Flint Hill’s Journey to Fostering an Inclusive Community

Maya Angelou famously said, "It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength." Lisa Lisker P ’15, ’16, chair of the Flint Hill Board of Trustees Diversity Committee, shares that an inclusive community is “a place where every member that is there, feels like they belong and that they are safe to be themselves.” Flint Hill aspires to be such a place; where members of our community are celebrated, embraced and can be unapologetically themselves regardless of their differences — both seen and unseen.

But before we discuss Flint Hill’s plans for the future, we have to look at where the School started. Throughout the spring, summer and into the fall, in the wake of the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others, and the riots and unrest that followed, talk of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) was everywhere. Online job listings filled with positions focused on the work, and for the first time, many businesses and local governments recognized Juneteenth — a day commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S. — as a corporate holiday. In the education space, schools hosted Zoom meetings and virtual town halls to address their communities about their DEI initiatives and how they connected — or didn’t — with what was playing out in the national news. While it seemed that much of the U.S. was newly “woke,” at Flint Hill the journey began much earlier than the summer of 2020.

An Introduction to Inclusion
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Flint Hill’s Inclusive School Committee (ISC) served as the hub for the School’s first formal, coordinated efforts in DEI work. Chaired by the director of admission, the committee was responsible for “promoting an inclusive School community by encouraging employees and students to participate in workshops, conferences and other opportunities focused on diversity, and focusing community attention on developing a ‘global’ School family that included students and employees from diverse backgrounds.”

“There had been a number of ad hoc efforts in the past related to diversity,” says Headmaster John Thomas. “But the ISC was the School’s first formal, cross-departmental effort to really begin to talk about it and define our commitment to it.”

In the fall of 1999, the ISC established a Diversity Subcommittee, with a mission to identify the needs of students, families and faculty from multiple racial and cultural backgrounds. In the years that followed there was progress; Flint Hill held its first Multicultural Family Night and Potluck Dinner, hosted its first Faculty/Staff of Color Retreat and began more focused efforts to recruit and retain employees and students of color. But there was more to be done. In 2013, when Flint Hill hired now former Assistant Head of School for Academics Bill Ennist, the feedback he heard from faculty about the need for the School to push its diversity efforts further was loud and clear. Thomas recalls, “Our work in supporting our students and faculty with issues around inclusivity at that time was still a bit inconsistent. When Bill came in he said, ‘Everyone is telling me that we need a diversity director. We need somebody here to lead those efforts.’ We started to look at what that would mean and began to research what that looked like at other schools, and that was when we said, ‘Let’s do this.’"

Designing for the Future
Before Flint Hill could fill a formal position to lead its diversity efforts, it was important to define what diversity means in this community. While “diversity” has become a commonly-used term, its application is often misunderstood, and earlier initiatives at the School did not address the full spectrum of topics that are connected to diversity work in educational settings, from learning differences, physical ability and socioeconomic status, to sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity. Director of Institutional Equity and Inclusion Mia Burton shares, “It takes time and effort to make sure that we're looking at diversity broadly. We are making sure that we're aware of all forms of diversity and that they can be served in the same way, and celebrated.”

In the fall of 2013, Cultural Competency Design Teams comprised of faculty and staff studied these topics and submitted reports with their recommendations concerning the wide range of diversity needs in the Flint Hill community. This process laid the groundwork for diversity at Flint Hill as we know it today. Burton says, “There were about 15 different teams that people signed up to work on, to do research, and then submit a report of recommendations. One of the teams worked on drafting the Statement of Diversity and Inclusion, and then there was another group that worked on writing a job description to be used for the director of diversity and inclusion position.”

In March 2014, Flint Hill announced its plans to create a full-time leadership position dedicated to diversity which would “serve as the lead advocate for diversity and inclusion at Flint Hill School.” In May, after a national search, Flint Hill chose to fill the position internally, appointing Burton, then the Upper School dean of students, to the role. The Board of Trustees also approved the School’s first Statement of Diversity and Inclusion. The Cultural Competency Design Teams presented their final report recommendations, and in the fall of 2014, Flint Hill had the tools to begin the intensive, continuous work of becoming and fostering a truly inclusive community.

Burton welcomed the opportunity to take on the role of championing Flint Hill’s diversity work, but as the first person in the position, it was important to prioritize what to take on first. “I was drawn to being able to connect with all of the divisions and departments. I think that there are some positions that can be very, not isolated, but contained in one space and place and function. And I liked that this work was something that would be involved in so much,” Burton says. “I have a natural interest in the work, but knowing that it would connect with the academic side, the admission side, teachers, classrooms, alumni. I think the role required someone who recognized that all of those things are equally important.”

