A reflection from the recent East Asia Regional Council of Schools (EARCOS) panel on Identity and Decolonizing the Work of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ) in International Schools:
As self-identified Asian educators who are leading DEIJ in international schools, the speakers in this conversation shared their experiences of a need for a human-centered and humanizing approach to this work. During the planning sessions, it was agreed that the dialogue would be courageous and honest, and the speakers committed to be vulnerable as we reflected on our individual and collective roles and responsibilities within the interconnected ecosystems. The speakers identified the changes and challenges they are experiencing and how their individual identities, narratives, and contexts motivated them in this work. Furthermore, the speakers shared what they grappled with and shared with humility, vulnerability, courage, and love.
- Understand the lived experiences of Asian-identified educators within international school contexts.
- Inspire continuous learning, partnerships, and action.
- Recognize that this work is human-centered, a work of solidarity and community.
Our Approaches / Framing
- We are not giving solutions and answers, but offer provocations, potentials, and pathways for continuous learning and action.
- We will model a different way of being and leading.
- To leverage the “power of people and purpose” as we work on DEIJ in our communities.
- To acknowledge and value the divergence, dissent, disruption, and the disruptors as powerful levers for transformation.
- To identify and navigate the “paper cuts to paper cranes.”
- To lead and take actions on intentions within our locus of control, not waiting for permission and validations.
- To identify solidarity over saviorism.
- To reflect on the progress of this year, and to look ahead as schools develop visioning and goal setting for the next school year
Margaret: I had the privilege and honor of moderating this beautiful, powerful, and life-giving conversation. While listening to what the speakers and audience had to say, I was reminded yet again how much courage and bravery is required for people in marginalized groups to share their truths, stories, and heart with the world. My sincere hope is that we all listen to each other and take action to ensure that every person feels like they belong in their spaces. This conversation highlighted the importance to act. If you are in a position of privilege and power, use your position to create identity affirming spaces for everyone. Use your position to dismantle unjust systems. Use your position to ensure that everyone around you can thrive just as they are.
Liz: I am a 1.5 generation Korean-American. I was given the first name Heejin when I was born, and at age nine, I was given the name Elizabeth, because that’s much easier for others to say, for me to not get made fun of, to help me… fit. I officially became Elizabeth Heejin Cho as my naturalization certificate and passport would eventually prove, and as Liz Cho today, I am finding that there is so much for me to unlearn to relearn.
I accepted Margaret’s invitation to join the panel for EARCOS to talk about our respective DEIJ journeys, and it was incredibly humbling, validating, and moving to partner with Joel, Daniel, Jessica, and Margaret. To pause, to reflect, to come to the realization that our individual awakenings have brought us together to see that our (and I mean collectively as a world) work must be human-centered, genuine, and from the deepest roots of our hearts. To be in the space where educators came to see the mirrors that they hadn’t had was powerful and compelling. If not us (again, all of us but especially educators), then who? We didn’t come together as a panel because we had perfect stories; we simply had real stories that everyone was yearning to hear, whether consciously or unconsciously, just like their own.
The common misconception that makes us freeze in our tracks is that this is an either-or journey. It is this fallacy that we must continue to debunk as we look into the faces and eyes of our diverse children with identities much more complex than the imperial colonial past upon which the international schools were built. We must continue to share, listen, witness, and lift each other up in ways that sustain humanity. The work is tiring, nerve-wracking, vulnerable, and endless. Yet, I’ve never felt more of a conviction than now to really understand what it means to be all of me that is complex and beautiful - just like the children within our schools. If we don’t do this for them, then who?
Joel: While we sometimes see radical dreams from a far distance, this EARCOS panel and dialogue with dear friends is an embodiment and realization of a radical dream, because I see windows and mirrors of my identities and narratives in the lives and identities of my friends in this panel. We have begun to take ownership and carve pathways for hope and healing within systems that were not designed for us. We are beginning to see the joys and genius of others as a consequence of seeing, affirming, and taking ownership of our own joys and genius. It is our hope that this sense of agency and healing permeates within ourselves and our systems. We need to continue to build spaces, today and every day, where our identities, narratives, creation, and agency are leveraged not as tokenism and commodity for white supremacy cultures, but as a creation that will sustain ourselves and the children in our care.
