February 13, 2021
Dear Williston Northampton Community,
Early last summer, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, I wrote to you to underscore the school’s dedication to anti-racism, inclusion, and belonging, and to outline specific action steps towards this commitment. In the months since then, Williston has made progress against these initial goals, thanks to the work and support of many people, and the essential input of alumni, faculty, parents, and students. The steps we have taken are just the beginning of a long and sustained effort, and I want to express my regret that we have not communicated on a more regular basis about our continued commitment to anti-racism and the work we are doing. In this letter, I hope to do both.
First, I want to thank again all those who have come forward to share their thoughts, criticisms, suggestions, support, ideas, and painful stories with the school. Please know that I hear you, the administration hears you, and that we support your desire for change and deeply regret pain experienced by any member of the community. Williston clearly has work to do, and we must not tolerate racism or discrimination in any form on our campus. The school is grateful for the letter posted and signed by 350 people last July on the Black at Williston (@BlackatWNS) account. The suggestions in that letter have influenced the direction of the 5-year Strategic Plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in development for board approval this spring.
Second, I want to share an update on the initial, concrete steps Williston has taken to address the concerns that students and alumni have expressed. What follows are some of the actions we have taken since last summer:
Planning, Infrastructure, and Assessment
- One of our first steps, last July, was to establish Williston’s Anti-Racism Committee (ARC), a diverse group, consisting of alumni, trustees, teachers, and administrators. Charged with developing a five-year Strategic Plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion that will help guide the school’s ongoing and future work, this group has met frequently throughout the year to shape a plan focused on six key areas: Administrative & Governance Infrastructure; Community & Alumni Involvement; Faculty, Staff, & Administration Training; Faculty & Student Diversity; Funds & Endowment; and Student Experience & Education. All of the recommendations cited in the alumni letter posted and signed last July were reviewed by this committee, and many will be reflected in the final plan presented to Williston’s Board of Trustees for formal approval in May 2021.
- In December, Williston announced a new and permanent full-time Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion position. This senior administrator will manage and coordinate collaborative DEI strategic initiatives across campus. An external search is now underway for this important leadership role. Williston’s Dean of DEI will partner with students, faculty, other administrative leaders, and trustees to shape and guide the school’s sustained efforts to build a culture of inclusion and belonging on campus.
- Williston conducted the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism surveythis fall to get direct and anonymous feedback from past and current students, parents, faculty, staff, administrators, and trustees. This survey reflects a critical first step in our ability to benchmark progress in the coming years, and Williston plans to conduct the survey annually.
- At the October board meeting, Williston’s Board of Trustees engaged in anti-racist and inclusiveness training. Recognizing the value of diverse, institutional board-level leadership, we are committed to adding at least two BIPOC trustees by July 1, 2021. At present, the 23-member board of trustees includes two members of color. Currently, we are engaged in initial conversations with additional candidates and look forward to updating you on our progress later in the year.
Faculty Training and Development
- Williston has dedicated the overwhelming majority of its mandatory faculty professional development and training time to diversity, equity, and inclusion this year, and is committing to make this an annual emphasis and requirement going forward. We dedicated two full days of our opening faculty meetings in August to DEI training and discussions with Dr. Darnisa Amante-Jackson of DEEP (Disruptive Equity Education Project), followed by a full day of school-wide anti-bias training for students and faculty with Rosetta Eun Ryong Lee in September. In December, Williston sponsored nine faculty members to attend this year’s multi-day NAIS People of Color Conference, and most importantly, subsequently shared key takeaways and action steps with peers at an all-faculty meeting in January. Last month, Smith College professor Loretta Ross also spoke to faculty about anti-racist conversations, inclusive disagreements, and social justice.
- Williston faculty recently launched their own Building Anti-Racist White Educators (BARWE) program. This program is specifically designed for white identifying faculty to take responsibility for fighting racism and white supremacy and addressing their own unconscious biases so they can better support the academic, social, and emotional well-being of our students of color. This series brings faculty together every few weeks and provides tools for learning, introspection, and action.
