By Kalyan Balaven
I grew up being a Toys “R” Us kid. Those rare visits to the store as a child were extra special to me, and every time I walked past Geoffrey Giraffe into the toy store I must’ve looked like Charlie Bucket when he first entered the chocolate room in Willy Wonka’s factory. That’s why it seemed like a part of me died this year when I found out my beloved childhood haunt was closing its doors for good.
Not long ago, I used the analogue of a toybox for a school and a game that I played with my son Matin as a way to talk about measuring inclusion. The great variety of toys in Matin’s toybox, like the students in our schools, were all served by Matin’s mission of having fun. Each toy was included in its own way, and Matin had an internal measure by which he cared for each. Inclusion was tangible to my son, not an ethereal formula. If a child could quantify inclusion through his behavior toward his toys, I thought, then surely we could measure inclusion in a complex system like our schools.
To me, if a single school was like a toybox, then a consortium of schools was Toys “R” Us—and we would have to innovate as a group in order to survive.
Inclusion remains the holy grail of diversity work within the independent school world. While schools are still chasing diversity and equity, these efforts are pretty measurable. A school can aim for a more diverse population, and then we can look at our admission data to see if we’re achieving it. We can aim for equity and then examine our financial aid and other programs to see how much we are accomplishing.
Inclusion, on the other hand, is where independent schools are most tested, and it’s the realm that necessitates the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion offices. Most of the work I did when I was a dean of equity and inclusion orbited around the concept of inclusion and the challenges it creates in an increasingly polarized society. When a student approached me about a moment of exclusion, I was called into action. The students who approached me and for what reasons varied. It might be a student from an underrepresented minority dealing with the whiteness of our school. It might be a conservative, white, heterosexual male who feels silenced in a progressive school. These narratives all speak to the pain of exclusion, and my job was to then interpret them for my colleagues, parents, and our student body. I often felt like Percival—holding onto the chalice with loose and gossamer fingers of subjectivity.
The taste of exclusion is bitter. I learned its acrimonious tang firsthand, having grown up as a dark-skinned child of parents with “funny accents” while enrolled in public schools. The distaste of exclusion lingers on your tongue like nervous saliva, from the times you were the last one left on the playground blacktop because everyone had already been picked for the game. Or it’s the gagging feeling that overcomes you when a teacher makes a public assumption about you in class, as a way to spice up the lesson, saying things like “you’ve probably been to that part of the world before.” It isn’t pleasant, and it doesn’t make learning a fun experience.
The more I attempted to address moments of exclusion in my work, the more I realized that I needed to make the concept of inclusion tangible, so that anyone could point to it just as easily as they point to indicators of equity and diversity. But how to do that? Even just asking the question was daunting. I wondered this aloud at one point with Eric Niles, head of school at Athenian, and his answer pointed me on my journey: “Just because measuring inclusion seems hard, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”
All our schools already attempt to measure inclusion. But we don’t do it with a universal metric—we tend to be idiosyncratic and over-rely on narratives. We hear about the one moment of exclusion and jump to respond, and then make sense of it. This approach is fine for those who are “down with the work” or “in the know,” but is much harder for the broader community and those outside of our schools to understand. This absence of a clear measurement of inclusion makes it that much harder to hold ourselves accountable for how inclusive we actually are.
So I set out to see how Athenian could measure inclusion—the hard, but hopefully not impossible, task. To start, I looked to see if and how colleges and universities were measuring inclusion. Institutions like U.C. Berkeley and Cornell University had been leading the way in measuring inclusion, which made it so that an outsider like me could see where inclusion was happening at their schools.
Using these models, I worked alongside a group I created when I first started at Athenian to help the school be more strategic in its equity and inclusion efforts; Athenian’s Equity and Inclusion Think Tank was a strategic planning committee of deans, division heads, and board members tasked with defining what questions we wanted to ask. Together we came up with three: What are the values of our school for which we want to hold ourselves accountable? What are the things we promise students of an Athenian education? And finally, what are all the things that our community would say are important in helping them to thrive at our school?
We posed these questions over the course of a semester, in a series of in-depth interviews with constituents throughout our school, including students, faculty, and staff. We followed this by conducting multiple surveys, which sought to gather insights about what it means to thrive at Athenian, to the entire community. We pored through the questions and answers with the E&I Think Tank—not because we thought we had comprehensive data yet, but because we were still working to create measurable data points for inclusion. We ultimately wanted to create a dashboard as a way to capture how well we were doing in creating an inclusive community, a way to display our successes and highlight our areas of growth.
