Fostering a Diverse and Inclusive Community

The effort to make the Fessenden community diverse and inclusive has been a constantly evolving process. Dan Kiley, former assistant head of school and current Upper School wellness teacher, explains that this work began in an active way in the late 1980s–early 1990s. There were several initiatives, and a number of committees had been formed around hiring, admissions, and curriculum. These actions, and the dedication of the deeply devoted people behind them, started to help the School become a diverse and inclusive community.

While diversity and inclusion are related, it is essential to note that these terms are not synonymous. Diversity is about numbers—that is, how many people with different backgrounds are in the community. Assistant Head of School Angela Garcia explains, “inclusion is about the culture and ensuring that it is welcoming and accessible to all.”

Historically, the communities in many independent schools have been comprised of people with similar backgrounds and histories. In today’s global world, schools are working toward becoming more diverse and inclusive. One of retired Head of School Dave Stettler’s primary goals was to continue this process at Fessenden in increasingly purposeful and meaningful ways, as a traditional institution “does not become a diverse and inclusive institution without being intentional about it.” To this end, diversity and inclusion became a priority for the Board of Trustees through the strategic plan, and thus for the institution for years to come.

Constantly working to improve the school culture has been a hallmark of Dave’s leadership. To aid in this process, Rodney Glasgow, President and Principal Consultant at The Glasgow Group, LLC and Director of the Middle School and Chief Diversity Officer at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, has worked with Fessenden’s faculty and administrative team approximately ten times since 2015. This past year, he conducted full-day professional development workshops with faculty and staff in March and June. During the March visit, he also facilitated a separate full-day session with all ninth graders.

In independent schools, Rodney explains, “We struggle to get heads who want to take this work on. And, some of them, because they know they have to, will. And some of them won’t.” However, Dave “is someone who feels that he has to, which is different than knowing you have to. He wants to, and it’s in his spirit and his countenance.” As Rodney notes, “his mission and purpose of being a head has been, in part, to bring the Fessenden community together.”

Upon Dave’s arrival to Fessenden in 2011, he intended to build on the work that many in the community had done before him and bring the School further along the journey toward becoming a diverse and truly inclusive community. Fessenden has increased diversity in several areas, such as race, religion, and socioeconomic status, both among the student body and among faculty and staff. While the numbers of people with varied backgrounds have increased, initiatives targeting these goals will continue and be enhanced over the next several years. Dave observes that the Fessenden community as a whole “is much more willing to discuss and grapple with issues of diversity and inclusion than it was when I arrived seven years ago.” Now, the School is also intensifying its work on inclusion—that is, examining the culture of the community to ensure it remains a welcoming place for everyone.

Increasing diversity and fostering inclusion go hand in hand. When a school invites families—both of students and of employees—into the community, it is critical that they feel welcome and at home. Director of Administrative and Strategic Affairs Lindy Gruen explains, “When I first met Dave as a Head of School candidate, I remember him saying that it is important for families with diverse backgrounds to feel like this is their community, and not to feel like guests in it.”

As such, Fessenden supports a number of initiatives aimed at developing an inclusive and supportive environment for both students and adults throughout the community. These efforts are also focused on the development of cross-cultural competency—that is, the appreciation of and ability to collaborate with people from diverse cultural backgrounds, and the development of skills to be successful in an increasingly global world.

For students, Fessenden offers several racial and ethnic affinity groups that provide dedicated time for people to be together. In addition, administrators and faculty throughout all divisions work to cultivate awareness and cross-cultural competency, both among students and among each other. By engaging students in conversations around diversity and inclusion, and incorporating current events into classes, faculty and administrators are developing curricula that include the many voices of Fessenden’s multicultural community—and, therefore, allowing every child to see himself in what he learns. The School also aims to make diversity and inclusion efforts a stronger focus in student activities, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Residential Life works to develop programming that is reflective of the cultural backgrounds of boarding students. Special attention is paid to parenting and support for children in the School’s care. Boys are able to share their culture with their fellow students in many ways—both as members of their family-like dormitories and with larger groups throughout the School—and they learn to understand and appreciate how other people’s backgrounds may differ from their own.

Through ongoing professional development, including Rodney Glasgow’s work with faculty and staff, the School is working to guide employees in the development of their cross-cultural competency and awareness. Fessenden also hosts workshops and presentations by many other leaders in the field, and teachers often attend national conferences focused on this work, including the White Privilege Conference and the National Association of Independent Schools’
People of Color Conference. In addition, the peer-led SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) group meets monthly to explore and discuss issues of diversity and inclusion.

The parent community group FAME (Fessenden Alliance for Multicultural Education) seeks to celebrate Fessenden’s multiculturally diverse community and develop cross-cultural competency and awareness among all members of the community. This group organizes the annual Festival of Lights—a celebration that features the traditions and decorations of a variety of cultures’ winter holidays. In addition, the Parents Association actively recruits a diverse group of classroom and grade parent representatives.

