May 12, 2016

Diversity in Ideas and Practice

Linda Rose-Winters / Director of Diversity Programs

On the Origins of Voices Envisioned & a Conversation with Debby Irving.

Join us on Tuesday, May 17 at 7pm as Oakwood welcomes Debby Irving to Voices Envisioned

Ten years ago, we began to imagine an effective way to connect Oakwood students, their families, and our faculty/staff/administrators, so that together, we could explore important issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice. We wanted to do this in a way that was engaging and interactive, educational and entertaining. We knew there were amazing and accessible leaders of thought—authors, artists, activists, educators, and practitioners—who could help raise awareness and elevate dialogue around issues of twenty-first century diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, and most importantly, help us examine and articulate the ways in which we discuss and address these issues on our campuses. Collaborating with the Parent Organization Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee (PODEI), we came up with the idea for the Voices Envisioned (VE) program.

Throughout the years, the series has featured presentations and appearances from a broad range of guests, reflecting how inclusively we define diversity at Oakwood. The series launched with a performance of the critically acclaimed race play Nigga Wetback Chink. Our screenings have included the Academy Award winning, Visas and Virtue, a narrative short film inspired by the true story of Holocaust rescuer, Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara, who is known as “The Japanese Schindler,” as well as Read Me Differently, an acclaimed documentary that explores how dyslexia and ADHD have affected the filmmaker’s family.

Our guest speakers and workshop facilitators have included Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit Priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries, a non-profit that has done breakthrough work transforming the lives of former gang members. Audience members were rapt by the moving talk given by Father Greg and two ex-gang members who shared their stories. We were reminded of the innate kinship that connects us to one another and the capacity we all have to make important life changes. Tim Wise, a prolific and popular anti-racism activist and writer, who has given speeches at over 600 college campuses across the U.S., has also been a featured VE guest. Wise has been described as “one of the most brilliant, articulate and courageous critics of white privilege in the nation.” Tim’s provocative observations and comments were truly eye opening for the packed room here at Oakwood. Another remarkably memorable VE guest was Ambassador Shabazz, the eldest daughter of Dr. Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X. She presented a heartwarming talk, sharing stories about her father that gave us insights into Malcolm X’s life away from the podium and public.

Over time, there has been somewhat of a shift to speakers who offer more hands-on, actionable ideas and practices. Dr. Steven Jones, CEO of Jones and Associates, facilitated two workshops: “Embracing Diversity Through Inclusion I & II.” He engaged our community in exercises and activities to assist us in further developing cultural competency skills and techniques to create a safe environment to have dialogue about diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice.

This year, the focus of the VE series has been on racial identity. During the summer of 2015, PODEI invited Oakwood’s adult community to join their first ever book group. Several members of the parent body, faculty, staff, and administration participated in the reading of Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude M. Steele. In this book, Steele, who has been called “one of the few great social psychologists,” offers a vivid first-person account of the research that supports his groundbreaking conclusions on stereotypes and identity. He sheds new light on American social phenomena from racial and gender gaps in test scores to the belief in the superior athletic prowess of black men, and lays out a plan for mitigating these “stereotype threats” and reshaping American identities. There is not a single identity that does not have a negative stereotype attached to it, and it is well documented that “stereotype threat” inhibits student performance.

This book reading generated a high level of interest in further examining these issues and compelled us to invite one of Steele’s key researchers, Dr. Geoffrey Cohen, as the first VE guest speaker for the 2015-16 school year. Dr. Cohen’s talk focused on the ways in which teachers can use certain strategies and techniques to help students develop and maintain healthy identity awareness. Our second speaker, Mariama Richards, Director of Progressive and Multicultural Education at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City, shared how the race-based affinity groups that she initiated at that school helped students develop healthy racial identities.

This brings us to our Tuesday, May 17 featured VE guest, Debby Irving. Debby is an author and racial justice educator who is visiting from Cambridge, MA. She uses historical and media images to explore how racial perceptions are shaped. Her thought provoking Oakwood talk is sure to engage everyone in attendance.

A Conversation with Debby Irving—author of Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race


Your book tells the story of your personal journey, from childhood to adulthood, of broadening racial awareness, with your parents and upbringing playing a key part. What are some specific things that you’d like to say to parents?


Listen for the questions. Love the questions. Learn with your children.

  •      Why are so many of the football players brown?
  •      Why do most of the black kids take the bus to school?
  •      I wish there were no black people.

How well prepared are you to respond to questions or comments like these?

All are from young people in my own close circle of family and friends. None could I have competently responded to. Stumbling block #1 for me was that I thought I had to have answers. In fact, what I’m learning is that just being in the questions with our children is infinitely better than answering incorrectly or going awkward/silent.

Imagine responding with something like, “You know, that is a great question. I don’t have the answer, but I’d like to understand that better too.” Once you’ve affirmed the initial question, you’ll have time to breathe, collect your thoughts, and wonder with your child about how to explore the issue raised by the question.

A response like the above sends a powerful message that curiosity is valued, that even adults are still learning, and that answers can be found once the right question is posed. It also avoids the tragic unintended consequence of silence—that race is a taboo topic and questions about it are not welcome.

See this article for a well-navigated parent/child conversation about race.


An educational experience, a graduate school course, was at the center of your story. Do the lessons you learned play out differently at a place like Oakwood, a somewhat diverse, upper class, urban, independent school?


The lessons I learned in the graduate school course provided a context in which to understand everyday racial and cultural injustices. Unfortunately, those everyday injustices play out in virtually every U.S. institution. Does it look different at a somewhat diverse, upper class, urban, independent school than a city hospital or a rural police department? Only slightly.

The patterns are so pervasive and well established that there’s a predictability to their manifestations. These patterns also extend far beyond race and into the many social identities we all carry. Patterns of people subverting pieces of their identity are everywhere. Hiding one’s class background, sexual orientation, or an emotional disorder, for instance, are all ways people struggle to fit into the dominant culture and gain or maintain status. And yet, how can you hide race? White, black, or brown?

All across the U.S., patterns of white people being perceived as safer, more worthy, more able, interlock with patterns of black and brown people being perceived as less safe, less deserving, less able. Patterns of white people feeling like belongers in white dominant spaces and black and brown people feeling like they are barely tolerated, misunderstood visitors show up all across this country. Even organizations that are deeply committed to rooting out the injustice find themselves trapped by old patterns of thought, behavior, and social rank.

What have you learned since Waking Up White was published, what new discoveries have you made, what’s your current focus?


Like my book, my ongoing work explores the ideal/reality gap that haunts individuals and organizations. Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution and found you couldn’t quite pull it off? It’s not that different with diversity and inclusion ideals. So many big-hearted, smart people across the country are drafting amazing strategic plans and diversity statements with the best of intentions. My work is to grapple with the obstacles that interfere with visions becoming reality.

I find it interesting that as the youngest of five, I earned a reputation in the family as the one who named the elephant in the room, forcing everyone else to deal with an awkward truth interfering with our collective well-being. I seem to have taken that same role out into the world. There is nothing I enjoy more than exploring the elephant in the room because once it’s made visible, and we’re able to think together about it, we can figure out what to do with it. For me, that’s where life, love, and learning get really interesting.