GDS announced its Anti-Racism Action Plan last year in a letter signed by two people—Head of School Russell Shaw and the director of diversity, equity and inclusion, Marlo Thomas. One year later, The Augur Bit interviewed Thomas to understand the plan’s progress thus far and her view of its accomplishments and setbacks.
Augur Bit reporter Amelia Oscherwitz recently spoke with Thomas in her office in the high school’s diversity, equity and inclusion suite. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Would GDS have created the Anti-Racism Action Plan without the Instagram account @blackatgds?
Highly unlikely. I think @blackatgds was a catalyst, in combination with the events that took place after the murder of George Floyd and the historical protests that occurred as a result of that.
The most prominent student-facing part of the anti-racism plan so far was the Zoom assembly last October. Many students in the chat that day and in interviews with the Bit said that they thought the assembly was poorly done. What, if anything, are you going to do heading into this school year to set the tone for students and engage them in the Anti-Racism Action Plan?
That assembly was an effort between several high school students who were interested in creating an assembly about anti-racism, and one of my team members from the office did help students think about that assembly.
I personally was not a part of any of those planning meetings—I’m saying that, me to you. This is not about throwing anybody under the bus, because that’s not what we do here. I believe there were some sections of that assembly that did not land well with students and rightfully so. How that assembly came to be was not a direct programming effort from the DEI office. We did have some debriefing conversations after to get to the heart of what happened and better understand so in the future something like that doesn’t happen.
Is there anything you’re going to do this fall to engage students in anti-racism?
There are some ideas that we will continue to build on. I’ll be meeting with David [Gillespie] and Pam [Stanfield] in the athletic department. Last year we piloted for our student athletes and coaches a program that began to introduce the history of race and racism in athletics. We are continuing to think about how we develop that program. And of course there is programming that we have in terms of assemblies related to different aspects of identity, this month being Hispanic, Latino, Latina, Latinx—yes, I say them all—Heritage Month.
What anti-racist change that GDS has made in the past year do you think has been the most impactful for students?
There were some key pieces related to student leadership and opportunities and really ensuring that we have an equitable process for how student leaders are both nominated and selected. I think the other piece that has a direct impact positively on students is reviewing how incidents of negative bias are reported and handled.
The chairs of each of the high school departments went through a year of professional development around coaching for equity. So that then informs how they are working with each of the teachers in their respective departments, which then informs how teachers show up in the classroom, and how they think about grades and assessments and curriculum development and course offerings.
You said that the way student leaders are chosen is changing?
Fata [Morgana] went through a redesign of selecting leads and created a phenomenal template that we will be meeting with [Assistant Principal for School Life] Quinn [Killy] to talk about potentially implementing across all student leadership positions. I don’t want that yet to be named, because we haven’t landed that plane yet, but Fata is an example of a group that was thinking about an equitable leadership model.
You also mentioned disciplinary changes. Since last fall, has GDS changed its approach to dealing with racist incidents at school when it comes to discipline?
We are working in real time to further develop the ability to better track incidents specifically related to negative bias. What we would like to do is have something this year to help us understand where and when and how often those incidents are happening, if they are happening.
Can you elaborate on how that system is going to work?
It’s not fully baked yet, but what you see quite often, especially in colleges and universities, is an incident reporting tool or document where an individual who has either witnessed or been targeted can go into a form, complete the form, and that form is automatically submitted and it flags if you have an incident that now needs an immediate response. So what we are considering is piloting something to that effect.
How did the circumstances of the pandemic and virtual school last year affect your ability to implement the Anti-Racism Action Plan? Has it significantly impeded the school’s progress?
I wouldn’t say significantly. I would say that COVID has in some way impacted the ability to mark all of GDS’ commitments off as complete. We have allowed ourselves the flexibility to understand COVID’s impact on how we are moving through our anti-racist commitments, while at the same time not allowing it to prevent us from making progress because this work is too important to put on hold.
The GDS website has a page outlining the steps of the Anti-Racism Action Plan that labels each item as in planning, in progress or completed. Does that mean that at some point, the plan will be complete?
Complete means there are tasks that are assigned to individuals as stakeholders in moving some of those commitments forward. So yes, I’d say that eventually the goal is that the commitment tracking sheet suggests that we’ve looked at all of these areas and done specific work related to these areas. We can mark that work as complete as it relates to this action plan, but that work will continue to happen beyond that action plan year to year.
Amelia Oscherwitz ’24