Inclusion at the Intersection of Identity and Politics

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Do a private written check-in, to make sure students are processing their ideas respectfully outside of class as well.
  9. Finally encourage discussion and respectful debate, reminding students of the importance of #2.
  10. 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.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf – Inclusion Factor Interview with Kalyan Balaven

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is a professional basketball player. He played for the National Basketball Association (NBA) for nine years (Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings, and Vancouver Grizzlies) and was a prominent part of several playoff runs when he played for the Denver Nuggets. He also played overseas and recently has been lighting it up in the BIG3 basketball league. 

Mahmoud is much more than just a professional basketball player.

While Mahmoud was Steph Curry before Steph Curry was lighting it up beyond the arc, adding bling to his fingers, and giving swagger to the Bay.  He was also Colin Kaepernick before Colin Kaepernick, but for him there weren’t any t-shirts, logos, or shoe deals coming out of his stand protesting the oppression of Black and Brown in this country by sitting for the anthem.  Instead he was fined and struggled professionally as a result of using his platform to voice his political beliefs.

I sat down with Mahmoud to converse over Zoom on behalf of the Inclusion Factor, a repository of free resources available to schools to promote inclusion, and asked him the following three questions:

1. Right now, mainstream media is covering news about athletes protesting the extrajudicial killing of Black people, and have gone back to mention Colin Kaepernick, but have failed to note your notable protest or that of brother Craig Hodges—why do you think this is?

2. In independent schools, there is a growing Black@ movement, which revisits the experience of Black students never truly being included.  This is interesting in that all these schools promote diversity.  The NBA and other professional organizations champion diversity as well—do you think that they are truly inclusive as they need to be in consideration of the psychological impact of violence towards unarmed Black people, and the trauma triggered for Black athletes in relation to national events, and if not, how can they be?

3. What is your message for this generation of students who are processing the pandemic of disease, while also dealing with the long-lasting pandemic of hate?  

Mahmoud spoke to these questions and gave powerful insights.  Some nuggets were how we process international oppression and give voice to the plight of those being oppressed overseas.  He brought up his interaction with members of the NBA leadership as they reached out during his protest and tried to invite empathy with him by sharing their own struggles and perspectives as members of the Jewish community, and how he respectfully differed as a Black man in America. And he also spoke to the idea of representative figures like Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama as not indicative of our society having arrived in terms gender or race and talked about how much work we must do.  All of this should provide ample opportunities to discuss and build capacity for inclusion in educational institutions, and for students to find their own voice, like Mahmoud did, in terms of inclusion.