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Takeaways from the 2021 CASE-NAIS Conference

I always look forward to the annual CASE-NAIS Independent Schools Conference, when the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the National Association of Independent Schools team up to provide three days of outstanding professional development.

This year’s conference, in late January, was the most memorable I’ve attended. Partly, this was because of the format: The 2021 installment was scheduled for New Orleans before the pandemic forced things online. The change, it turned out, would allow far more people to attend than is usual for a CASE-NAIS conference. It even became possible for entire advancement teams to log in and learn.

Mostly, though, the conference was memorable for its major themes — diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and Covid-19. Given the events of the past year, the material couldn’t have been more timely.

Personally, the DEI sessions resonated the most deeply. Over the past year, I’ve reflected often on my privilege in a society that guards its benefits for people like me and overlooks or diminishes those who look or identify differently. I recognize better my responsibility to seek out voices that are heard less often and my opportunity to amplify them. I am also partnering with those who carry expertise I can never gain.

Independent schools are making their own journey to awareness and action. When past and present students brought painful stories to light through Black@ accounts on Instagram, schools quickly affirmed that they were listening. Months later, it is high time for them to enact solutions to the problems Black@ exposed. Covid-19 showed how quickly independent schools can change when they must. Institutional racism poses no less of an existential challenge.

The CASE-NAIS organizers used this conference to directly address this moment and to offer help. (Full disclosure: I was one of 11 people on the planning committee.) Over three days, it was exciting to hear such good ideas for making schools better.

Derrick Gay

As the opening keynote speaker, educator and consultant Dr. Derrick Gay made the case that schools need to adjust discussions about diversity if they are to successfully enlist white families in their DEI push.

The word “diversity” is tarnished, he argued, as an abstract and ill-defined goal. White people see it as a proxy word for “non-white,” and they don’t feel represented in initiatives that prioritize diversity. The ingrained habit in many schools of shorthanding references to DEI as “diversity,” Gay said, actually undermines their efforts.

“If everyone doesn’t feel connected to this work, we can’t bring everyone to the table to engage with it,” Gay said.

“Schools have DEI in their strategic plans but may have no idea what those terms — diversity, equity, inclusion — mean.”

The solution, he said, involves several steps, including:

  • Changing the frame for diversity from “different” to “differences.”
  • Acknowledging the uneven playing field facing some in the school community (inequity)
  • Advancing more equitable representation and access while operationalizing fairness
  • Acknowledging the school’s work will be ongoing, rather than aiming for a particular finish line

We should “ground ourselves in empathy — understanding and caring about the feelings of others,” Gay said.

That’s the “entry point where we onboard everyone into this discussion” and introduce equity and inclusion as part of a cohesive DEI solution.

“We have to have inclusion with diversity,” Gay said. “Otherwise, it does not stick.”

Clockwise from top left, Marjorie Jean-Paul, Courtney Archer-Buckmire, Joycelyn Blizzard, and Jan Abernathy.
Panelists for the CASE-NAIS Conference session “What Your Black Advancement Colleagues Want You to Know”: Clockwise from top left are Marjorie Jean-Paul, Courtney Archer-Buckmire, Joycelyn Blizzard, and Jan Abernathy.

What Your Black Advancement Colleagues Want You to Know

While Gay brought the big-picture perspective of making schools more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, a panel of advancement veterans would zoom in on the nitty-gritty.

A frank discussion by Marjorie Jean-Paul of Buckley Country Day School, Courtney Archer-Buckmire of Grace Church School, and Jan Abernathy of the Browning School looked at cultural aspects that continue to hold schools back from needed progress.

The three women are co-founders of New York City’s Black Advancement Networking Group. Together, they tackled such issues as how schools engage Black families in philanthropy, representation in school communications, and who attends, and doesn’t, the school gala.

The session, moderated by Joycelyn Blizzard from St. Margaret’s School, not only offered viewpoints but also questions for the audience to reflect on.

Black families often find themselves an afterthought in annual and campaign fundraising, Archer-Buckmire noted. “Who are the parents you wait to call upon? And why is that?” she asked.

“If you’re not trying to serve the entire community, to speak to the entire community, then you’re not doing the job we’re charging with doing as advancement professionals.”

Abernathy agreed, urging schools to examine whether their communications speak authentically to the concerns of Black families as much as to white ones.

“Are our communications relevant, or are we focusing just on 20% of parent community, the people who may be in our offices all the time?”

Governing boards could play an important role with improving things, Jean-Paul noted. Yet most boards overlook even the low-hanging issue of representation on the administrative and board levels, much less a complex one such as the diversity of who gives and why (or why not).

The general tenor of the panel discussion was that schools remain unsophisticated in dealing honestly with matters involving race and representation, and that this complacency is not appropriate or sustainable in a time when demands for equity are growing.

What role can individual employees play in making things better?

Abernathy urged people to invest themselves in their Black colleague’s success, through both modeling and mentoring. “We act as if people should come into our school just knowing” how this place works.

She also suggested making room for additional perspectives. If those involved in admissions or in a hiring decision are all white, change the conversation by changing who is sitting around the table.

Jean-Paul and Archer-Buckmire, meanwhile, both spoke to the power of unconscious biases. The ability to overcome those biases begins with knowing that they exist.

Archer-Buckmire closed by urging the CASE-NAIS audience to “get on board” and ask questions within their schools that help in doing the work necessary.

What others learned

Two sponsors of the CASE-NAIS conference published their takeaways, too:

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