Planting Awareness / Cultivating Ourselves and our Schools

Peaches Gillette, The Town School, New York, New York
Essay written 2012

In 1986, when I first came to The Town School, what was then described as diversity work was taking place in one kindergarten classroom among a handful of teachers who collaborated and worked to heighten racial and cultural awareness in their classrooms, with the hope that their work would be embraced and incorporated into the curriculum of the entire nursery division – a total of four classes. The group was informal and it was not recognized as a vital part of the school.

In the lower and upper division, the Spanish teacher had created a similar group. It too consisted of teachers, but parents were welcome to join. The goal of each group was the same with one exception: part of the focus of the group was to explore feelings of difference and isolation that teachers and parents of color were feeling within the context of an environment that was not very diverse, culturally, racially, or economically. The Spanish teacher, like the handful of teachers in the nursery division, clearly saw that changes in awareness and a venue for conversations about diversity needed to become a part of the thinking of the school, and needed to be recognized as a necessary and invaluable part of education as a whole. I immediately became part of each group.

As the school continued to shift in its racial and cultural composition, it became apparent that this new identity required a different bundle of information.

I imagine that the concept of diversity-awareness or cultural-awareness did not have the weight it now has in either public or private institutions, and finding curricular models and information on its application within the Upper East Side, predominantly white, independent school system was not as easy as it is today. Nonetheless, this first path was paved and the journey began. We were determined to walk our way to a more concrete understanding of diversity as it related to race, culture, religion, gender and socio-economics.

Over the next few years the two groups combined, and with the help of the relatively-new Head of the Town School, the group got the administrative recognition that it needed and its worth became more widely acknowledged throughout the school. Furthermore, as the overarching societal structure changed and the mission of the school evolved, the faculty and parent-body of the school became more diverse; consequently, a few more teachers and parents joined; the group expanded and The Town School was then placed in the position to formulate a more fluid, more insightful interpretation of what diversity truly meant.

As the school continued to shift in its racial and cultural composition, it became apparent that this new identity required a different bundle of information. The Town School then needed a greater depth of awareness and awareness-training, a more thorough commitment to openness and a transparent acceptance of the fact that we had a lot to learn.

Our enthusiasm toward understanding diversity in a more formal mode, and our commitment toward becoming more racially and cultural-aware endured; our work became more complex. We were establishing ourselves as more than a grassroots gathering of those with good intentions. This organic group of teachers and parents were now informal and formal leaders - trusted to help create change. We had to clarify our language, solidify our objectives and burnish our leadership, not only for professional cohesiveness within the group itself, but for the overall good of the school. We struggled, and at times we felt lost.

SEED remains the bold line that underscores diversity. The impact that SEED has had on the school is immeasurable. It was a piercing light in what could, at times, seem like darkness.

In 1991, a young, male teacher who was hired as an assistant in one of the kindergarten classrooms immediately became interested in our group and was thrilled to join. He told us about some of the diversity work he had done at his former school and mentioned that he was a diversity facilitator, trained in a program called SEED. He explained the acronym — Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity. All that he shared with us about SEED was powerful and inspiring. We saw, with mobilizing clarity, that his knowledge and his training with SEED were going to give us a more elaborate collection of tools that we would be able to use to continue to build racial and cultural-awareness — tools that we would use to strengthen our understanding of diversity.

This young teacher introduced us to the mission and the purpose of SEED and he worked tirelessly with us; he was instrumental in adding greater dimension to our levels of awareness—helping us to sow and reap a more enriching and encompassing perception of all that diversity is. We never looked back. We continued to struggle, but we never felt lost.

Years past that sketchy beginning in 1986, through two heads and one interim head of school, SEED has become one of the most useful vehicles on our never-ending journey toward talking, thinking and planning our next move toward the sensitivity, the seriousness and the intelligence that is needed when doing diversity work. The head of the school added diversity as part of the mission of The Town School and made it part of the school’s Strategic Plan. SEED remains the bold line that underscores diversity. The impact that SEED has had on the school is immeasurable. It was a piercing light in what could, at times, seem like darkness.

SEED has become one of the most useful vehicles on our never-ending journey toward talking, thinking and planning our next move toward the sensitivity, the seriousness and the intelligence that is needed when doing diversity work.

Each person has her or his own ideas; each school has its own objective; each group, whether formal or informal has its own agenda as they reach toward their ideal of what diversity is. I believe that for The Town School, SEED was and still is one of the most effective measures we’ve taken to create the blueprint for the myriad diversity groups and initiatives that we have established. Whether it was directly or indirectly, the incorporation of SEED influenced the following groups or committees: Parents for Diversity Committee, Parents of Students of Color, Faculty SEED Committee, Faculty of Color Group and even the Director of Diversity position.

In the summer of 2004, The Town School responded to the request of the person who was then the Diversity Director and sent three of us to the week-long New Leader’s Workshop so that we could become SEED Facilitators. The threesome was the director of one of Town’s after-school programs and a long-standing, informal diversity leader, a brilliant young second grade teacher, and the Diversity Director himself. The three of us worked very closely together at The Town School, organizing, leading and implementing Diversity programs.

Naturally, I wasn’t certain what to expect out of the training. I was worried that it would be cold and strictly methodological; I was terribly wrong. I will never forget the feeling of belonging the instant that I walked onto the campus where the SEED training was held. The campus itself was sweetly meaningful to me—a perfect place to do incisive, purposeful work. The greeting I received was endearing, sincere and ripe with human kindness. My most profound thought was that this experience is going to change who I am; it is going to reach inside my soul and gently carry it to a place it yearns to go — into my reflective self. And it did.

In my life, I look for those moments wherein all that I passionately believe — love, respect, emotional honesty, self-reflection, community, humility, and spirituality come together. I experienced this at the SEED training. I had the opportunity to listen to the hearts of others, to witness the depths to which we are pained by bias and isolation, and I was given the beautiful opportunity to share the dreams of those looking for a better place to be, a more loving place to go, a more precious, conscious connection to our human family.

I was lucky; I was transformed. I stood in the rays of the humanity that is one of the most perfect parts of SEED and I was warmed and reminded that it is only through our humanity that we give and receive life — the kind of life that respects diversity of all kinds and that seeks equity at all costs.

Tags: Leader Essays School Climate

— Cheryl Robinson, Supervisor, Office of Minority Achievement, Arlington Public Schools, Virginia

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