Reflecting on the Experiences of People of Color in Independent Schools

This year will mark my eighteenth year attending the National Association of Independent School’s annual People of Color Conference (POCC). The conference is in Nashville, Tennessee, and the theme is Equitable Schools and Inclusive Communities: Harmony, Discord, and the Notes in Between. I am eager to learn, with the other 6,400 educators and students in attendance, how we can find common voices in times of discord. Joining me at the conference are Priyanthi Alahendra, Jay Franklin, Jabali Stewart, and Ray Wilson (Administrative Group); Anna Belknap and Cecily Metzger (Lower School); Michael Heald (Middle School); Maria Mathiesen, Kelsey Medrano, emily warren, and Jim Sargent (Upper School); and six Upper School students.
As I was preparing this week for the trip to POCC, I was reminded of a difficult time in my tenure at Bush. In February 2015—the winter of my first year as Head of School—an anonymous letter was sent to a Bush Trustee expressing disappointment with the Board that I was selected as the school’s ninth Head. The author felt that parents wouldn’t speak up “for fear of blowback in making it an issue of race rather than competence”, adding that the promotion of people of color in leadership positions to “make it appear progressive is working against the interests of the school”.
The letter was not only hurtful and factually inaccurate, but it sought to co-opt the school’s values by intimating that diversity and inclusion were new ideals, and not aligned with our mission. Upon sharing the letter with the Board, the Trustees unanimously denounced the sentiments expressed, and supported me and my family, thus avoiding what could have been a crisis in the middle of my first year. They understood that this voice was not representative of our community.
The letter is a powerful reminder of how people of color experience independent schools differently than their white peers. It was not the first mis-characterization, false assumption, or questioning of credentials I had experienced because of my race since beginning my career in education in 1992. It was also not my last. I recall thinking that if, as the leader of the school, I could be made to feel that I didn’t belong, I could only imagine how our students, parents/guardians, and faculty of color might feel.
We know that successful schools foster environments in which students of diverse backgrounds and talents learn from and with others who speak with different voices and have unique experiences. We can only prepare students to solve the big problems they will confront in the future if they collaborate with teachers and peers who will challenge them to think differently and act courageously. Our mission calls on us to do this work—to spark in students of diverse backgrounds and talents a passion for learning, accomplishment, and contribution to their communities.
I know that there is still critical work to do within independent schools generally, and at Bush specifically, to ensure that we become a truly inclusive community, one in which all of Bush’s students, whether white, Jewish, Latinx, gender non-conforming, Muslim, etc., can participate fully without others questioning their right to be here. Our founder believed in developing strong, educated women leaders at a time when society marginalized them and tried to silence their voices. Helen’s leadership created the opportunity for their voices to be heard. I am committed to supporting inclusivity at Bush so that we create smarter, kinder, and more thoughtful places in which every student is valued, seen, and heard. There is no place for misogyny, racism, xenophobia, transphobia, or bigotry at The Bush School. We must move beyond discordant threats to unite our voices in harmony.
Percy L. Abram, Ph.D.
Head of School