“You cannot wake up someone who is only pretending to be asleep.”
Kevin Simpson, founder of the Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color (AIELOC), recently addressed the inaugural International School Anti-Discrimination Task Force held in Geneva, during which he enjoined participants to pledge commitment to “must-do” policies in each of the following areas: governance, leadership, accreditation, teaching and learning, recruitment and retention, and agency. The point of the task force is to push international schools further in the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) by providing concrete ideas about how this is achieved in a variety of areas. This necessarily adamantine arrangement, for those who are weary of hedging, equivocating, and vacillating, should not be viewed as the final word on the matter. The task force is not designed to valorize those who are content to adopt the minimum requirements. This is a baseline. Concurrently, as these commitments are injected into the international school ecosystem, individual schools need to differentiate what is additionally necessary and helpful in their particular part of the world. Unfortunately, many schools seem unwilling to pay attention to what they perceive as incessant haranguing from such bodies as AIELOC or are ill-equipped to institute anything aside from very minor changes to placate their more vocal stakeholders. It should, therefore, be surprising that many of these institutions, so resistant to change that an international task force is necessary, claim to be practicing DEI work, undertake professional development sessions under this guise, and have committees specifically established to raise the concerns of people from marginalized communities.
The global neoliberal economic project, which seeks to turn every nation into a competing market, and which warmly embraces and naturalizes the immense unequal and unstable results as whole cultures adjust themselves to appear more attractive to transnational businesses, inevitably produces global elites who require educational experiences for their offspring that will help them become more competitive in the employment marketplace by becoming “lifelong learners” and “citizens of the world.” As education becomes more marketized, leading to an emphasis on the skill of “learning how to learn,” for the unpredictable and flexible future of business, over and above the development of a love of learning or the acquisition of knowledge, international schools are constantly adapting to the trends demanded by the capitalist system. One example, where international schools have followed trends from the corporate world, is in the area of diversity, equity and inclusion. This replication, unevenly applied across the world of international schooling, is a component of what has become a multibillion-dollar transnational business. At its best, DEI work in international schools attracts educators who wish to end discrimination in all forms and are intent on both creating a less fractious workplace and cultivating within students a sense that they can help bring some justice to an oppressive world. Many schools, however, are paying lip service to DEI because, in a similar manner to corporations, they are following the dictates of the market. The realization that parents, universities, and employers are demanding that students are at least somewhat familiar with the jargon of social justice and cognizant of the fact that not everybody looks or acts as they do, causes schools to react and respond with relative alacrity. When DEI initiatives are applied superficially as a result, and students are not thoroughly guided through the process by trained experts, this can have unintended consequences. Worse still are the schools that use their newfound, hastily manufactured DEI credentials as a marketing tool, while at the same time doing very little to further anti-discrimination and steadfastly maintaining the status quo, especially when it comes to the economic oppression of local members of staff.
A common perception regarding inequality is that it originates from individual prejudices rather than from the socio-economic system in which we live. The sensitivity training seminars that have taken hold of the corporate world, and in many schools, over the past few years are attempts to figure out how to enable that system to function more smoothly by focusing on peoples’ attitudes, feelings, perceptions, and thoughts. In no way does this undertaking necessitate addressing material inequality. Organizations, such as international schools, are also in the process of attempting to diversify their workforces. As necessary and worthwhile as that process is, this too does not address economic inequality and, if there is no post-appointment follow through, can often lead to new hires fending for themselves for equity within a system where the horse seems to be lagging behind the cart. Overall, the emphasis paid to discrimination as the most important problem in the world can sometimes overlook and undermine a nightmare that continues to weigh upon us, our inability to create an equitable and ultimately egalitarian society.
Efforts to provide equity where there was disparity, representation where there was tokenism, and diversity where there was monoculture, are all difficult and required undertakings, but doing all of this without tackling economic inequality means maintaining the neoliberal status quo. Corporations, organizations, and schools, even in the face of a great deal of resistance, can implement DEI initiatives relatively cheaply, and often with no long-term financial burden at all. This is often why they are willing to sign up for training seminars. It should be noted that wider access for more people to elite positions and increased entrance points for all sections of society to economic markets allows for the continuation of those elites and those markets. Shareholders, customers, and parents make demands to which corporations and, eventually, schools are forced to react. Changing trends in attitudes are a component of market forces and the response within the system is often top-down rather than grassroots. The chess pieces have changed slightly, while the rules of the game remain the same. The hierarchies continue to be in place, the penthouses remain impregnable, the money spigot does not stop flowing, the structure of the system is exactly as it was, only everything is a bit less white and a bit less male. Affluence, barely scathed, breathes a coy sigh of relief.
