DEI: Tools, strategies and approaches for school communities

 


By Reid Pierce, Anti-Discrimination Officer & History and Theory of Knowledge (TOK) teacher, UWC Mahindra College, India

 

 

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are finally getting the attention they deserve. Knowing where to start can be quite daunting, though!

This was the situation we had at Mahindra United World College of India (MUWCI) when we first started thinking about this issue.

I’ve outlined some tips, tools and approaches for you to try out. Keep in mind that there should not be a one-size-fits-all approach to DEI initiatives.

The aim is that you will be able to walk away with some good ideas for some next steps on any DEI work you may need to do in your school.
 

1. What’s in a name?

There are many names for anti-racism initiatives, such as I-DEA (inclusion via diversity, equity and anti-racism), anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion (ARDEI) or simply diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

UWC as a movement settled on ARDEI. But I do not think the name matters too much as long as you are consistent with your usage and focus on the process.

 

2. Have a top-down approach

Before you get started, it is helpful to have your Senior Leadership Team or Board’s buy-in for any DEI initiatives. Without support from the top, it will be difficult to drive any initiatives regardless of how much demand there is.

Our DEI initiative at UWC started at the very top—the International Office of all UWCs in London. It was a response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

Many school leaders say that this was also a wake-up call for them to do more—the UWC commitment to ARDEI began at the top-most level and trickled down to the independent campuses.

At MUWCI, we embraced this idea, and under the leadership of our Head of College, Dr Dale Taylor, ARDEI began to take shape at our school.

ARDEI was made a priority for the academic year 2021-22, and the Anti-Discrimination Officer was positioned as the lead for the DEI initiatives.

If you have similar roles in place, like Anti-Bullying Officers or Inclusion Officers, bring them on board to help build support amongst the community.

 

Join us for an I-DEA workshop

Save the date for our next Inclusion Via Diversity, Equity & Anti-racism Foundation Workshop (virtual) on 14–16 February 2023

We recognise that identifying where to start on your school's journey to inclusion via diversity, equity & anti-racism (I-DEA), and how to take action, can be challenging. This workshop is designed to support and guide you.

View our events page for latest dates and information.

The sessions will be available on-demand in the weeks following so you can catch up or view again at your own convenience.

 

3. But also make sure it is bottom-up!

I have spoken about the need for it to be a top-down approach, but it should also come from the bottom-up. This is where having a point person like the Anti-Discrimination Officer became essential for us.

At MUWCI, the Anti-Discrimination Officer began to work closely with students and was careful to find as diverse a group of students as possible. These students have since become ARDEI champions.

I learned long ago that no single person or team is responsible for making change happen. Everyone in the organisation is!

Nearly all schools, businesses and organisations have teams of people who help raise awareness and ensure that proper protocols are in place for the collective safety of everyone in the organisation.

We might recognise them as the first aiders and fire safety officers. Or we might think of other business roles like business risk champions or those who leap into action related to crisis management.

These people play a crucial role in the safety and well-being of the whole organisation. But the safety of the whole is not their sole responsibility.

Everyone has a role to play in understanding how to make a safe working environment to reduce the risk of injury, fire, etc.

Likewise, there should not just be one person or even a small team solely responsible for ARDEI.

A point person like the Anti-Discrimination Officer was essential, but we all needed to be on board at MUWCI. We began working with a small team of students, each representing a different group on campus.

It was a challenge as we did not want to fall into tokenism by selecting a ‘representative’ from each group, so the group was as inclusive as possible. Many people from each group were invited, and student leaders within each group emerged during the process.

 

The discussions I had with students during the policy writing process were invaluable. They were at times cathartic for students recounting their experiences, and knowing that we were turning their pain into policy ensured their commitment to the implementation process.

 

4. Drafting a policy

Drafting a policy can be an effective way to get started. If nothing else, it can help you get your thoughts documented and lead to further discussions and investigation.

We all wanted a living, breathing policy that was both aspirational and practical. We wanted to ensure that this would not be just another policy.

So how do you begin to write a policy? It can be daunting, especially if you do not come from a policy-writing background.

We did not have anything to base the policy on, but we found a few samples online. These gave us some helpful ideas of what others were doing and a basic framework for how the policy could look.

