Journeying towards equity, justice & belonging
Journeying towards equity, justice & belonging
Journeying towards equity, justice & belonging
Loretta Smith Frankfurt International School

By Loretta Fernando-Smith, Early Years Educator and Christopher Wilcox, Upper School Counselor & University Advisor at Frankfurt International School


In this blog, we share Frankfurt International School’s continuing journey towards creating inclusive, equitable and just spaces of belonging. We hope to spark possibilities and wonderings in others. As this journey is ongoing and iterative, we also hope that sharing our story will lead to connections and nudge us onward in our quest to do and be better.

Frankfurt International School (FIS) is a non-profit IB World School established in 1961 in the Taunus forest, just outside Frankfurt. It currently serves around 1,800 students from pre-K to grade 12 across two campuses with families from more than 60 nationalities. 

‘Another world is not only possible; she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.‘
Arundhati Roy

Image: Frankfurt International School


Global awareness, social responsibility

Our school’s mission to “be the leading, culturally diverse and family-oriented international school” and to “inspire individuals to develop their intellect, creativity and character to become independent, adaptable, socially responsible and internationally minded citizens” prompted FIS to commit to ‘Global Awareness’ as a strategic impact in 2018.

In 2020, the COVID pandemic highlighted how interconnected and interdependent the world is on a national level and how intertwined our everyday choices are. The Black Lives Matter movement, which started in the United States and quickly spread worldwide, exposed social inequities inherent in institutions, systems and practices.

Global events forced many to confront personal, societal and institutional biases; FIS was also prompted by a number of internal events to examine its position and take action. We established the Global Awareness Task Force to acknowledge what was going on globally and contextualize their implications for our school. 


PD & research within the community

The school year 2020-21 became a year of research and continued reflection. The Global Awareness Task Force members participated in several professional development sessions and reached out to other international schools engaged in DEIJ work. It was decided that to move forward, we first needed to gather qualitative and quantitative data to understand the current climate at FIS.

After much research, it was decided that the NAIS Multicultural and Inclusivity Assessment survey would best suit our school’s needs. The survey was conducted in the spring of 2021. The survey allowed a wide range of community members, from parents, alums, administrators, faculty, staff and students from grades five to twelve, to participate anonymously and in person. There were online components and an opportunity for those interested to meet in focus groups and discuss pre-prescribed questions.

The focus group discussions were facilitated mainly by the counselors. Community members who had previously engaged in professional development and showed interest in engaging with equity, justice, and belonging were asked if they would be note-takers.


Becoming comfortable with discomfort

Before the focus groups, facilitators and note-takers participated in discussions around difficult conversations, microaggressions and how to respond when one had committed a transgression with an outside consultant. The group also met several times to connect and establish common protocols.

The morning of the focus groups was filled with rich dialogue and stories. The notes were collated and sent to NAIS for analysis and feedback.


Image: Students dance at Frankfurt International School


Progress & transparency

The following school year, FIS took another significant step. We identified our initiative as equity, justice, and belonging (EJB) and transitioned from a task force to an EJB steering committee. This series of words, it was felt, not only captured the weightiness of the work at hand but also brought about a feeling of warmth.

EJB became a part of FIS’ strategic plan, and the steering committee held several online meetings to introduce themselves and outline their beliefs, vision, and purpose to the school community. Following this, the EJB website was launched. It included a guiding statement that captured objectives, priorities, and action steps for the school year.

The website continues to provide transparency to the work of the EJB steering committee and is accessible to all. Please feel free to consult the website for more information on our journey, access to our priority action plans and other details. 

The return to school in 2021 also started with a whole school professional development session where colleagues had the opportunity to engage with and unpack the data gathered in the spring NAIS survey. Discussions took place in smaller groups across divisions and were guided by commonly established protocols.

While some of the conversations were difficult, they served as a chance to share experiences and stories and to connect with each other in new ways.

The school year continued with professional development opportunities. Administrators engaged in professional development around implicit bias, microaggression, gender diversity, stress, trauma-based facilitation and other aspects of engaging and embracing the EJB vision at FIS.

Colleagues were offered the chance to engage in several outside professional development sessions as well as an in-house, regular EJB conversation group led by two colleagues. Different divisions engaged their members in different ways during regular staff meetings.

Towards the end of the school year, the EJB steering committee once more evaluated the priority action steps and established new ones for the following year.