My Why is grounded on seeing the fullness, potential, and greatness of others. It is for children to see the joys and genius in themselves and the adults around them. We will become diverse when our schools are equitable and inclusive with justice at its core. Therefore, we need to develop ideologies, systems, cultures, and conditions in nurtured ecosystems where we can all participate, lead, thrive, learn, and succeed without leaving parts of ourselves.
Daniel: “I want them to come looking for answers and instead find humans.” These were the words that summed up my hopes for this session, inspired by the powerful human-level conversations I have had with Margaret, Jessica, Joel, and Liz as we navigate and grapple with the challenges of DEIJ work in schools. While there are, of course, intellectual underpinnings to this work (thanks to visionaries like Crenshaw, Ladson-Billings, Gay, hooks, Paris, Alim, and many others), our efforts are primarily, and most importantly, acts of deeply radical humanity. Efforts to intellectualize and standardize DEIJ are often pushed by those who see it as neither a deeply radical nor deeply human pursuit; those who look for easy checkboxes, step-by-step directions, simplified frameworks, or all-pleasing solutions.
I believe our radical humanity was on full display that day. Our complicated stories, our multilayered identities, our deep-seated whys, our ever-shifting work, and our unending challenges. I hope that those who chose to join us during the session felt their own humanity connect to ours– and reflected on their own stories, identities, whys, work, and challenges. And I hope that the common human purpose that brought us together will help bring a just future for the humans in our care.
Jessica: This space felt different to me than other professional panels I had participated in. From the start, we came together with our full selves. During the preparation Zoom meetings, I felt relaxed in my body; laughter and heartache flowed freely. We didn’t have to spend too much time choosing our words wisely. We knew our stories needed a place, and without sharing too much of our own stories, we somehow knew that during the session, the stories would weave together and tell a combined story which was individually different, but shared similar themes. These themes traverse the assimilation stories of immigration, to the feeling of being perpetual outsiders, to the delicate balancing dance of trying to maintain multiple identities and cultures in a world that tells us we have to choose who we are based on very restrictive boxes.
It was powerful to see our identity stories connect to our work in our school communities. This is the true nature of DEIJ work, to see yourself in the young people that you serve and to radically imagine a different future for them. For many in our audience, especially the leaders and teachers of color, it was validating to see our reflections mirror their own experience. It gives us all permission to be our full selves in our professional lives. To lift each other up, to give voice and life to each other’s stories.
In a written reflection as a witness to the session, Nitasha Crishna, wrote this:
To be seen.
To be valued.
To feel a part of.
To have meaning.
To be woven into the fabric of.
Listening to the speakers reaffirmed for me that to lift each other up is a sign of collective strength. To create spaces for people to witness, make deep connections, ask questions, and grapple with the bigger, messier concepts of identity, context, and action is part of the purpose of this work. Having the courage to dare to imagine a different reality for our children and lean into the discomfort of reflecting personally and as communities to lay the foundations of a more just world, is our work. I have struggled and been challenged by the intersectionalities of all the different identities I carry within me. I walked away feeling part of a greater whole and feeling like I am not alone.”
Nitasha’s words remind me that this work is about community. It’s about inspiring others to make the personal connections about our inner struggles with the struggles we see around us, and to work with each other to strive towards something better. Whether it’s building a school-wide vision for DEIJ, working with students to envision new projects, dedicating your work to identity-centered learning, the important thing is that we are doing something and getting started. In community. Together.
The process of witnessing brings together the audience and the speakers in a relationship driven through deep listening and praxis. It brings the participants and the audience into relationship in a generative dialogue as the audience reflects and validates the stories that are heard, bringing them forward in a process of healing. Recognizing the silence and the silenced voices that have existed in our communities for so long. It is a practice rooted in indigenous circles, used most recently in the reconciliation councils of the First Nations Peoples of North America. Instead of passively listening to extract information, the audience is asked to reflect, validate, and integrate the stories they hear into their own experiences and identities. In the words of Justin Garcia, “Listening to these stories was joyful, heartfelt, and beautiful. It reminded me how important storytelling is.”
