Can diversity, equity, and belonging initiatives create division in schools?
Can diversity, equity, and belonging initiatives create division in schools?


 

By Dr Emily Meadows (she/her), LGBTQ+ Consultant for International Schools and CIS Affiliated Consultant

 

 

 

‘When done well, effective DEIB work opens pathways to understanding the systemic nature of inequity, and empowers all community members to be part of the solution’

 

I’m regularly asked for advice by educators navigating ways to be the most inclusive and supportive for their students and how their school can create a strategic plan for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB).

I often hear from those who wish to achieve a sense of belonging for every student but are worried that their initiatives will inadvertently stoke division or backlash within the community.

They need not be. In the course of my work, I have found that this particular fear is rooted in the myth that people with closer access to safety and belonging are necessarily at odds with those who are pushed further to the margins. Therefore, they worry that raising a conversation about inequity amongst groups might encourage us to see one another as enemies.

When done well, however, effective DEIB work opens pathways to understanding the systemic nature of inequity and empowers all community members to be part of the solution. 

We can think about inequity as a toxin

Systemic inequity means that we are all exposed to the toxin as if it’s in the water we drink. Some people will take in higher doses, and some may have stronger side effects, but none of us will be toxin-free.

The toxins were put in the water before any of us were born, so it’s not our fault that we’ve been exposed to them.

Unfortunately, ignoring the poisonous water will not make it clean. If we want to rid our systems of toxic inequity, we must create ways of detecting the poison and actively extracting it from our systems. 

Similarly, DEIB initiatives that avoid looking deeply at systems of inequity, and how identities are positioned within them, will fall short.

We need to be able to see the issues plainly and talk about them openly, in order to understand and correct them. Ignoring or avoiding discussions about these systems is maintaining the status quo of inequity, which ultimately fails our students. 

When we understand that, regardless of our identity and access to safety and belonging, we are part of pre-existing systems of inequity and we have a choice to be part of the solution, it allows us to move away from fear and division, and toward the collective action of community-wide belonging. We can correct toxic inequity to build safer systems of belonging, together. 

A framework to help schools

My many conversations on this topic lead me to develop a framework* for examining and reflecting upon the intricate dynamics of privilege and marginalization within the context of international education: The International School Wheel of Safety & Belonging.

It’s freely available and I’ll continue to shape and improve it. 

What is it?

It’s a framework for examining and reflecting upon the intricate dynamics of privilege and marginalization within the context of international education. It’s for use as part of your school’s commitment to building safety and belonging within your practices*.

The aspects of identity covered by this framework include: race, skin color, ethnicity & culture, religion, language, accent, passport, wealth & income, university education, neurodiversity, mental health, disability, body size, age, gender identity, and sexual identity.

I specifically designed it to support international school communities to better understand, reflect upon, and discuss the multi-faced complexities related to privilege, marginalization, and intersectionality within our unique context.

A note on language

From my work as an LGBTQ+ Consultant, I decided to place the words “safety” and “belonging” in the center of the wheel, rather than “power” and “privilege” (as some wheels do). I center safety and belonging as the direction for my work with international schools.

However, this wording is not intended to negate the overlap with power and privilege; they go hand-in-hand.

Simplifying complex ideas

The wheel serves as a pathway into complex reflection and conversation. However, by design, it is simplified for accessibility.

I struggled with paring down language and concepts to make them user-friendly enough to be an effective on-ramp for meaningful safety and belonging work, without losing too much nuance. For example:

  • Every “slice” is represented as equally proportionate to the rest even though, in reality, some identity markers will carry a disproportionately heavy impact, depending on the individual and the context.
  • In many categories, it is possible to find oneself in more than one section. For example, we may hold multiple passports, or belong to multiple races or cultures.
  • All aspects of our identities overlap and interact with one another, so the visual representation of these identities in discrete slices is for legibility only, and not intended to suggest that they are isolated experiences.

My request to you

Please take care to make space for the full, complex human experience when engaging with this framework.

Honorable mentions

Some categories I considered but didn’t include: 1) Incarceration Status (for self and family members), 2) Family Structure (i.e. married, number of dependents, adoption, etc.), 3) Family of Origin.

While these aspects of identity are undoubtedly relevant to one’s access to safety and belonging in international schools, they disproportionately impact adults.

I chose to prioritize a framework where students can see themselves reflected throughout.

I also considered, but didn’t include 4) Indigeneity, 5) Caste, 6) Perceived Attractiveness.

In many parts of the world, indigenous people are distanced from safety and belonging—sometimes to extreme degrees. However, this is not universal and, indeed, where I live right now (The Netherlands), people with a history of Dutch ancestry have relatively high access to safety and belonging.

Relatedly, the impact of caste can differ quite dramatically according to context.

Therefore, in the international school setting, I rely on other categories such as ethnicity and culture, religion, and race to serve as proxies for indigeneity and caste.

Finally, perceived attractiveness is influenced by a range of identity markers already included in the wheel, such as body size, race, and health. I leave these to do the heavy lifting of signifying access to safety and belonging on the basis of privileged aesthetics.

Dr Emily Meadows' International School Wheel of Safety and Belonging

 


*This framework should not be monetized as any part of paid services or products without Emily's consent. Contact Dr Emily Meadows and visit her website.

Emily's acknowledgements & thanks: The concept of the wheel as a visual representation of access to power does not have one single, universally recognized origin or designer. Rather, it represents the work of many interrelated scholars. The concept has been adapted and evolved over time to represent a range of contexts, with shared underpinnings rooted in socially constructed hierarchies of identity. This framework was inspired by and adapted from the work of The Canadian Council for Refugees and Sylvia Duckworth.

 

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Can diversity, equity, and belonging initiatives create division in schools?