As a result of Dave’s efforts to continue and elevate people’s ongoing work and engage every member of the community, Rodney recognizes Dave as a leader among school heads who are seeking to develop the diversity and inclusivity of their institutions. He describes Dave as “the type of head of school that I channel when I think about heads who are on the right side of this issue.”

Why Is This Important?
While there are many significant reasons for independent schools to engage in diversity and inclusion work, Dave notes three imperatives for Fessenden. First and foremost, it is a critical piece of the education provided to boys of all ages. Because the world in which these boys will grow up is a diverse, global society, the School must provide them with an environment of people with different backgrounds and experiences in order to prepare them adequately for their future. Dave believes, “It is educational malpractice to teach children in a homogeneous environment.”

Furthermore, Dave points out that there is a demographic imperative to develop and maintain a diverse and inclusive community. Greater Boston is a diverse area, and thus Fessenden needs to be welcoming to people of all backgrounds. In addition, fostering this type of environment helps to ensure the strength and sustainability of the School.

Dave also notes that this work is essential for social justice. “Fessenden shouldn’t just be available to one kind of family, one kind of student,” he explains. “The education that we offer—and the opportunity that this education creates in students’ lives—should be available to a wide range of boys and backgrounds.”

Many people at Fessenden had been focused on diversity and inclusion for an extended period of time before Dave arrived. He acknowledges this work and explains that his intent was to institutionalize and enhance what people before him had been doing for years. He affirms, “There were many people who cared about this for a long time, but to get to this point where it is a priority in the head’s office, and ultimately a priority for the Board of Trustees—that is an inflection point for this school.”

While Fessenden has reached a significant milestone with the establishment of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, leadership recognizes that this is one step of many on the path toward becoming a truly diverse and inclusive community. The School acknowledges that there is still progress to be made in many areas. And as the world continues to evolve, so too will the work.

Diversity and Inclusion: A Priority for the Board of Trustees
In May 2013, recently retired Head of School Dave Stettler and the Board of Trustees launched a new strategic plan, and included in it were specific and actionable steps related to diversity and inclusion. This was a critical move forward on this journey, as the strategic plan sets the direction for the School.

The establishment of the Board-level Diversity and Inclusion Task Force is the most recent outcome—and a key element—of this section of the plan. This follows many incremental steps in the areas of hiring and admissions since the strategic plan was launched. Chaired by Assistant Head of School Angela Garcia and trustee Susan Levine P ’16, ’18, ’18, the task force is comprised of 15 board members, faculty, staff members, and administrators. This group is working to develop and enhance a number of initiatives aimed at fostering a community that is diverse, inclusive, and supportive.

At the first task force meeting in March, the group defined its role in the community: “to establish strategic direction for the School with regard to diversity and inclusion and to recommend appropriate policies, procedures, and protocols in order to create a successfully diverse and inclusive school community.” As such, Susan explains that the task force will examine all facets of the School, including pedagogy, programs, policies, hiring and retention practices, and professional development. The group met twice more this past spring, and they have begun gathering data and reviewing policies. As they move forward, they will identify gaps and recommend actions and initiatives for the School.

“It is vital,” Susan states about the work of the task force. She explains, “As we prepare and educate our boys, it is critical that we teach them to embrace the principles of diversity and inclusion as they develop into young men.” She notes that the importance of giving boys these skills cannot be overstated as they “go out into the world.”

Susan and the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force appreciate the School’s “Statement of Inclusion and Community Principles.” She considers them “a guiding light for all of us as we approach the path ahead.” With this as a foundation, the School’s core values of honesty, compassion, and respect will be at the center of the task force’s work.

Fessenden’s Statement of Inclusion and Community Principles
In 2011, an Inclusion Committee—consisting of 12 faculty, staff members, and administrators from a range of divisions and departments—established the “Statement of Inclusion and Community Principles.” Chaired by Dan Kiley, director of community and cultural program at the time, this committee worked to articulate campus-wide understanding of diversity and inclusion, and the group developed this powerful statement of the community’s ideals:

At Fessenden, inclusion means building a community whose spirit and purpose is based on mutual respect and care. It is vital that each member feels recognized and valued. Inclusion is an essential part of our mission to cultivate each student’s potential and develop each boy’s mind, character, and heart. We believe that differences of backgrounds, perspectives, and cultures are integral to preparing boys to be successful young men in a global community. Ongoing, mindful practice of inclusion requires both individual and institutional commitment to self-examination and learning. We further our mission to be a joyfully inclusive community by aligning policies, curriculum, and decision making to support diversity and inclusion. Inclusion is at the heart of how we treat each other in our daily interactions.

We are guided by and are committed to the following community principles:
  • Treat others with honesty and respect.
  • Practice compassion; make an effort to understand and care for others.
  • Honor diversity; promote a healthy respect for individual differences and affirm commonalities.
  • Celebrate individual potential; nurture the many ways boys learn.
  • Reject prejudice, bullying, and elitism; renounce behavior that excludes others.
  • Engage in open, trusting dialogue; seek to learn from those who have differing opinions.
  • Serve in order to strengthen our inclusive community.

This article originally appeared in the 2018 issue of Red & Gray Magazine. View the full issue here.

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