We ended with the powerful and uplifting words of Ceci Gomez-Galvez ringing in our ears.
Jessica, your family has journeyed courageously throughout history to ensure your existence and survival. You could’ve decided to stay silent and let your story disappear, but you didn’t. Jessica, I see you.
Joel, you have embraced the spectrum of your identity and have asked questions, become curious, and have chosen to speak for yourself and others like you. Your work is rooted in ensuring the safety of our BIPOC and LGBTQI+ peers and students. Joel, I see you.
Daniel, your powerful story is certainly a mirror to a lot of our student demographics, and a window into the layered identities that make up who you are. Hearing you speak about who you are as a multilingual, multicultural person reflecting on your “identity soup,” inspires me to strive to empower student voices that help them explore their own multi-layered identities. Daniel, I see you.
Liz, your connection to others’ stories is so beautifully authentic. Your journey has come full circle and your personal reflection of who you truly are is at its most beautiful - you’re following the path inward and you’re finding yourself. You are truth, you are strength, you are love. Liz, I see you.
Margaret, you bring us together. You build the powerful platforms and opportunities for all of us to find refuge and joy. And in turn - you change us, as people, as communities and as institutions. Margaret, I see you.
For all those educators out in the international school community struggling to be heard, seen, and validated, WE SEE YOU.
Jessica Huang is an educator and school leader with 20+ years of experience as a classroom teacher, school administrator, and leadership coach/facilitator. She has a wide range of knowledge on how to build equitable school communities through her on-the-ground work in schools and her support and coaching of educator leaders and teams. Jessica believes in building healing-centered, student-focused spaces where students of all backgrounds can thrive. Jessica has a Bachelor’s of Foreign Service from Georgetown University and a Master’s of Education from Stanford University. Her experience in both the public school system in the US and in international schools equips her to lead in a wide-variety of cultural-contexts. Jessica is currently serving as Vice Principal of Wellness and Wellbeing at United World College of South East Asia in Singapore where she lives with her two children and beloved Taiwanese mountain dog.
Joel Jr Llaban (he/him/his) is a Learning Specialist, Instructional Coach, and Schoolwide DEIJ Lead at The International School of Kuala Lumpur. Previously, he worked at Cebu International School, The International School of Beijing, and The International School of Brussels. He has been working in education for 19 years as a classroom teacher with concurrent involvement and leadership in schoolwide curriculum, assessment, professional development, innovation, futures of learning, and strategic planning. He also served as a department coordinator and an accreditation coordinator. He is trained in international accreditation as a team evaluator and has been involved in accreditation visits to different international schools representing NEASC and CIS. Currently, Joel serves in the advisory role of the Council of International School’s Board Committee on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity Anti Racism. Joel has been appointed by the International Schools Services as its inaugural Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Justice. Joel holds a Master of Education in International Education Administration and a Certificate of International School Leadership from The Principals Training Center. He is a proud member of AIELOC and ISS Diversity Collaborative. Connect with him on Twitter@JoelJrLLABAN.
Margaret Park is currently serving the Seoul Foreign School community as its Elementary School Assistant Principal and is on the Advisory Council for the Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color. She is a co-founder of Seoul of a Leader and is committed to fostering leadership development with experience in counseling, mentoring, coaching, facilitating professional development, and curating innovative learning spaces. Margaret is a Fulbright Scholar and received an Education Masters and Certificate of Advanced Studies from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Margaret is particularly interested in thinking about leadership through an Equity and Justice lens. Find her on LinkedIn and Twitter: @MargaretLPark
Daniel Wickner (he/him/his) is the founder of Identity-Centered Learning (www.identitycentered.com), a framework for supporting students’ identity development in schools. This work builds on culturally relevant, responsive, and sustaining pedagogies and is informed by his own biracial, multicultural, and multilingual identity, along with his thirteen years in international education. He currently teaches third grade at Hong Kong International School and supports schools as a consultant in the areas of identity and DEIJ. Daniel holds a B.S.E. from Princeton University, an M.S.E. from Keio University, and is completing an Ed.M. in Independent School Leadership at Columbia University Teachers College.