An initial step was to report out on the Cultural Competency Design Teams’ findings and recommendations, which Burton presented to families as a follow up to a “Diversity at Flint Hill” event that occurred during the previous school year. And in the Upper School, a student’s transition provided an immediate opportunity to move Flint Hill’s diversity work forward. Thomas recalls, “That opportunity to support a transgender student at school so soon after Mia took the position suddenly made it clear more broadly that the position was not all about race. And that began to break some of the dam of how important all of this was going to be. Because ultimately, this whole idea of diversity, equity and inclusion, and recently, we’ve incorporated the word ‘justice’ into it — it's about who we are. It is who we are. It defines what we do. It defines how we're going to act. How we're going to treat other people. How do we make this the very warm, caring place that we all want it to be?”

The School’s strategic planning process during the 2014-2015 school year also provided a natural opportunity to weave its renewed commitment to diversity into its broader strategic vision, including adopting the more inclusive vision for every student that’s become a common refrain at Flint Hill, “Take meaningful risks. Be yourself. Make a difference.” A major shift was underway, and it was time to bring students and faculty along on the journey.

Bringing Everyone Together
A lot can happen in five years, particularly in the life of a dynamic, innovative school like Flint Hill. For one, Burton’s title has changed to “director of institutional equity and inclusion” to reflect the wide range of diversity topics that exist at the School, and the school-wide nature of the work. And under Burton’s leadership, with support from Flint Hill’s Leadership Team and Board of Trustees, the School’s DEI work has gained significant momentum.

In every educational environment, shaping the student experience begins with the faculty. Annual, comprehensive DEI-oriented professional development has become standard for Flint Hill faculty and staff. From hosting guest speakers such as Dr. Gene Baptiste, chief diversity officer at St. John’s School, in Houston, Texas, and Debbie Irving, author of “Waking up White,” to small group work, all-school summer readings, and School-sponsored opportunities to attend DEI-focused conferences and workshops, Flint Hill employees have extensive opportunities to dive deeply into diversity work and examine its application both at school and in the wider world. Most recently, in the fall of 2020, Burton introduced the “Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) Report,” a newsletter written by faculty for faculty to provide resources and encourage discussion about issues in diversity, equity, inclusion and justice.

“With our faculty, it's been important to meet every individual where they are,” Burton says.
“It helps us grow as a community. There are some people who need encouragement, some who are running ahead — you have to find a pace that brings everyone together.”

In the fall of 2018, Flint Hill retained Dr. Heather Hackman, a renowned trainer, consultant, speaker and facilitator on issues of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice, to conduct intensive training for Flint Hill’s administrative and academic leadership. It was also at that time that the Board of Trustees created an ad hoc Diversity Committee, which has since become permanent, further cementing the importance of this work at Flint Hill. Similar to Burton’s title, the Committee was renamed the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee to reflect the scope of the work to be done in September 2020.

“There's no better place for the conversation and the education [about diversity] to start and continue, than right here,” says Flint Hill Board Chair Pia Trigiani. “And I think that with every generation, the more that we talk about it, the more that we address it, the more that we change and understand other perspectives, the better we become at this. We've seen that evolution on the Board to some extent. And that's why the action the Board took to make [the Diversity Committee] a standing committee is a very significant pronouncement of the support of the Board for the program and our interest in becoming more of a partner with the work that's being done on campus.”

Student work began concurrently with faculty training and professional development as Burton partnered with academic leadership to review the School’s curriculum and identify opportunities to integrate DEI work into extracurricular and leadership opportunities for students. In the spring of 2015, the Inclusive Leadership Council was introduced as an application-based leadership opportunity for Upper School students. The organization is dedicated to developing social and educational events to encourage interconnectedness and understanding among Upper School students. An orientation program was developed for international students, and regular opportunities to participate in diversity conferences, such as the National Association of Independent Schools’ Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) were introduced.

Curricular reviews and updates are ongoing, but work has been done to introduce a wider range of voices and perspectives into every corner of Flint Hill’s academic program. “When Bill was here, we had a curriculum audit to see, not what we were teaching but what we weren't teaching,” Burton says. “We wanted to look at, where were the examples of diverse perspectives, diverse experiences, diverse ways of thought? And where weren't they? To use history as an example, we noticed that from seventh through twelfth grade, you would not have any kind of intersection with Asian history. Everything was Euro-centered, U.S.-centered, or through the lens of a deficit model where we were looking at nation-building of third-world countries, and there were things that were missing from the student learning experience as a result.”

