What does it mean to include the whole student? This is the question at the heart of this interview with Kalyan Balaven for the Inclusion Factor and Professor Heidi Mirza.
In this interview Dr. Mirza covers what it means for institutions to include the whole students. She gives an example of a school that seems to have done it and explains why, she explores the culture of brochurism in independent schools and universities and talks about what real representation looks like, and finally touches on the impact for diversity in faculty.
“Professor Heidi Mirza is an icon—for over 4 decades she has been a champion for inclusion on a global level as the pre-eminent scholar for Black Feminist Studies, Intersectionality, and the role of Education in relationship to Diversity and Inclusion in the world. I met Heidi in 2013, in Brighton, UK, after she had finished addressing our group of diverse global educators on what the real challenge of inclusion was, specifically speaking to the cost paid by the individual being included, when they became an exemplar or token for the institution, but could not thrive as a full community member due to the way they were being included. I was struck by the sophistication of her presentation, the nuance she provided, and the guidance she willingly shared. I approached the podium to share my gratitude and was surprised to find a kindred spirit, one who I still call my sister, and reveled in how many connections we had beyond the topic at hand—later I invited her to America, where she visited the school I was working at, and she single-handedly helped us move forward in leaps and bounds in our understanding of the complexity in the intersection of identity, within an eduscape, our responsibility as educator’s therein.”
Inclusion is not a special interest. Inclusion as a principle applies to all—and in a school it extends to all students, faculty/staff, and community members. True inclusion deals with identity but does so in a holistic and intersectional way. When inclusion intersects with whole student education a beautiful thing happens; students are empowered to contribute their voices and experiences, to go below the water line of their icebergs, and share from the well of their identity from faith to politics, to race, gender, and sexuality; such that they expose each other to the full spectrum of each, and how these identifiers nuance, problematize, and inform the others such that they make us who we are. When students are exposed to diversity in this manner and fully embraced for all that they are, this affords the entire community of students the opportunity to become culturally fluent across these identifiers, thereby serving their interests in matriculating as whole students prepared to build community in the worlds that they enter.
This is a sophisticated calculus and requires a school mission or vision wholly centered on the whole student with a program to build institutional capacity for inclusion. This is also increasingly hard in a polarized world, such that members in a community can react to a singular data point, a facet of a person’s identity, or even a false perception and build walls instead of engaging in discourse and understanding, i.e. building bridges. It is the role of community leadership in these moments to model dialogue, self-awareness, privilege recognition, and empathy in order to build towards cultural wisdom such that understanding displaces ignorance. We have more to learn from each other than from any particular discipline and schools that optimize their ability to include will provide students with the greatest skills in connecting with each other that are needed to help them achieve their full potential as responsible leaders in the world.
This can be particularly complex when trying to navigate the spectrum of political discourse prevalent today while also attempting to be inclusive of identities feeling challenged by particular political positions. When handled masterfully, faculty can bring a class forward in a sophisticated understanding on an issue, empower each student with their own unique perspective to be more eloquent in their own views, and help build a respectful community of dialogue. In order to get their classrooms to this level of mastery, teachers who feel as if they navigate emotional safety minefields in relationship to political perspectives should focus on the following 10 key strategies:
Have self-awareness around your own identity, beliefs, and values, and wear your educator hat first and foremost in the classroom so that you can be an objective facilitator of a conversation as opposed to a participant.
Create parameters classroom around hate speech, i.e. that which may be racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-Semitic/Islamophobic, in order to create a safe space for discourse in the classroom.
Remind students that there is a line between political arguments that may be anti-immigration, anti-refugee, pro-gun, anti-same-sex rights, anti-abortion/pro-life, versus language that is ‘phobic, racist, and sexist. We should allow for the discourse of the former, but the latter is unacceptable and is a clear safety issue (emotional) for our students who would be impacted by such language.
Make sure all perspectives on issues are discussed and if there are blind spots or voids in the room due to a lack of perspective, as the educator, voice that perspective.
Rely on primary sources – with full context, seek to complexify issues as opposed to simplifying them, thereby allowing students to reflect on how they feel about what they are seeing/hearing/reading in relationship to who they are in the world they are in.
Check in with students who are in the minority in your classroom, to make sure that their emotional safety is being considered and that they have had an opportunity to have their perspective shared.
Check in with students who have been the most vocal and reflect with them on what they observed and how they felt their ideas were received.
Note that conversations that start in the classroom may not end there and may spill out into the school day or on social media, so checking in with students is important, especially since these other conversations may happen without the facilitation of a culturally competent instructor.
Do a private written check-in, to make sure students are processing their ideas respectfully outside of class as well.
Finally encourage discussion and respectful debate, reminding students of the importance of #2.
Let students become the facilitators of conversations as the year progresses, and model what it means to explore all perspectives on an issue so that they too understand what that looks like and can lead a conversation in this way.
When the whole student is in focus, then it is imperative that blind spots are named, and bias is called out. Whole student education ceases to serve the whole student if certain perspectives or views are disallowed—a true discourse of ideas needs multiple perspectives in order for the intellect to thrive, along with the heart, and the body. A successful student in an inclusive whole student model does not necessarily graduate in the mold of an institution or a teacher, but as a better version of themselves, with the skills needed to be true global leaders in a diverse and multifaceted world.
Kalyan Balaven is the founder of the Inclusion Dashboard Consortium and regularly contributes to the Inclusion Factor as a writer and member of our founding board. Formerly a Dean of Equity and Inclusion at The Athenian School, he has been named to be the incoming Head of School at the Dunn School in Los Olivos, California.