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Exploring the Dissonance

Exploring the Dissonance
Nancy Hughes

In the most recent addition of his “Diverse Thinkers” podcast, Head of School Craig Gemmell sat down with Rosetta Lee, co-founder, administrator, and teacher at the Seattle Girls’ School, to reflect upon the exercise she undertook with the Brewster community at a Friday All-School. The pair also discussed the challenges and promise of embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion at independent schools. Along with her credentials as an innovative school leader, Ms. Lee is a nationally recognized outreach specialist and an expert in the fields of diversity, equity, and inclusion. She divides her time between teaching middle school science and traveling across the country training students, faculty, and all other school constituents. We were proud to be able to welcome her to campus and grateful for her insight.

Ms. Lee guided our community through an exercise designed to heighten our awareness about the diversity in our midst and also to highlight the complexity of identity. In what is often referred to as an “up and down” exercise, Ms. Lee introduced a series of social identifiers, followed by various subcategories (e.g. religion, followed by Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, etc.), and community members were invited to stand and “claim” their various identities as the assembly affirmed the standing individuals with applause.  

Asked by Gemmell about her impressions of the Brewster community’s engagement with the exercise, Ms. Lee remarked upon the “jumble of energy in the room, everything from eagerness to learn about one another and claim various identities to apprehension” as students wondered about what was okay to share. As she has often experienced in such school settings, Brewster students, she explained, grew particularly quiet and introspective when she introduced the category of “private identities,” which are different from the more traditional and visible markers such as race, ethnicity, and gender. Lee defines these private identities as “key experiences that inform who we are,” and can range from the experience of growing up with an undocumented parent and all of the fear and boldness that situation engenders to living with a severely disabled sibling or an alcoholic parent. These realities shape one’s identity profoundly, yet they are inevitably embraced with varying levels of comfort and vulnerability. Exposure, of course, is not the end goal and not even necessary. What is critical—and what the exercises seeks to foster—is developing an awareness of the many and varied components that play a role in shaping our lived experience.

Gemmell shared that following the All-School he was approached by two students who pronounced, “We need to do more of this.” He then talked with another student who wondered, “Why is this all we talk about?” Admitting that Brewster is probably in “our awkward adolescent phase of diversity, equity, and inclusion work,” Gemmell asked Ms. Lee what she thought about these divergent responses. “That probably is an indication that you are doing the right amount,” she offered; she then noted the 20-60-20 rule of organizational change, which posits that in any institution 20% of people will be enthusiastic about change; 20% will feel that the change is too much and happening too quickly, and 60% could go either way. The school’s work is to pitch the intentional engagement to the 60% and to operate in a “growth zone,” rather than comfort or panic zones. There are inevitably people in the room who, because of their experiences or identities, find these discussions really salient while others, new to this consideration, find it jarring. Ms. Lee explained, “The question isn’t ‘Are we there yet?’ It’s ‘Are we moving?’

Cognizant of how challenging this work can be, Gemmell asked Ms. Lee what sustains her— “Where do you find hope?” he asked. Her response reflected her commitment to working closely with students and colleagues:

"Hope comes from zooming in, from person-to-person relationships … from tapping into basic human goodness, from getting to the source of the dissonance. There is so much rhetoric in the world about this or that group, who belongs and who doesn’t, and fear-based rhetoric about what will happen if this or that group gets into power. It is important to realize that rhetoric is great for ratings and cliques and selling things, but not for community building.  Whenever I zoom in, I am always left with connection, with things in common. I am always looking for the commonality among difference. When relationships are strong, commonality draws us together and differences enrich our bonds."

Gemmell and Ms. Lee talked about their shared belief in the essential goodness of all young people, and both acknowledged the dissonance alive in committing to inclusion at inherently selective and privileged independent schools.

Gemmell asked Ms. Lee how she navigated that dissonance and why she continues to work primarily within the independent school world. Ms. Lee explained that given the preparation students receive at independent schools, in addition to, for many, the privileged circumstances of their backgrounds, “their ability to make some pretty big changes in the world is amplified.” Too often she has confronted policies crafted by people who did not have “relationships across difference or knowledge of impacted communities.” Her goal is to help develop ethical, empathic leaders, who are mindful of the experiences beyond their own and conscious of how those experiences shaped a lived reality. Her goal is to ensure that “when our students enter those spaces in which they can make big decisions, they can channel not just what they know, but also all of the experiences of the communities around them.” That is the amplification both Ms. Lee and Gemmell seek. Ms. Lee pressed on to explain that as an educator she is interested “not just in the content of a subject, but also in the context of humanity,” which involves the “content of civility, leadership, and social and emotional excellence.” This approach allows the work of independent schools to be the cultivation of “improvers of the world.”

During her time with us on campus, Ms. Lee affirmed for us our belief that recognizing human difference is “value added” to the educational experience Brewster offers our students. Interacting in a diverse community enhances critical thinking, creativity, empathy, and innovation—all critical components to living lives of purpose.

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