For the Anti-Racism Plan to Work, GDS Needs to Tell Students About It

Graphic by Nava Mach.

When GDS announced its anti-racism initiative in a very long email to the student body at the beginning of last school year, I was excited and sad at the same time. 

The ideas in the school’s plan were good and seemed to have the potential to genuinely improve GDS. They included, for example, hiring more faculty of color, mandating anti-racist staff training, offering anti-racist programming for non-Black parents and clarifying for students how to report instances of racism. Given the national climate, I hoped the community would be motivated to support those policies. 

But I knew deep down that students would not take the initiative seriously. Not because of what it stood for—I can say with absolute certainty GDS students care deeply about anti-racism. But because of the collective groan—the here we go again feeling—that so often follows GDS’ repeated, well-intentioned efforts to address racism. Another long email, I feared, would be met with criticism from students and school-wide pessimism that the new policies wouldn’t actually result in tangible changes. 

As I suspected would happen, midway through the semester, I found myself forgetting what the specific anti-racism policies even were. The long, informative emails from the summer and fall of 2020 had vanished from my brain. I asked my classmates if they knew what GDS had committed to, and they didn’t either. 

My hope further dissipated when the October 2020 Zoom anti-racism assembly rolled around. It consisted of a presentation and silent, awkward discussions in breakout rooms. Many students, in the public chat and in interviews with The Augur Bit since, considered the assembly an unsuccessful attempt to lead school-wide conversations about anti-racism.

Following that assembly, most students saw GDS’ anti-racism initiative as ineffectual. But most students probably weren’t aware of the specific anti-racism policies, or that GDS has an entire page on its website detailing the extensive Anti-Racism Action Plan. The link to that plan’s 53 policies, meanwhile, is buried in an email from 13 months ago.

If the whereabouts of the specific anti-racism policies were communicated to students in person or more frequently, students might be less quick to label our administrators as performative after hearing them talk about anti-racism.

The school’s lack of communication—and related lack of flexibility—extends throughout its diversity, equity and inclusion work. Last school year, the DEI office finished implementing a change to the formerly flexible, democratic system for affinity group co-lead selection, limiting groups to two co-leads, with only one senior. 

DEI program associate Guyton Matthews wrote in an email that his office consulted with the 2019-2020 heads when making the change. But the DEI office members left their intentions unknown to last year’s affinity co-leads, multiple of whom did not see the policy coming. It was an unnecessary and damaging change.

As a newly elected co-lead of AAA, the Asian-American affinity group, I watched this policy hinder diversity in leadership. AAA has historically had three co-leads, including multiple genders and both East and South Asian students—representing the beauty of AAA as a melting pot of the Asian continent. I am lucky to have junior Alana Goldstock as my co-lead, but the standardized affinity group policies prevented us from encapsulating all of AAA with an additional male co-lead.

Beyond AAA, senior Maya Stutman-Shaw was left alone to lead the Jewish Student Coalition (JSC) when no non-seniors applied to the role of co-lead, even though multiple other seniors did. The new system backfired, leaving out deserving seniors and making it more difficult for Stutman-Shaw to lead the club.

In short, when approaching anti-racism, the administration should be more flexible and communicate better with students. But when they do consult with student leaders, administrators and members of the DEI office must be careful not to let the full burden to design solutions fall on students of color.

Too often, when the time comes for student leaders to step forward with ideas regarding race, eyes tend to turn to the students of color, and a burden is silently placed on their shoulders. It can be scary and frustrating when students of color are expected to carry the weight of an anti-racism initiative that is meant to support and uplift them—or, to the contrary, are left in the dark until policies they didn’t get a chance to influence are implemented.

Yes, it is crucial to consult with students of color and affinity group co-leads to ensure diverse voices are represented. But remedying issues of race should not be left to students of color alone to handle. The issue here is that the balance of collaboration is off.

@blackatgds may have been the first instance in a while when student experiences were clearly and effectively communicated to not only the administration, but the student body, too. That was an example of students’ getting through to the school, but it came in a painful way. It shouldn’t have taken that much effort to share honest perspectives with the school and create a communicative relationship.

The school needs to improve not only its communication with student leaders, but also its communication to the student body at large. Students, for their part, should make a point to educate themselves on what GDS has committed to doing and should all be rooting for their school’s success as it embarks on this initiative.

If information about the Anti-Racism Action Plan is not easily accessible or widely known, then that calls into question how successful the initiative has been thus far. Can we really say we are implementing changes designed to improve students’ experiences if the majority of students aren’t aware of those very changes?

Pallavi Bhargava ’22

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