We began meeting weekly in a classroom, projecting the rough draft policy onto a big screen.

It was created in a collaborative format so we could all edit and write the document together. We used Google Docs. We would go line by line, rephrasing things and adding unique elements to MUWCI.

What started as a few headings and bullet points became a full policy through our combined efforts. It was only possible through the power of collaboration.

The additional benefit to having students co-write the policy is that I instantly had ARDEI policy champions to help implement it later. And the discussions I had with students during the policy writing process were invaluable.

They were at times cathartic for students recounting their experiences, and knowing that we were turning their pain into policy ensured their commitment to the implementation process.

I am happy to share the MUWCI policy if you email me at the email address below. Keep in mind that while it may be a good guide as you start, you need to make sure the policy is unique to your school and truly owned by the community.

 

Discussing discrimination openly was empowering for everyone.

 

5. Planning an event to introduce the policy

Normally, there is no fanfare when a new policy is introduced, but this was different.

With the policy written, we had to launch it to the greater community. Considering its success depended entirely on community buy-in, we knew that a successful launch was essential.

We began to expand our team to include as many students as possible who wanted to plan and facilitate the policy introduction.

We were able to bring together a group of about 25 students who were all actively committed to the principles of ARDEI, and we began to brainstorm ideas.

We decided to gather the entire community for an 80-minute discussion on discrimination and delve into the policy.

The student volunteers would facilitate small groups of between 10-15 students with faculty there as support.

Their first activity was to reflect and write down a moment when they faced discrimination at MUWCI.

We asked that they keep it anonymous, and afterwards, the student facilitators swapped these papers with each other.

 

The small groups read the other student's stories and then had discussions about how that must have made that student feel.

It was a particularly cathartic experience for some, and discussing discrimination openly was empowering for everyone.

We then discussed the policy itself which we had broken up into short sections.

We captured a lot of helpful feedback during these sessions that we have fed back into the policy, ensuring that it is a living and breathing document open to changing circumstances.

While the discussion took place, a few of us hung up the stories on pieces of string across our academic quadrangle.

We then called everyone out afterwards to have a gallery walk of these stories.

The impact this had was twofold.

First, seeing these pieces of paper made people realise how prevalent discrimination is even on our campus.

It was a visual reminder that we needed to do more as a community.

 

Second, as people began to read the stories, they could learn from the experiences of those who had suffered from microaggressions, exclusion, so-called jokes, and even openly discriminatory behaviour.

 

6. Don’t be afraid to listen and learn

You may not get it right the first time, and that’s ok! 

However, do not let that hold you back.

The aim of beginning any DEI initiative is to foster dialogue and discussion.

Once this happens, you will be surprised by all the ideas that emerge.

We now have a long list of items and are aiming to keep the ball rolling by launching a space for informal discussions and affinity groups.

 

7. Tracking success

But how do you know if your DEI work is successful? It is a big challenge and one we are still figuring out.

We are seeking ways to find data that can support our efforts, such as the number of discrimination complaints filed annually and looking at the use of surveys.

Again, there may not be a perfect way to ensure ‘success’, but it is important at least to define success in your context.

What does that look like for you in your given context? What data can you look at to help support this goal?

 

8. Embedding values and culture change takes time

The last thing I would like to stress is that you do not need to feel like this is a race to some perceived finish line.

A world free of racism and discrimination cannot be achieved in a few days, let alone months, so be patient but persevere! It is a multi-year journey and will not be solved with your first efforts.

It will need to be a permanent process of innovation and interventions to ensure success.

Any DEI initiative involves shepherding cultural change.

It takes time to embed new values, but your DEI initiative can succeed with the right leadership and stakeholder engagement.

 

Final thoughts

DEI is not a one-time activity. It is an ongoing process, but it requires that you start somewhere. This somewhere could be anywhere.

If you have absolutely no one working on it now, that is fine too!

You could begin by creating a role of Anti-Discrimination Officer or starting a faculty and student joint committee to explore the need of writing a policy.

There is really no wrong first step; as long as you take that plunge and admit that as international schools, we must do more to combat discrimination.

A DEI initiative at your school is the first step towards that!

Feel free to contact me at rpierce@muwci.net with any questions about how to get started.

 


 

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