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New Research: Fostering Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Independent Schools

First Republic Bank
April 23, 2021

In January 2020, education nonprofit EXPLO launched EXPLO Elevate, an innovation hub for schools that provides educators with professional development opportunities and research into issues in the education field.

Many schools are now recognizing the importance of creating more equitable and inclusive spaces for students, faculty, and community members. To lead this critical work, some schools are opting to hire a specialist who focuses on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ).

Recognizing a need for further research into the experiences of DEIJ practitioners, EXPLO Elevate launched the report Making the Hidden Visible: the Lived Experience of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Justice Practitioner (DEIJ) at Independent Schools. 

First Republic spoke with Sudipti Kumar, Director of Research at EXPLO Elevate, who spearheaded this study, to talk about her research.

You can also watch the replay of our May 4 event, Collective Insights from DEI Practitioners at Independent Schools.

Centering the experiences of DEIJ professionals

While there is a growing base of research on how to effectively implement DEIJ work in schools, Kumar noticed that there was a lack of research that centered the experiences of DEIJ practitioners — many of whom are the first or only person to hold such a role at their school. According to the National Association of Independent Schools, around 70% of DEIJ practitioners surveyed feel that their role is not well-defined. Often, they are asked to fulfill a range of functions, such as serving on leadership teams, supporting faculty and students, educating parents, and responding to crises.

With so few guidelines for DEIJ work across schools, qualitative research becomes critical to understanding the challenges and opportunities that practitioners face. For the study, Kumar interviewed more than 25 DEIJ practitioners and administrators across different regions and types of independent schools to find out how each person approached their role.

“The impetus for the report was to dive deep into individual experiences,” Kumar says. “Each individual voice is important — and as a collective, there are some common themes that can help schools support practitioners better and support DEIJ work more effectively.”

Kumar shared common themes from the study such as:

  • The role of the practitioner as a disruptor. DEIJ work is ultimately about creating systemic change. That includes systems at schools, like admissions practices, hiring and retention policies, community engagement, and even how a school markets itself. Practitioners often are meant to be disrupting systems — which can only be successful in an institution that is ready to be disrupted.
  • The hidden work of a DEIJ practitioner. “There is an invisible aspect to this work,” says Kumar. “There are a lot of things that practitioners do day-to-day in their schools and communities that people don’t necessarily understand.” Research that highlights this work can help inform how administrators, faculty and families recognize and support DEIJ efforts.
  • Successful DEIJ work requires support. This study shows that for practitioners to be successful, they must have both explicit and implicit support from leadership. Explicit support includes full buy-in from administration and faculty. Implicit support includes trusting the practitioner and making sure the school is a safe place for their work.
  • Practitioners of color face additional challenges. Many practitioners are people of color working to promote diversity, equity, inclusion and justice in environments where they themselves are part of a minoritized group, and may also experience discrimination. It is important to understand and address the additional barriers that practitioners of color face, both professionally and personally
  • The role of students in DEIJ work. While the study focuses on DEIJ professionals, many schools are taking steps to empower students to lead the conversations about what issues impact them. Kumar says, “We want kids to go out and change the world, so schools who give students tools to solve problems themselves are doing a service for their kids.”

Takeaways for leaders in the education sector and beyond

While this study focuses on independent schools, there are many lessons that are applicable to other types of organizations that are looking to institute or improve internal DEIJ practices. First Republic is partnering with EXPLO Elevate to make this research available to members of our community, including leaders in the nonprofit and corporate sectors. We invite you to explore themes that are relevant to your organization, including:

  • How the Board and leadership can support DEIJ work
  • Assessing organizational readiness for meaningful reflection and change
  • Recognizing the tensions between personal identity and professional practice
  • Integrating a DEIJ lens into all organizational functions

First Republic is proud to support EXPLO Elevate; explore the DEIJ in education research in the full report, or watch our virtual event to share the findings examining the lived experiences of over 25 diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) practitioners at independent schools. Learn what schools can do to support their DEI practitioners and hear about key factors that may promote or impede this crucial work.

The views of the interviewee of this article do not necessarily represent the views of First Republic Bank. This information is governed by our Terms and Conditions of Use.