- Williston is currently conducting a year-long, inclusive pedagogical practice curricular review based on a new cultural competency model developed by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). The goal of this process is to ensure that our course content and teaching styles are inclusive and anti-racist, and that all students, regardless of identity, feel a true sense of belonging in their classes. This process is a major component of all department meetings, with department chairs ensuring that all faculty are engaging in regular and comprehensive reviews of our pedagogical practices, standards, and course material, and setting DEI goals for each teacher and department. Changes to our curriculum and practices have already begun, and this process will continue further in conjunction with our new Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
Student Training, Programs, and Support
- All students have taken part in significantly increased and mandatory anti-bias discussions, which will be an ongoing part of student education going forward. This has included workshops for all student leaders with Dr. Liza Talusan on how to create more inclusive environments; a full day of anti-bias workshops and training in September with Rosetta Eun Ryong Lee (as cited above); a full day of faculty-run workshops about social justice and belonging and a discussion with poet and professor Dr. Rogers Reeves for Martin Luther King Jr. Day; and an upcoming full day of student-led dialogues about social justice, inclusion, and belonging with a strong focus on anti-racism for Why Not Speak Day in April. In addition, all first-year students now take a trimester-long course on human rights and social justice as part of the humanities curriculum.
- In January, Williston established new student-centered and teacher-supported affinity spaces for all groups of students to encourage interaction, support, and safe spaces among members of the same racial, ethnic, or LGBTQ+ background. Our Martin Luther King Jr. Day programming included these affinity spaces, as will other major events and discussions in the future. The model for these groups is based on the standards set by the National Association for Independent Schools. Affinity spaces allow students who share an identity to gather, discuss issues related to that identity, and transfer that dialogue into action.
- One of the strongest points of feedback from alumni this summer was to create a reporting system for alleged bias incidents. In response this January, Williston established and implemented a new online Bias Incident Reporting Form and process for any individual member of the campus community who believes that they have experienced or witnessed an act of bias, discrimination, or harassment.
Investment and Fundraising
- Budgets are a reflection of a school’s priorities and values, and Williston has increased its investment in DEI-related programs and activities by nearly 35% over last year. This financial commitment will only increase in future years. In recognition of this, Williston is giving alumni and supporters of the school the option to earmark all or part of their annual Williston Northampton Fund donations to DEI efforts. Going forward, donors can select or specify the “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” designation when making their gift.
- In addition to funding current DEI initiatives through the Williston Northampton Fund, the school has launched a new Equity fundraising initiative that better supports students with high financial need and creates a more inclusive community through a two-pronged approach. First, thanks to some initial gifts from a small group of donors for the upcoming school year, Williston has established a new “Equity Fund” in support of non-tuition supplemental financial aid for all students with very high financial need. This underwrites the invisible cost of enrollment—college application fees, purchasing athletic gear like the rest of the team, pizza with friends on a Friday night, etc.—all of those important activities that reinforce belonging and community. Second, Williston seeks endowed financial aid fund support of BIPOC students with very high financial need. Only 11 percent of Williston’s $6.4 million annual financial aid budget is endowed, so this remains an urgent priority.
- Williston also seeks to sustain and ultimately endow Faculty Diversity Fellowship opportunities. The Adelmann Fellowship was established as a pilot program seven years ago thanks to the ongoing generosity of a Class of ‘61 donor. Through this gift, the school has been able to partially fund the recruitment and hiring of new young Black and Brown teachers at the beginning of their careers. Over the past seven years, the program has helped make possible the subsequent hiring of five faculty members.
As we look ahead, our five-year plan drafted by the Anti-Racism Committee is slated for board review this spring, and it outlines additional and important initiatives, including a focus on recruiting and hiring more faculty of color; increased support for all students, regardless of gender, race, orientation, religion, and disability; an increased focus on DEI and financial aid fundraising; and other elements that will ensure all members of our community are shown equal respect and feel a sense of belonging. This work is important and urgent, and also requires time and investment that we are committed to. I am eager to build on the momentum the Williston community has initiated and make sure that these issues remain front and center in our work going forward.
To that end, I would like to invite all members of our community to an ARC-sponsored update and discussion via Zoom on Tuesday, February 23, at 7 p.m. ET. (Please click here to register for the event.) If you cannot join us for that event, I encourage you to check out our DEI webpage or share your thoughts by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Like all great institutions, Williston will always be a work in progress, ever evolving and aspiring to be better, and input from current and former members of our community is critical to this process. We have worked hard to listen and learn from a range of conversations with individuals and groups that are ongoing, and more input from all of you will only help us to make Williston a better place for all students.
Robert W. Hill III P’15, ’19
Head of School