Capacity & resources

This school year, the EJB steering committee continues to articulate school beliefs and build capacity within the community to engage in EJB through the formation of several sub-committees.  One sub-committee examined issues around cultural celebrations. What celebrations are currently endorsed and celebrated at the school? What celebrations aren’t? Why? What message do these choices send to the community about what we believe and value?

The sub-committee formulated guiding statements that led to more inclusive and developmentally appropriate events across the school. Another group continues to establish a glossary which will be housed on the website. It is hoped that this will help colleagues become more familiar with EJB terminology and our school’s stance on issues and help us better engage in conversations.

Another group has been working with outside consultants to establish affinity groups for colleagues at FIS. Research shows that affinity groups can lead to a greater sense of belonging, especially among marginalized groups, by providing a space where they feel seen, heard, and valued. Plans are also underway for a mandatory, all-college asynchronous EJB professional development training that is currently being developed in-house. This PD is scheduled for August 2023. 


Adding drops of color

Last October, a group of delegates participated in the inaugural Anti-Discrimination Task Force in Geneva. We were fortunate to have a representative on all six task force committees. The work that was started in Geneva is ongoing. We are grateful to be able to contribute through our experiences at FIS but also use the experiences of others to reflect and move forward in our own journey.

As our head of school, Paul Fochtman, often likes to remind us, EJB should organically become a part of what we do rather than an add-on: ‘We need to add drops of color to the water, so we are eventually swimming in EJB.‘ This shift towards including EJB in our daily lives was particularly apparent this year.

Our librarians were very intentional in their choice of visiting authors. Andrea Wang, a Chinese American, award-winning author, talked to our three-year-old learners about the struggles of belonging in a new place with new customs, cultures and languages. ‘Cultural appropriation vs Cultural appreciation’ was a topic of discussion at a staff meeting before the popular German festival of Fasching (Carnival).

At the lower school, a week-long professional development on early literacy development included dedicated time to explore EJB in literacy. Several colleagues shared experiences, questions, and tensions, which resulted in important conversations.

Along the path, we have had many successes and challenges. We are proud of the fact that we now have a fully-fledged steering committee meeting every three weeks to discuss EJB topics and to consider how we might integrate EJB throughout the school community.

It is also important to note that the EJB initiative at our school was started by our head of school and continues to be supported by the board. This has provided us with resources and support that we are immensely grateful for.

On the other hand, it is a committee that was established and, in theory, can be dissolved by our head of school at any time. The EJB committee consists of fifteen members with representatives from all divisions, campuses, as well as administrators, faculty, staff, parents, and board members.


Ongoing challenges

Although attention was paid to include a representative from all community members, it can still feel exclusive, as joining the committee is through invitation. Care has been taken to make the work of the committee transparent through the website and to involve all interested colleagues through subcommittees.   

We are a very large school with a wide range of perspectives, identities, and experiences; it can be difficult to get all our community members on the same page. This is further compounded by the fact that there are different needs for students at various age levels. We have found blanket policies difficult to apply across the school. Rather we focus on the attitudes and attributes we would like to see and nurture in our community.

We are also part of a fast-paced environment where it is difficult to find the time to meet and carry out initiatives. Things have happened in our community that we did not foresee and only reacted to. While we hope to have learned from our school’s, and others’, missteps or circumstances, we recognise that these experiences have still affected individuals and the community

EJB is complex. As a result, progress is non-linear, can feel slow and is hard to measure.  


Courage, vulnerability & collaboration

EJB is rewarding and significant work. It requires each and every one to start with themselves and to continually engage with their own identities and how these impact the way they perceive others, what they perceive and what they pay attention to. This requires courage and vulnerability.

Engaging in this journey can feel disheartening and frustrating at times. Give yourself grace. Give yourself time to rest and rejuvenate. You don’t always have to fight the battle or be the only voice. Find your community, find your allies. These may be colleagues at school, but also many international groups and consultants offer regular virtual meetups.

Please feel free to reach out to us for resources we have found helpful in our journey. We by no means have all the answers, and what has been successful for us may not be appropriate or possible in your context. However, we need others to grow.    

Although it is hard work, it is necessary work. Important work for everyone in our communities. It is the journey that will bring us home.

‘If you know you are going home, the journey is never too hard.‘—Angela Wood  

We are excited about future possibilities and connections and are proud to be part of this moment at FIS. 


Related content for inclusion via diversity, equity, and anti-racism (I-DEA):



Journeying towards equity, justice & belonging
  • Diversity (I-DEA)
  • Member stories
Journeying towards equity, justice & belonging