Learning to rethink diversity on school campuses

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The student population in Berkshire County may be dwindling, but it's also growing more diverse, from their multicultural backgrounds to ranging educational abilities and needs.

To be proactive about acknowledging and meeting those needs, a group of school partnered last month to bring Fairleigh Dickinson University Education Professor Khyati Joshi to area campuses. Joshi holds a doctorate in Social Justice Education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and is the author of "Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice," which is now in its third edition.

"For us here as a school, we've always tried to be the most inclusive community we can be, but my feeling is the work cannot stop there," said Susannah Wells, head of the independent Pine Cobble School in Williamstown.

The school partnered with Pittsfield Public Schools, Miss Hall's School, and Williams College's Davis Center and the Center for Learning in Action to host Joshi for a multi day visit, to help area institutions learn new ways of making their campuses and curricula more inclusive and acknowledging of diversity there. One of the concepts Joshi introduces to schools is that in order to move classrooms towards being more diverse and inclusive, she says you have to rethink history, what's represented in textbooks and classroom materials, and what's left out.

"It's hard to know what you don't know, but just figure there's a lot you don't know," Joshi told an audience of nearly 50 educators, who attended her public talk, "Finding Comfort in Uncomfortable Conversations," on Feb. 21, at Miss Hall's School.

"There really are day-to-day opportunities to address issues through curriculum and to raise awareness of internalized and institutional oppression, and how history has repeated itself time and time again," said Wells, noting that can involve diversifying anything from building decor to literature and speakers students are exposed to.

Pittsfield Public Schools Cultural Proficiency Coach Shirley Edgerton, an even co-organizer, said, "As educators in [Pittsfield schools] continue to create equitable and inclusive experiences in the classrooms, for our diverse student body; continuous training is necessary. Professor Joshi's topic is a needed conversation locally and globally."

Wells, Williams College's Davis Center Director Shawna Patterson-Stephens, and Kim Boland, Miss Hall's co-coordinator of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Programs, have all previously attended Joshi's Institute for Teaching Diversity and Social Justice programs, and said it has enhanced their ongoing efforts to create more equitable teaching and learning environments.

At Miss Hall's, Boland has been working with her co-coordinator, Akilah Edgerton, to redesign program and create new opportunities for all students to have a voice and a shared sense of belonging on campus. From its historically white beginnings, the all-girls school now serves students from more than a dozen U.S. states and 19 countries from around the world. There are now meeting groups, communities within the school community, to support students, from African-American and Asian student groups, to committees for students who identify as lesbian, queer, transgender or other orientation, as well as for white students. Edgerton said that by having students, faculty and staff checking their biases, they're able to better communicate with one another. "This really helps each [person] not only to find their voice but to use their voice," she said. In her public lecture, Joshi talked about how different groups and identities come with a historical range of strengths and weaknesses. She, for example, talked about how she's experienced racism as an Asian-American, but has become aware of her privilege as a heterosexual person. Being aware of "advantaged and disadvantaged identities," she said, "is critical to people understanding one another."

"We want to send out the most thoughtful kids we can have out in the world, who are aware of everything from the words they use to the pronouns they use," Wells said.

Which is why, the event co-organizers said, that it's important to continue this kind of training and discussion across schools in the Berkshires.

Said Joshi to the group of program participants "I'm so inspired by your commitment to this work. I'm so in awe of the network you have here."

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