Curricular reviews have also revealed opportunities to introduce diversity in other areas, from expanding the forms of dance that are offered in the Fine Arts program, to examining culture in foreign language courses and finding age-appropriate ways to introduce diverse topics to our youngests students in the Lower School. For example, this fall, students in Rob Taylor’s fourth grade class learned about Loving vs. Virginia, a landmark civil rights decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court ruled that laws banning interracial marriage violate the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The students were inspired by the story and had a virtual visit from author Patricia Powell to discuss her book "Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case." The students created their own books about the case with collages they made, which they shared with Powell, Selina Alko, author of "The Case for Loving," and the Caroline County Historical Society, where the Loving family lived.

“It's not just what we teach, it's how it's delivered,” Burton says. “Some students thrive when they have these discussions around issues that are proximate in their lives.”

She continues, “It's different in each division. In the Lower School, it's more about how we celebrate things and how we look at experience and community. In the Middle School, it's about centering it around Advisory and the Social Contract that the students develop. And in the Upper School, students make these connections through clubs and activities and awareness around current issues and how they can bring a voice or be a part of raising awareness or educating people. In the Upper School, the way we have discussions is also very important, and I think we're still working our way through the best forms of facilitation. But in utilizing a discussion model where it can be an exchange of ideas and not a debate of who's right and who's wrong; I think that is a skill that we will continue to help people build and deepen over time.”

The School is also exploring ways to encourage healthy relationships among students, particularly in the Upper School. In the winter of 2020, before COVID-19 took hold, Upper School leaders learned about disrespectful behavior related to gender, sexual orientation and harassment occurring both on and off-campus. “This is just one example of how far-reaching diversity work truly is,” Burton says.

Flint Hill partnered with Katie Koestner, a national expert on student safety and healthy relationships, and her company Campus Outreach Services, to help the School further educate the community about these issues and to review and revise student behavior policies and procedures. While work with Koestner slowed when Flint Hill transitioned to virtual learning in the spring, the School has resumed partnering with her to review and revise its handbook and to develop future plans for a climate survey, educational programming and student forums.

Coming Full Circle
Of course, for this work to truly make an impact, the entire community has to get involved. In 2017, Burton partnered with Flint Hill parents Charlotte Chess and Rebecca Jenkins to launch Kaleidoscope, a monthly book club to engage Flint Hill parents in topics related to diversity and inclusion. The group doesn’t focus solely on reading books by “diverse authors” in the traditional sense — topics have included womens’ rights, poverty and identity, and selected works have included “Educated: A Memoir” by Tara Westover, “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi and “Refugee” by Alan Gratz.

This fall, Burton began to work with Director of Alumni Relations Maria Taylor to engage alumni in Flint Hill’s DEI work. Amidst the civil unrest of the summer, social media accounts dedicated to the experiences of female students and students of color at public and private schools across the country surfaced online. Flint Hill was not immune, and an anonymously run Instagram account, @dearflinthill, caused concerned alumni to reach out to the School to seek answers about its diversity work and efforts to support students. “This gave us an opportunity to engage with alumni in a completely different way,” says Taylor. “And we didn’t shy away from it, we welcomed it.” Burton added, “Dear Flint Hill showed us that there may be alumni who don't know the work that we're doing. But there are stories here, and the fact that students are talking about their experiences in this way lets us know that there is still work to be done.”

Burton and Taylor hosted a series of DEI-focused virtual forums for alumni, by class year, at the start of the school year. The forums provided opportunities for alumni to share their stories and gain clarity about Flint Hill’s DEI work. They also helped Burton and Taylor identify next steps to keep the engagement going, including plans for an Alumni Committee on Institutional Equity and Inclusion, which will work directly with Taylor and Burton to serve as a bridge between the School’s DEI work and the alumni community.

The Path Forward
Diversity doesn’t have an end point. The work happens on a continuum, where communities and the people within them are always changing. The key is to keep moving, and Flint Hill has no shortage of hopeful, determined leaders who are committed to move this work forward. “I think that I really believe in our vision, and I really believe that I want to work in a place where each and every student can take meaningful risks, be themselves, and make a difference,” Burton says. “We are doing the work that needs to be done to make that true for every student, and to make sure that we make decisions that don't compromise that experience.”

For Pia Trigiani, diversity, equity and inclusion is another area in which Flint Hill can blaze a trail: “Flint Hill has a great opportunity here to lead on this. And to me, that is the most exciting part, that Flint Hill can be a leader. And maybe be a change agent. Wouldn't it be nice to be the change agent?”