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A Year Later, Are We Breathing Yet?

By Doline Ndorimana
A Year Later, Are We Breathing Yet?

Photo by Juan Gomez on Unsplash

A year ago, I wrote an open letter to the international school community, expressing my hope after the overwhelming worldwide antiracist protests. I was hopeful that we were heading in the right direction as the world was finally paying attention and international schools were starting to look at themselves, to reflect on equity in their institutions and ways to approach DEI work. The letter called on international educators to face their own biases, examine their white privilege, and have uncomfortable and unsettling conversations on race.

I was hopeful yet scared that this momentum might fade with time and we would be back to square one.

Today, we’ve made some progress in the international school sector and I am still hopeful; hopeful because the antiracism, inclusion, and equity work has not faded away. Many schools are doing the work. DEI committees have been formed, beautifully written antiracism statements are very much present, and there is more diversity among new hires reflecting this change.

There seems to be a new scent emerging that would suggest we’ve entered a new era in the international school sector.

Or is it only a perfume?

The difference between a perfume and a scent is that a scent is natural, sustainable, and emanates from the environment. A perfume, on the other hand, is an artificial overlay that tends to create a mood yet doesn't linger long. In my experience, DEI work can tend to function like a perfume. Rarely does an antiracist ethic so infuse a school culture that a new scent emerges.

So, what’s in the air at your school?

I am aware that many schools are doing great work, but I have also noted that a large number are struggling. I was interested to learn more about schools that have successfully implemented DEI practices and structures, as at the United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA) and the International School of Dakar (ISD).

What are they doing that is working? Or maybe the right question to ask is, what is their “why” and how different is the driving force behind the changes we’ve witnessed on these campuses from those of other schools?

If your “why” is solely to go on record as having responded to the Black Lives Matter movement—which is certainly the catalyst for most DEI work happening today—then it is highly likely that your DEI work and related initiatives in your school are merely a perfume rather than a scent. What’s in the air at your school is a product of your “why.” Which is to say, whether or not people of color can breathe freely on your campus is a function of your commitment to cultivating a healthy, antiracist environment.

Covid-19 has forced us to reflect, re-imagine and re-invent the way we teach and deliver the curriculum to our students. We have reflected on our lesson delivery and on the materials used. We have taken risks, failed, learned from our mistakes, and tried new strategies. We have reflected on our assessment practices, considered how we communicate with our students remotely, and adapted our methods. We did not lower or degrade our expectations regarding student learning, accountability, and accomplishments—we just adapted our expectations to suit the new context. Covid made us lean into discomfort, challenged the status quo, and made us (un)learn many things. We pivoted, we changed, and we did an outstanding job as educators.

What if we were to handle racism and exclusion the same way we have handled this virus? What if we treated racism and exclusion as a virus—one that can be damaging if not addressed at the core?

If a student feels excluded, rather than treat the symptoms, we should examine the cause.

Instead of asking how we can stop these incidents from happening, we should ask why they are happening in the first place. Instead of focusing exclusively on the one or two particular students who come forward, we should also investigate to see if there has been community spread.

One way to take the temperature of a school community is through surveys, which can help us to determine if more discrimination is occurring and track the ways in which it is manifesting. If more cases are uncovered in the process, the school can then begin to rethink and re-evaluate its curriculum, hiring practices, culture, and strategic plans. It is this sort of deep DEI work that will help your school to develop an authentic new scent.

Just as with teaching during Covid, vulnerability and discomfort will be inevitable. The process will be undoubtedly be messy, the status quo will be challenged, and there will be a great deal of learning and unlearning to do.

Mistakes will be made, fear and frustrations will show up now and then, pushbacks will occur, and feelings of despair will sometimes prevail. Yet, when Covid happened and you were forced to operate remotely, you didn’t give up on your students—you kept showing up. You didn’t give up on your team—you kept showing up. Because, at the end of the day, you understood that this work is bigger than you.

The same is true for DEI work. It’s about changing the status quo, re-evaluating what global citizenship is and how it manifests in our students, faculty, staff, and administration.

This work goes far beyond our fear and comfort; it is about making the best of the golden opportunity that we have as educators to access future leaders, lawmakers, teachers, government leaders, healthcare workers, and business owners.

This work gives us the opportunity to do our part in decreasing bigotry, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and racism in the world for future generations. 

This work is about giving every child—regardless of their ethnicity, religion, ability, sexual orientation, or gender identity—a sense of belonging as they see and recognize themselves in their school through their teachers, literature, learning materials, teaching approaches and perspectives, language and communication, classroom/hallways displays, and cultural events.

Just as with teaching and running a school during Covid, when we learned by doing, the “right” answer, the “right” approach, or the “right” systems for your school context in relation to DEI will also come by doing.

The possible pushback, apprehension, and criticism from the community will mostly be temporary, driven by fear and discomfort. So, it’s important to put these aside as they cloud judgments and prevent us from making the bold decisions needed to support our entire community and create a safe and inclusive environment.

So why are UWCSEA and ISD leading the way?

I believe it is because these two schools have treated racism, exclusion, and inequity as symptoms of a virus that can infect an entire community and beyond that they have been successful in their DEI implementation. They have looked at their own personal symptoms, investigated the causes, and enlisted the wider school community in fighting the virus. After all, we need collective immunization to build a community that is equitable, inclusive, and socially just.                                                     

A shout out to my colleagues at the International School of Luxembourg who are doing this important work either individually in their classrooms or in committees. You are already making a difference.

To Kevin Simpson and AIELOC, your work is your legacy and your legacy is ALL of us from the AIELOC family and beyond who have been inspired by you to become better individuals and educators.

To my (distant) teachers—Nadine Richards, Darnell Fine and Daniel Wickner—thank you for continuously sharing your wisdom with us.

And to all the allies out there, your determination and efforts matter. Keep it up!

Born and raised in Burundi, Doline Ndorimana is an international educator, a language consultant, and a university lecturer. She is an ECIS MLIE (Multilingual Learning in International Education) committee member, CIS accreditation evaluator, a DEI workshop facilitator, and is part of the WomenEdBeLux steering committee. Apart from her passion for language learning, she is a great advocate of student’s voices and works at amplifying their voices by creating a culture of imperfection and vulnerability in schools.

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05/14/2021 - Michaela Dennis
Very thought provoking and inspiring as always, Doline.
Thank you for reminding us to keep thinking and acting to make change happen.