of paternalism and privilege, and making clear that it is served and enriched when it welcomes and includes students, teachers, and staff from all backgrounds.
Recognizing the scope of this work, Commonwealth’s Board recruited InCommon, reaching out to each member, in part, for their longstanding commitment to wide-reaching and intersectional DEI issues—and the length of those commitments reflects the insidious persistence of racism and inequity. Yet, like the unprecedented support for the Black Lives Matter movement and acknowledgement of systemic racism in the U.S., particularly among white Americans, this moment feels different. And InCommon can feel it too.
“What sticks out this time is a real commitment to sustainability,” Parrott-Gaffney says. “How can we really make DEI a part of the fabric of Commonwealth? Not just a side component or a one-day or two-day workshop, but how do we really make [DEI] sustainable and make it last? And I feel like that's more of the conversation we're having now.” Meas agrees, saying, “the Commonwealth community is asking the right tough questions out loud amongst each other.”
“We're asking about leadership structure, milestones, and accountability—who, how, and when to take action in a sustainable way,” Meas says. “And that we're asking these questions and reflecting on them as a whole community gives me hope that we're going to serve our mission in a more collaborative, authentic, and receptive way than we had in the past.”
“It's a humbling recognition that our efforts in the past were not effective enough,” Dowd adds. “Now it’s a total one-hundred percent community effort.” There’s more support, more collaboration, more accountability. Schilder, Jackman, and Meas meet every week, and InCommon as a whole meets every other week. As Schilder notes, “We've put ourselves out there and are holding ourselves to this reality.”
InCommon began their work in the summer of 2020 by vetting and hiring consultants—Nishant Mehta and Staci Williams Seeley (of Storbeck Search and Associates), both with extensive experience working with independent schools—to conduct a cultural audit of Commonwealth. Over the fall semester, they interviewed ever-widening circles of constituents, starting with Head of School Bill Wharton, Chair of the Board of Trustees Therese Hendricks, members of the Board's Diversity Committee, the current students and young alumni/ae who wrote the petition, and other faculty and staff. In October and November, they broadened their scope to speak with larger groups: faculty and staff of the Equity and Anti-Racism Task Force that formed over the summer, the admissions and financial aid team, the student life team, parents, academic department conveners, administrative directors, and more students.
Their goal with these conversations? To gain a deeper understanding of the community and the concerns relating to DEI. “It is really the 30,000-foot view, getting us all looking at the same map for how we do this work together,” Jackman says. “Then the work comes over the next number of years as we explore and develop that map further.”
The members of InCommon are quick to acknowledge how dedicating so much time and effort to conversations might seem like a lot of talk and little action. “It doesn't necessarily feel that satisfying, or like we’re checking a lot of boxes,” Dowd says. “But for this to be a sustainable effort, we need to have one hundred percent of the community on board and aligned. And the first step was creating alignment.”
Parrott-Gaffney agrees. “I know it may feel like things are moving at a slower pace, but we feel that sense of urgency,” she says. “The alignment among the Board, the faculty, the staff, and everyone is just really important, especially when we're thinking about the new Head of School and a new Director of DEI, so that everyone feels like they're working together.”
A demonstrated commitment to DEI was already a pillar in the search for a new Head of School, and it took center stage during the finalist interviews in the fall of 2020. InCommon, joined by Kim Hoang '21, Tristan Edwards '18, and Katina Leodas '70, met with the three candidates to learn about their experience with DEI initiatives at their current institutions and their perspectives on the DEI priorities at Commonwealth. Questions concerning equity, inclusion, and access also featured prominently in candidate forums with faculty, staff, and students. (As Borman recently wrote to the Commonwealth community: “Throughout my interview process, I was moved to see how many different members of the Commonwealth community were excited to walk down that path [of diversity work].”)
Mehta and Williams Seeley will also play an instrumental role in the national search for the new DEI Director over the spring of 2021, ensuring the pool of candidates will be broad and deep and the interview process attuned to cultural competency.
While the consultants’ expertise has been invaluable over the past months, their engagement was always meant to spark meaningful action from within the Commonwealth community. “[The consultants] are not going to fly in and just tell us what we need to do,” Parrott-Gaffney says. “We really have to build that energy and the consensus. That has to come from the community.”
With Mehta’s and Williams Seeley’s guidance, the Commonwealth Board of Trustees established a common language for DEI, defining why it is important to Commonwealth School and providing an enduring framework for accomplishing the school’s mission. They shared this statement of commitment with the school’s constituents early in 2021.
Faculty and staff also identified concrete action items to focus on during the spring semester. Drawing from a long list of proposals, they decided to prioritize conducting a survey about school culture and diversity, making DEI check-ins part of regular faculty and staff meetings, and leading affinity groups for students that recognize and celebrate their multifaceted identities. These initiatives supplement the search for a DEI Director, mandatory faculty and staff DEI training, and long-term plans to review the curriculum.
Where We’re Going
Jackman says hearing the powerful first-person narratives of the petitioners has made this a uniquely catalyzing moment for Commonwealth. “They brought it really into focus, why this work has to happen,” she says. “These are kids who we adore, and we are trying to create an environment where everyone is thriving.”
The foundation and direction established during the 2020-2021 academic year will help the new full-time DEI director and incoming Head of School Jennifer Borman ’81 hit the ground running, Parrott-Gaffney says. Mehta and Williams Seeley will also work with InCommon and Borman to ensure the continuity of this DEI work when she begins her appointment in July. Under the guidance of this leadership team, faculty and staff will be expected to reflect on what success looks like as a community as it relates to DEI and to articulate those specific, measurable, attainable, and timely goals.
Discerning and implementing measures that safeguard Commonwealth’s commitment to DEI—from regular staff re-trainings to strengthening the curriculum to developing affinity spaces for students—will take time. Indeed, the work is never done. But the community’s impassioned calls for change, sparked by the petitioners and now shepherded by InCommon, have ensured that DEI will continue to be a top priority. It can be nothing less.
“The long-term goals are to create a community where everybody feels like they belong; that's number one,” Dowd says. “Number two is to create a community where everybody knows that the community is actually stronger because they're part of it.”