As GDS Checks Boxes, Students Uncertain About Anti-Racism Progress

Photo by Reid Alexander.

For the past year, GDS has been checking boxes on the Anti-Racism Action Plan it launched in August 2020. A page on the GDS website has tracked the progress of the plan by marking each of the 53 action items as being in “planning,” “in progress” or “complete.” The objectives range from hiring more Black teachers to reforming the disciplinary system to providing ways for Black students to seek support or share feedback.

But six students who spoke with the Bit, including five Black students, struggled to describe specific ways in which the plan has affected their day-to-day school experiences, though they expressed appreciation for the school’s all-around efforts. 

When asked how they had been affected by GDS’ anti-racism initiative, no student cited a specific, tangible improvement in their daily lives. “I think it’s a start,” junior Drew Cowan, a co-head of the Black Student Union (BSU), said of the plan.

“Some people will say the school’s doing too much,” Head of School Russell Shaw told the Bit. “Some people will say the school’s not doing enough. Some people will say it’s all PR. Some people will say, ‘I believe it and think it’s making a difference.’ Ultimately, we have to tune out all that noise and simply try to do right by our mission.”

Items on the school’s checklist are listed as either immediate actions, intended to be completed within four months, or ongoing actions, which were expected to take up to a year to implement. 

Sophomore Madi McDaniel, a Black student and Student Staff Council (SSC) representative, said of the anti-racism checklist, “They need to put that out and then continually work on advocating for students of color.” She added that “it’s kind of off that they put it in boxes” and, in so doing, oversimplified such wide-ranging, complex goals.

One item listed under the heading “Establish Support for Black Students/Enhance Student Environment” was consulting regularly with BSU leaders.

In virtual meetings with administrators last year, Cowan said, “there was a lot of just talking at us, and telling us what they’re doing, trying to prove that they are doing what they say they’re supposed to be doing.” He added that he expects those meetings to become more productive once they’re in person.

“My job is not to convince people that we are earnest in our efforts,” Shaw said. “My job is, along with my colleagues and the institution, to do the work, and then to measure whether or not it’s being effective.”

Despite some misgivings, Cowan said he appreciated the meetings and was optimistic about future collaborative efforts between the administration and affinity group heads. 

Most of the students interviewed for this article were not intimately familiar with the Anti-Racism Action Plan’s details. Some had not read about the school’s action items since the plan was announced at the beginning of last school year in a letter from Shaw and Marlo Thomas, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“I don’t exactly know where things have ended up,” junior Jaia Wilensky said, but she was aware that GDS was “looking to really radically change their course of action for how they deal with racism.”

Last year’s two diversity, equity and inclusion program associates, Guyton Matthews and Campbell Keyser, were contacted multiple times but could not provide comment prior to the publication of this article.

Five of the six students interviewed suggested that the pandemic has made it difficult to gauge the school’s progress in promoting anti-racism. Senior SSC representative Joya Breinholt said of GDS’ plan, “It’s kind of hard to tell how successful it’s been, partly because of COVID, since we haven’t been in the building.”

Senior Iman Dorman, a co-head of Young Women of Color, said she appreciates what the administration has done to further the anti-racism plan but suggested that students—particularly white ones—should play a bigger role in advancing it, too. “Students tend to say a lot of, ‘Well, what’s the administration going to do?’ That’s very important—what the administration’s going to do—but also, it’s never like, ‘What am I, as a white student, going to do about this?’” she said.

As for administrators’ efforts, of the 53 action items on the anti-racism checklist, 37 have been marked complete and 15 are still in progress. One item is still in the planning stage: an evaluation of the findings of an external equity audit, which will not be shared with administrators until this winter. 

Shaw said the Anti-Racism Action Plan is but “an initial, targeted salvo—a focused effort to be responsive to some acute concerns”—not the end of the school’s anti-racist efforts. “I hope that, a year from now, and two years from now, and five years from now, The Augur Bit is still writing the story of where the institution is, where we’re living up to our obligations, and where we’re falling short,” Shaw concluded. “Because that’s the only way we’re going to make real, sustained progress.”

Anna Shesol ’24 and Andrew Mikhail ’23

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