We ended up with a survey of more than 50 questions, and then painstakingly trimmed it down to 19 by using our mission statement as a filter. We tested this survey with our entire eighth grade class, and based on the feedback we received, we made changes and re-tested the survey with our entire upper school division. Every time we tested the survey, we carefully examined the results, pulling charts and information and moving the data around so the community could begin to understand what it meant. I sought the advice of Laura Victorino, a survey guru and an Athenian board member, and further streamlined the survey questions and architecture to diminish bias and dig into the key areas of inclusion we needed information about. Themes for thriving that we identified earlier, like having a “sense of belonging” at Athenian, became streamlined into a single question that asked students what created that sense of belonging for them; this question had a drop-down list of categories that we created based on student input, with an open-ended option to name more. These types of questions helped us to identify key pillars, which became the vertical columns of our dashboard and spoke to the promise of our mission, as well as the areas indicated in our thriving surveys and interviews. All of this filtering helped us create the survey that would inform our first proto-dashboard.
Through a series of interviews and surveys among students, faculty, and staff, Athenian’s Equity and Inclusion Think Tank developed the school’s first inclusion dashboard.The final test survey became the foundation for our first inclusion dashboard, which we dubbed the Athenian Inclusion Proto-Dashboard (see image below).
The Inclusion Dashboard Consortium
Throughout this process, I sought support from Alison Park of Blink Consulting, who helped me facilitate conversations at the board level, bringing key constituents up to speed on the value of our work, and helping to co-lead breakout groups so we could maximize the meeting times of the E&I Think Tank. My work with Park led to natural connections and a bridging of our respective networks for furthering this work; she connected me with other schools and programs she knew of that were also on the precipice of trying to capture inclusion in this way.
While we were in the midst of our test surveys, Park set up a key meeting to connect me with other like-minded souls. This first meeting organically thrust both Athenian and me in a position of leadership for this work within the broader independent school network. The initial meeting, where I was looking for thought partners, led to a personal epiphany—the idea that Athenian did not have to be a lone toybox, that we could be like Toys “R” Us together. If we all measured similar themes on public dashboards, we could determine best practices to better serve all our students and chase inclusion in ways we never thought possible.
My hypothesis was that all our schools have great strengths, but none of us are perfect, and if we could identify the areas we were specifically strong, we could share the factors that make us particularly inclusive in those areas—while simultaneously focusing on our own areas of growth.
As I shared this vision with other schools, the prototype dashboard we’d created at Athenian became a rallying point for a larger group of interested peer communities from the 2016 People of Color Conference (PoCC) in Atlanta. This group grew to include 25 schools and programs from throughout the West Coast. We capitalized on that energy with a retreat in the fall of 2017 that I hosted at Athenian, during which I shared the Athenian Inclusion Proto-Dashboard, brought in Park to update the schools and programs about the work that was being done, and had Victorino facilitate an understanding of best practices for creating and building surveys. We spent the afternoon identifying themes we all wanted to measure our inclusion by and designing questions. We shared these, along with the slide decks, in a Google folder with everyone in attendance and later with other interested schools.
The proto-dashboard was the first of a longitudinal examination of how inclusion looks at Athenian. We used it to design a process for consortium schools to develop their own dashboards, and we sought feedback from the consortium to help us refine ours further and improve our process. We planned another retreat at the 2017 PoCC in Anaheim, during which I co-led a workshop on inclusion dashboards with Park, to discuss the sequence that helped create our dashboard and the need for the Inclusion Dashboard Consortium.
I proposed that, as a consortium, we could share these dashboards amongst ourselves, as a way to hold ourselves accountable, but also to find thought partners in the work around inclusion. We could share best practices and evolve our schools as places where inclusion is held in a tangible sense. We made a plan to meet regularly in person and online. After that workshop and retreat, our numbers continued to grow, and by the time we had our next meeting in the spring of 2018, hosted by the Chinese American International School in San Francisco, we had grown to a group of nearly 40 schools spread along the West Coast. Caroline Blackwell, NAIS vice president for equity and justice, joined us and participated in our group dialogue about how to best support this group and the larger initiative.
At the Spring meeting, Athenian unveiled the newest inclusion dashboards for both our middle and upper schools, informed by the feedback we’d received from the consortium at the previous retreat. (See images below.)
At the end, we agreed that our next steps are to continue to work to get all consortium schools to create longitudinal inclusion dashboards, along themes we’ve identified as shared areas of measurement for our schools. Until independent schools come together to grab hold of inclusion and hold each other accountable for it, it will remain elusive, and we will continue to chase the ghosts of narratives—failing in truly delivering on
the promise of our missions to our students.
My son Matin is not a Toys “R” Us kid and sadly never will be. Instead, he turns to Amazon and eBay and shows his Charlie Bucket excitement whenever a box shows up at our door. His toybox—made up of the toys he’s bought with his allowance or been gifted—is a collection of diverse characters collected for a purpose, played with an active imagination that constantly innovates to include in a manner that allows for diversity to shine and his toys to thrive. There is no one left on the blacktop, and none made out to be an example; there is just the love of play, the result of inclusion realized to its fullest potential, inclusion so encompassing that it cannot be contained in a toy box, let alone a toy store.