This version of social justice states that there should be an appropriate percentage of people of color, an appropriate percentage of women, an appropriate percentage of LGBTQ+ members, and an appropriate percentage of people with disabilities in positions of leadership. It essentializes identity, placing it firmly at the center of the equation of transformational change. Overall, while this certainly enhances the dignity of certain people and somewhat decenters those who have held power for centuries, for many people at the lower end of the economic spectrum, this may end up doing very little materially. The efforts of DEI committees and professional anti-discrimination consultants are not going to change the structural nature of injustice unless they take the economic deprivation of people seriously.
Many in the world of DEI consultancy seem positively against discussing economic liberation as a matter of principle because it interferes with their own upward mobility. Since the 1980s, the fragmentation of labor movements on a global scale and the jettisoning of principles by major western social democratic political parties, which claim to represent working people, have left a huge space on the political spectrum that is being colonized by groups of privileged and predominantly western people who gleefully reject economic solutions that could uplift everyone and cease the dehumanization of all. Some of the space has been bought up and commodified by aspirational charlatans and tinpot Torquemadas who wish to line their pockets via careers that put people in their place, undergirded by the misguided notion that the problems of prejudice and discrimination are not outgrowths of the socio-economic system that are affected by historical events, but are naturally occurring phenomena that guide thoughts, actions, and circumstances. This represents a serious and disturbing diversion from the possibility of mounting even the smallest struggle against the effects of the socio-economic system.
In the world of international schooling, what is perhaps surprising, and what should receive much more scrutiny, is the role of DEI committees in perpetuating the status quo. Granted, many have emerged recently and face resistance from leaders, teachers, and school boards. Their entire existence may be precarious and their steps to progress may be tentative. As they become more ubiquitous across the international school world, it might be worth investigating how they define diversity, what they consider equity and inclusion, and what is their sense of justice? Are they concerned, primarily, with foreign hires? If they have achieved the goal of a more diverse recruitment policy, is there a plan in place to assist new hires in navigating their way around the pitfalls of a slowly evolving system? How much water do these committees carry for their leaders who are desperately attempting to jump on the bandwagon and rebrand their institutions and how much do some people who are involved in DEI work see economic redistribution as something that is irrelevant to, or an obstacle to, their own goals?
Obviously, since this whole project is in its relative infancy, it seems rather churlish to appear to be wantonly siphoning off parts of the baby with the bathwater. For many, these committees are lifelines that enable discussions of issues that were hitherto left to fester. However, it is surely incumbent upon teachers to insist on work that is authentic and adheres to the meaning of the words that are supposed to guide it. Arguments could be made that market forces demand that foreign teachers, mostly North American and European, bring their own, highly prized, cultural capital and that, since English is the current language of global business, so-called “native” speakers of the language are somehow better placed to provide an education for the future global elites. By this logic, it stands to reason that schools offer incredible perks to attract foreign teachers and often treat local educators and staff as if they were expendable. One has to assume that parents want this, that the host country wants this, and that school leaders want this because it is rarely questioned. If the market dictates such policies as natural, then those policies must be followed. A corollary of this is that market forces also dictate the wages and benefits of the local faculty and staff. Each group, therefore, has its collective surplus exploited according to what is bearable: cultural capital, which is cheerfully distributed rather than expropriated, on the one hand, and time and labor (and other forms of cultural capital), compensated much more cheaply, on the other. It is an argument for the quasi-colonial status quo and runs counter to the reason that most people are attracted to a career in education: to make a difference in the world!
