The values of diversity, equity, and inclusion have been rooted in St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s mission since the school’s founding by the Rev. Mother Ruth in 1950. These values have been embraced and cherished by faculty and families for nearly 70 years, and this fall, a new leadership team has been charged with supporting the school’s commitment to this crucial aspect of the mission.
Standing for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leadership, the DEIL team is a group of teachers and administrators who have taken ongoing practitioner training and, throughout their years at St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s, volunteered for various projects and initiatives that explicitly focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and multicultural fluency.
The team’s preliminary focus has been on helping faculty to evaluate their own work through an anti-bias lens. This summer, each member of the faculty read Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond, and during Faculty Week, DEIL led a comprehensive workshop that prompted teachers and staff to examine their curricula, materials, teaching practices, and assessments, considering ways to make their classrooms more culturally responsive.
“A culturally responsive teacher is someone who understands the ways in which culture plays an important role in how we interact with one another,” says Nicole Johnson ’05, a third grade teacher and DEIL team member. “Acknowledging our cultural differences allows us to better address our implicit biases, learn from one another, and create more authentically equitable educational spaces.”
Another focus is to deepen the recognition of the many identities and cultures present in the community. This year’s school calendar notes feast days and holidays that are important to St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s students and families—like Paryushan, an annual Jain observance that takes place in August or September, and Juneteenth, a celebration of the “effective” end date of slavery, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, when Union troops marched into Galveston, TX, and announced the emancipation of enslaved people. The calendar also notes commemorative months identified by the Library of Congress, such as LGBTQ Pride Month in June, to recognize the impact that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals have had on history; and National Hispanic Heritage Awareness Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15), which celebrates the histories, cultures, and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.
DEIL is supporting faculty members as they develop lessons and activities appropriate to each month.
“Following the tradition of Mother Ruth, we do our best to recognize and acknowledge the contributions of all members of our community,” says Eboni Washington, a senior kindergarten teacher who is also a member of the DEIL team. “However, a clear distinction between our year-long curriculum and certain heritage months is that these times give us the opportunity to center the identities and stories of people who are often left out of the narrative of American history.”
The school’s Chapel program allows teachers and staff to share stories and insights during each commemorative month, and parents are also invited to present. At a recent Chapel, Ms. Washington joined Head of School Virginia Connor to highlight the sights and sounds of Washington Heights, the Latinx enclave north of St Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s where, Ms. Washington says, “everywhere you look, you see bits and pieces of Afro-Latino, Central and South American culture that ... make it that much more rich and incredibly colorful!”
Outside of Chapel, teachers have embraced Hispanic Heritage Month. Lower Division Spanish Teacher Elizabeth Ortega visited the third grade to read the book Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin, about two cousins—one from Mexico, one from New York. Ms. Ortega and the classes talked about their own family traditions, and the ways that people of different cultures often have many similarities as well as differences. Greenhouse Teacher and Community Service Coordinator Lauren Paull has done extensive research to create and curate visual info-slides that appear on the screens outside the cafeteria, which students and faculty view and read daily.
Other holidays and observances reflecting the cultures of families in the school community have already taken place this year. The Jewish High Holidays were recognized in Chapel, and various members of the school community who identify as Jewish shared their family traditions—including one fourth grader who returned to his third grade classroom to tell students about the ways his family celebrates Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
Third Grade Teacher Paula Lee, a member of the DEIL team, presented in Chapel in honor of Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving celebration that is held in mid-September.
DEIL encourages parents to get involved in this effort, sharing their ideas and resources or reaching out to DEIL for guidance in ways to practice these principles at home.
Ms. Washington: “To approach celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month in an authentic way could be as simple as reading books written by Hispanic/Latino authors that highlight and normalize the experiences of Hispanic/Latino people. (Click here for a list of book recommendations from Angela Perna, the school's librarian.)
“Another critical way to engage is to explore the issues surrounding the use of the terms Hispanic versus Latino and how different people identify differently.”
Ms. Johnson: “Don’t feel bad if you’re not an expert! Learn alongside your child and look for histories or stories that are outside what you normally hear about. Seek the advice of others, but don’t assume that someone whose cultural heritage is being celebrated will want to educate you. Be thoughtful and aware in your approach. And don’t assume that just because someone inhabits a particular cultural marker that means that they strongly identify with that group.
“Avoid tokenism [the habit of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to be inclusive to members of underrepresented groups]! In order to properly celebrate cultural heritage we have to look for authentic stories rather than ones that have been contrived and spun to be palatable for white audiences. Looking for books or images that avoid tokenism requires effort and can bring up more questions than answers at times. This is an important part of the process.”