How have your personal experiences shaped your feelings about being authentic?
I grew up in a home where there was a tremendous amount of pride and an insistence upon authenticity. There was an insistence that we not just collapse into our own ethnic group and racial category.
One day, my father literally took a sign off of a tree that said, “School integration program. African-American students needed.” In the 70s, the public schools in New York City had to integrate according to the law. He said, “Donna and Wanda are going to be a part of this busing program, because in addition to being proud of who they are, they have to navigate the world, and I want them to understand that rich connections with people unlike you are possible.”
The head of the school, Milton Schwartz, was one of the most incredible leaders I have ever met. He paid attention to the policies of the school, the time that meetings happened, access to programs, and academic support. He made it clear that, “I see you. I’m not going to invite you to this school and then make it impossible for your parents to connect with the teachers or make it impossible for you to really participate in the extracurricular activities.” His example of leadership, and my parents’ insistence that we go to that school and not the neighborhood school, let me know my parents wanted me to be proud of myself and yet always creating community with others. They wanted their daughters to be a part of a community where exchange, connection, and courageous risk-taking was the expectation.
Your experience speaks to the learned skill of cultural competency, just as sports foster teamwork and group projects encourage collaborative learning. These soft skills are inadvertently nurtured and proven to further academic excellence and workplace success. How is the mission of diversity and inclusion able to hone skills to empower our girls to be happy and succeed in life?
Cultural competence is a skill that needs to be practiced. Going to school every day and having to practice talking with people who are different and getting to know their stories are important tasks. Yes, cultural competence is a skill. If the girls here don’t have that, they’re going to be lost in this world that is increasingly global. The sooner we get girls comfortable being their authentic selves, then we have a smooth path to academics and social-emotional learning. I want Hamlin girls to always envision what is possible. I dwell in possibility.
As a parent-led committee, PLAID will introduce broader programming to engage more of its parent community. How will PLAID help establish a safe place to voice different perspectives in which we are able to celebrate ourselves and in turn embrace others?
Part of the answer is truly walking the walk. We can say anything and put anything on a brochure, but how we do business each day and what we emphasize and what we talk about and what we celebrate is basically our articulation of culture. The way things are done each day amounts to the culture of the school.
The more we message through the programming that this conversation is for everybody, the better off we will be. In addition to policies, procedures and systems, we have to recognize that people are at different levels of growth and varying levels of comfort. While we’re having conversations about community, we have to recognize that there are different levels of self-awareness.
For instance, I thought it was so wonderful when we had over 100 people at our Lunar New Year’s celebration because it’s a relatively “low barrier” event. That means that it is easy to walk through the door– no one’s asking you to share your personal story in public, even though you could in an informal way. When you’re talking, and everybody else is talking and eating and being in fellowship together, connective tissue grows. On the other hand, our films tend to be about deeper societal issues. We have loved the movies we’ve shown about gender, learning differences, adoption, religion, race, and physical disabilities. Those conversations require participants to dig a little bit deeper. That said, you’re also able to talk about the film and not about yourself. That’s a “medium barrier” event. Then we have dialogues, which are more for people who really want to “go there,” go deeper. There will be dialogues that we sponsor that focus on issues of race and ethnicity and culture and religion, and PLAID is the forum where we all celebrate our authentic selves as a community. I think that’s how you get people in the door. You create a variety of pathways into the conversation. We recognize our differences and common ground, and we recognize that everybody is a work in process– under construction.
What are you excited about and hope the Hamlin community will see from PLAID in the foreseeable future?
I’m excited about the energy and creativity I am seeing. I’m excited that more people are talking about PLAID. I’m excited about the fact that we are really tracking who’s showing up because we want to see the numbers growing. We want the data to reflect our mission of inclusion. In years past, depending on the film, depending on the night, depending on the dialogue, you’d get somewhere between 20 and 50 people in attendance. It looks like we’re starting to accomplish the goal of broadening our outreach. I’m excited that the parents of young children are involved, and I see that they are fired up to really take PLAID to the next level. I think carefully about the words of PLAID’s mission statement. My favorite three words in the mission statement for PLAID are ‘all, celebrate and authentic’. As soon as that becomes the easy roll off the tongue language, we will be in excellent shape. Someone will ask, “What’s PLAID?” And the common and enthusiastic response will be, “It’s the organization that helps Hamlin and all our families celebrate their authentic selves.”