Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Dominican High School, doing diversity well

Dominican High School, where both of my sons graduated, and where my daughter Teenasia is now a freshman, is a microcosm of both Milwaukee and the nation. The population of the school is a little more than half white, with our minority population made up of African American, Latino and Asian students, including a dozen or so students from China. The socio-economic status of families vary from struggling to well off.  
            One week after the presidential election, Dominican held its monthly parent association meeting. Each meeting has a focus—study skills; drug and alcohol prevention; state of the school. This meeting’s focus was school programs supporting diversity and inclusion. The administration and parent diversity committee leaders were on deck to speak. With racial, ethnic and gender issues forefront since Trump’s election, the timing of the meeting felt appropriate—our nation was talking about diversity, it made sense that our school community should be doing the same.
 As I walked into the meeting, I was a little afraid — not because I thought parents would rant regarding their political differences, but because I feared the opposite. I was afraid that in a national climate charged with tension around issues of race, gender, religion and policy, our diverse Dominican parents would play it too polite, sidestepping the issue so as to have a tidy and uneventful meeting. I was afraid that we wouldn’t dare to dive under the surface of diversity, where life is nuanced and complicated.
            I had nothing to fear.
            The meeting was amazing and left me wishing it could have been televised and shown to U.S. citizens everywhere as an example of what dialog and understanding look like. Unlike the echo-chambers of social media discussion, where people of only one viewpoint share similar experiences and beliefs, our meeting included parents who voted for Trump and parents who voted for Clinton; we were male and female; black, white and Latino.
            Dominican administration led with comments on school initiatives aimed at fostering a healthy atmosphere of inclusion. The principal acknowledged that Dominican’s almost all-white faculty did not mirror the diversity of the student body, and hiring challenges were exacerbated by a shrinking pool of teachers of color. Responding to suggestions from several parents last spring, the school began a course of diversity training for teachers. The principal turned the meeting over to the trainer, an African American past-parent and Dominican board member, who presented information about the content and goals of the training.
            When she finished, a white mom’s hand went up.
            “When I walk through the school, I see kids from all backgrounds getting along,” she said. “My son has an eclectic group of friends. Are there problems here I’m not aware of?”
            It was the question that defined the evening.
Both the school principal, who is white, and the leader of the parent diversity committee, who is African American, assured the group that Dominican’s diversity initiatives—teacher training; parent diversity committee; student diversity committee; multicultural club; black heritage club— were not reactive to specific incidents or major problems, but were part of an ongoing effort to recognize the challenges inherent to a diverse community and equip members of that community with tools be successful.
            The white mother nodded, but still looked a bit puzzled, as if she wanted to understand the inherent challenges, but didn’t. An African American father of a junior jumped in.
            “My son loves Dominican,” he said. “He’s friends with kids from a variety of backgrounds. But he still has to work hard to assimilate—he’s still a minority. And that’s the value of the black heritage club— he can be comfortable and better able to reach out to other buddies who might be white or Latino who aren’t part of that club—either to invite them in, so they can learn something, or to just introduce them to his friends from the club.”
            I watched the mom who had initially asked the question listening and saw her move from confusion to understanding. The father’s explanation about working to fit in resonated.
            From there the conversation moved to other challenges. An African American mother spoke of her son’s experience as the only minority in an advanced placement class, and her own reflection of walking the line between high expectations and too much pressure. A white mom asked how progress in diversity could be measured—how would we know if our initiatives were making a difference? A Latina mom told of her daughter’s sadness in response to flippancy from some white students as to just how grave the immigration situation could become for friends and family of Latino students. The mother blinked back tears. In response to her comments, the diversity trainer took a moment to discuss the difference between intent versus impact and how it’s not enough to say “I didn’t mean to…” Impact of comments or actions trumps intent.  The principal noted that assemblies for each class the next day would address sensitivity to the election’s impact.
As the conversation continued, the mood was serious and thoughtful. No one interrupted, and no one took the floor to promote an agenda. In talking about missteps of some students, the school president commented that while hateful words or actions would always be subject to strong disciplinary proceedings, the school also took the position that teenagers, by the nature of their youth, would make mistakes in all arenas, including diversity, and it was up to the school and parents to educate and guide students in the correct direction.
            After going an hour overtime, the meeting closed amid comments that we should all get together in a social setting, not just at a meeting. We walked to our cars, chatting in pairs or in small groups.
            I arrived home. I didn’t turn on the TV. I didn’t log into Facebook. The emotion and issues raised at the meeting clung to my heart. My responsibility, and indeed the responsibility of all of Dominican was made clear. We still had much work to do—as a school and as a nation. But the meeting gave me such hope that Dominican parents were up for the challenge, ready for the work. Indeed, the conversation itself was part of that work. For in order to move forward, we have to first listen.