Any modest proposal to begin the process of providing incremental material gains to local staff in international schools, especially in the global south, is a miniscule drop in the ocean considering the salaries and benefits of foreign hires and the tuition fees paid by students’ families. This, however, is a starting point and every increase in material wealth is helpful for people with very little. The desiderata are for concrete, practical proposals that can be implemented easily and smoothly in order to democratize systems and spread equity-based justice. Schools should start by having community listening circles, facilitated by trusted people within the school community, in order to ascertain the needs of local staff. The following ideas for the well-being of local support and maintenance staff could also be considered: a retirement fund that rewards loyalty of service to the school; access to education stipends and professional development programs for all employees; celebrations of the school community that involve all stakeholders (without a financial burden upon those who can least afford to contribute); development of scholarship programs for the families of local staff; transportation allowances for all who work at the school; a school-wide sick day bank that involves deposits and withdrawals by all employees; and the voluntary release of money by faculty that is set aside for specific foreign-hire benefits (e.g., wellness funds that many not be fully utilized) which can be placed in a fund for distribution to staff who do not receive those benefits. These are small changes that would produce large results, not least of which would be a more united school community.
Ultimately, true diversity must embrace all forms of identity, real equity must include attempts to address economic imbalance, and full inclusion requires that schools follow through on the promises they make in their branding and employment advertising. For this to work to the advantage of all, and for international schools to be at the forefront of the new wave of thinking, rather than bobbing around in the powerful wake of corporations’ luxury superyachts, changes must spring from the grassroots; they must emanate from below rather than above. This necessitates the involvement of all stakeholders in the challenge to transform.
In the attempt to reshape a school, as a more compassionate community, as a co-constructed learning space, and as an egalitarian workplace, in ways that will truly enhance the understanding of our shared humanity, it should be understood that neutrality is complicity. Taking this a step further, well-intentioned principles and proposals must be followed by advocacy and action to avoid degenerating into unhelpful, empty rhetoric. While some international schools may be pretending to sleep when it comes to DEI matters and policies, their sham slumber is causing misery and anguish. As Kevin Simpson stated, implementing policies designed by the International School Anti-Discrimination Task Force is a sine qua non. Resisting change is no longer an option. In light of that, therefore, the question for educators who are interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion is simple: are you maintaining or defying the system?
 This famous proverb has been cited by many countries and cultures including Navajo, Yoruba, Ethiopia, Somalia, Iraq, Tibet, and India.
 Hill, Dave, editor. Global Neoliberalism and Education and Its Consequences. Routledge, 2008.
 Hanson, Jim, and Charles Kupchan. “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Committees Have Way Too Much Power: Opinion.” Newsweek, 23 Feb. 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/diversity-equity-inclusion-committees-have-way-too-much-power-opinion-1571335.
See also, Paresky, Pamela. “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Commitment or Cult?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 12 Oct. 2021, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-and-the-pursuit-leadership/202110/diversity-equity-and-inclusion-commitment-or-cult.
See also, Fisher, Mark. “Exiting the Vampire Castle.” OpenDemocracy, 24 Nov. 2013, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/exiting-vampire-castle/. This essay sought to emphasize the shared humanity of the people fighting against normalized systems of oppression. It criticized moralizing crusaders within movements that seek to represent the oppressed through the creation of “identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.”
 If this aligns the position with strange bedfellows, then so be it. “[Y]ou cannot help people being right for the wrong reasons….This fear of finding oneself in bad company is not an expression of political purity; it is an expression of a lack of self-confidence.” Arthur Koestler, ‘The Seven Deadly Fallacies’, in The Trail of the Dinosaur and Other Essays (New York, Macmillan, 1955).
See also, Dugan, Jamila. “Beware of Equity Traps and Tropes.” ASCD, 1 Mar. 2021, https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/beware-of-equity-traps-and-tropes.
 See, for example, the announcement of a retirement fund for local support staff at the International School of Dakar. See Frame, John. “Social Justice in the Staffroom.” AMISA, AMISA, 14 Feb. 2022, https://www.amisa.us/post/social-justice-in-the-staffroom.
John Frame was brought up in Wick, Scotland. Between 1989 and 1998, he earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Aberdeen. He spent a year engaged in historical research for Macallan Distillery before emigrating to the USA where he worked as a teacher in New York City and Columbus, Ohio. In 2018, he and his wife, Rama Ndiaye, left the United States to work in the international teaching world. He currently teaches at the International School of Dakar in Senegal.