Last May, Atlanta Jewish Academy (AJA), an early childhood-12th grade Modern Orthodox school, formed our first faculty team dedicated to exploring ways to design and implement impactful programming for our faculty and students. Our DEBI (Diversity, Equity, Belonging and Inclusion) team consists of faculty members who are passionate about these issues and invested in creating a school culture that better embraces diversity throughout the school, while also exploring the tensions and conflicts we all carry within us.
As we reflect on our experiences, successes and challenges today, we can more clearly appreciate what worked well, what didn’t, what we’d do again and what we’d avoid if we could relaunch this initiative. It has been rewarding work, but also humbling and eye-opening. We are sharing our reflections on the first steps we took last summer and our first faculty-wide program we ran this past fall so that other schools can appreciate, learn from and improve on our efforts.
The summer of 2020, as we were preparing and planning to open up our doors with a pandemic, the national conversation turned to race with the death of George Floyd. Students, faculty and alumni reached out asking how AJA would be addressing this important topic. Last fall, as we opened up our doors for in-person learning, we wanted to open up our minds and hearts to address race and educate our students and community as we navigate our complex world as Jews and human beings.
After a training with the leadership of Be’chol Lashon, one of our school guidance counselors approached our head of school for clearance to create a faculty-led DEBI group out of a shared desire to deepen our understanding of and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. We wanted faculty who felt motivated and invested to lead this initiative.
The team came together quickly. Faculty who voiced interest were invited to our initial meetings, and soon we formed a group that had one to two members from the early childhood, lower school, middle school, and high school. We also made sure to have fine arts and social-emotional guidance represented on the team. We found this model worked well, as all team members opted in to participating and were invested in the goal of our work, and everyone had an equal voice in decision making.
Our first step was to design a DEI faculty survey so we could better understand where we stood. Survey questions included how important DEI topics were to them, and how comfortable they would feel participating in programming on various related topics (race, religion, wealth inequality, gender and sexual orientation). The survey was anonymous but gave faculty the option of revealing their name.
We noticed most of the specific issues we asked faculty about had very mixed responses, and some topics seemed especially uncomfortable. The questions that gave us the most powerful data were the first two questions of the survey. While over 80% of respondents rated 8 or higher on a 10 point scale that they “felt like they belong at AJA,” that number dropped to 49% when respondents were asked if they “feel seen and heard at AJA.” We wanted to explore that disconnect: How can so many feel like they belong in our school community yet at the same time feel unnoticed?
First Steps: Success and Setbacks
Once the survey results gave us initial insights and a clearer direction, our next challenge was to figure out what our first initiative would be. We decided to design programming that could impact the entire school community. For our first event, we wanted to lead a professional development session introducing DEI concepts to the entire faculty during our August in-service.
The first part of planning this PD session was straightforward enough: We wanted to present a full explanation of what diversity, equity and inclusion mean and why we want to emphasize and explore these values as a faculty. We also aimed to present these issues as mission-aligned ways to strengthen our community for all stakeholders. We divided up roles and collaborated on slides to share with our colleagues. This portion of our in-service programming went smoothly.
For the second half of the session, we wanted faculty to interact with one another and to begin to share thoughts and feelings on why talking about issues related to race can be uncomfortable and difficult. We assigned faculty members to groups representing each division of the school. Then we showed brief videos, one exploring why people can feel awkward discussing race and another exploring implicit bias. After each video, groups were given discussion prompts to reflect on their thoughts and feelings about these topics. We envisioned this as a way for faculty to break the ice and talk about topics many find challenging to discuss, but in a safe way that allows participants to share personal experiences or to discuss these topics as abstract intellectual issues. We hoped to give all faculty a point of entry to start to discuss DEI topics, something to build upon in future sessions. A secondary goal was to provide a way for faculty and staff who normally do not interact much during the school year to get to know one another better.
During these sessions, the facilitators floating from group to group thought they were going great: Faculty were interacting and discussing topics we had never explored before. There were clearly several groups who found this rewarding, insightful and a valuable use of time. However, from follow-up surveys and discussion with faculty, it became clear that many people experienced discomfort, stress and anxiety, walking away from these sessions frustrated, confused or even disrespected.
Although we had clear goals and intentions with our faculty groupings, perhaps asking faculty who were unfamiliar with each other to dive into such challenging topics created an uncomfortable atmosphere for some participants. Perhaps we were asking faculty to consider too much and dive too deep into grappling with complex issues before they were ready to fully discuss and consider them.
There was one decision, however, that limited the ability of most groups to accomplish the goals we had in mind. We were very self-aware that our faculty is mostly Caucasian, with a significant Israeli minority. As we approached our in-service program, we began to wonder if our faculty groups would be diverse enough to truly engage in these discussions in a meaningful fashion. A few days before the in-service session, we invited the summer maintenance staff to join these sessions. The logic was that since our maintenance staff was more diverse than our faculty, and since many were African-American, their voices, experiences and perspectives would contribute greatly to these small group discussions.
However, including the maintenance staff in the small group discussions proved to make conversations difficult for everyone involved. Asking the maintenance staff to participate on short notice meant they would be total strangers to faculty participants. Since most of the staff were seasonal or recent hires, they were not familiar with our community culture and norms, which created some awkward interactions. It also made some faculty feel like they could not be open or comfortable sharing during discussions.
We had endeavored to create a safe space where faculty could embrace feeling vulnerable and uncertain in the spirit of better understanding how different we all are, yet also how unified our purpose is. We wanted faculty to feel seen and heard, and to know we took their input seriously and cared about them deeply. Instead of open and safe discussions, the majority of the groups felt closed and edgy. Instead of feeling grateful for discussing topics we had not broached before, many felt disoriented and confused.
Learning and Moving Forward
Despite this, we did effectively introduce DEI values to our faculty and began meaningful conversations about topics many prefer to avoid. And several faculty groups had wonderful conversations and thanked us for facilitating this program. Our DEBI team reflected on this experience and grew from it, and we successfully designed a wide range of DEI-centered service learning opportunities in commemoration of MLK Day a few months later. We have a deeper appreciation for how this work is important but also does not need to be rushed. Small steps can sometimes work best to avoid setbacks.
Most importantly, this only strengthened our commitment to engaging in DEI work. At AJA, we educate our students that Hashem created and sustains the world and that human beings are created b’tzelem Elokim. Therefore, we must work as a community to broaden our knowledge and create space for authentic and meaningful dialogue.