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April 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 7

Principal Connection / Why You Need a Diversity Champion

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Who's the diversity champion at your school? This is the person who makes sure that issues of diversity are factored into school strategies and part of everyone's professional growth plan. The diversity champion is often the school's conscience for diversity, the one who prods staff members to be vigilant about providing respect, appreciation, and inclusion to everyone. Do you wear this mantle? Is it formally assigned to someone, or is it simply understood that diversity is a priority at your school?
If you assume that everyone at your school realizes diversity is important, so it doesn't need a formal champion—you're wrong. It's precisely because affirming all the aspects of each child's identity is so important to growth and development that diversity needs a point person. Schoolwide efforts to embrace diversity must be at the forefront of someone's consciousness; some person needs to be accountable for scrutinizing plans, observing actions, and checking communications to be sure an appreciation for this concept is integral to everything that happens at the school.

When Diversity Loses its Meaning

The term diversity has become part of our politically correct admin-speak. It's mentioned in our literature, noted on bulletin boards, and featured in hiring advertisements. But too often, our actions don't follow our pronouncements and our visions are just words. Anna Holmes recently made the case in the New York Times that this word has lost its meaning:
How does a word become so muddled that it loses much of its meaning? How does it go from communicating something idealistic to something cynical and suspect? If that word is "diversity," the answer is: through a combination of overuse, imprecision, inertia, and self-serving intentions. … It's almost as if cheerfully and frequently uttering the word "diversity" is the equivalent of doing the work of actually making it a reality. (pp. 21–22)
We value what we measure, and those things that aren't measured—often including diversity—aren't given much attention. That's somewhat understandable, but it's also a mistake because issues that stem from student diversity are too important to ignore.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs shows us that self-actualization—learning and growing—is at the highest level, but before we can begin to work toward that goal, we need to have our physiological needs of food and sleep met, we need to be safe, and we need to feel loved and have a sense of belonging. An important part of that belonging is being not just accepted, but appreciated for who we are. Our students—indeed, our staff members—need to be recognized and valued for their race, socioeconomic status, family arrangement, sexual orientation, ethnicity, physical appearance, age, religion, and level of ableness. Perhaps part of the reason some people see the term diversity as less meaningful is because it applies to so many aspects of people, but the reality is that all these aspects are valid.
Race jumps out at us when we think about diversity because it's usually so obvious. Our country's history is rife with situations in which race was used to exclude and discriminate; sadly, although significant gains have been made, this issue remains with us. For example, in Claude Steele's book, Whistling Vivaldi, he discusses stereotype threat. This occurs when individuals who have been freshly reminded that they are part of a group associated with a negative stereotype perform more poorly because of that reminder, thus reinforcing that stereotype. But race is just one variable we need to affirm. If we want our students to be full members of the community and feel a sense of belonging, we need to work to respect the whole spectrum of diversities that walk through our doors.

Needed: A Point Person

So what can school leaders do to ensure that all students feel included and respected? How can we be sure that the word diversity implies values and leads to action?
First, regardless of the diversity of the school community and irrespective of the race of the principal, every school needs a diversity champion, someone who lives, breathes, and proselytizes diversity. This can be an administrator or a teacher. The role should have a title so that there's accountability and no confusion. At my school, a teacher is our director of diversity.
The key qualification for this role is passion for these issues. Beyond that, the diversity champion needs knowledge about diversity, skill in listening to others, comfort in working with groups of people, a strong heart, and a thick skin. Pursuing diversity isn't simple or easy! Personally, I think it is best if the diversity champion is not the principal because then there's at least a two-person team on the case. The principal should select the champion, but there needs to be strong staff input.
The diversity champion must join conversations among leaders about plans and strategies. The champion ensures that in all situations and decisions, people consider the importance of making the school more diverse, and he or she often proclaims—in words and actions—that the various races, religions, and so on are valued. For example, the champion makes sure that inclusion and diversity are regular topics at faculty meetings focusing on professional growth and that the administration sets diversity goals and strategies for the school. He or she is involved in hiring decisions and may organize parent education sessions centered on valuing diversity. At my own school, our diversity director has led us in thinking about how to respond to the tragedy in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.
When our actions ensure that every person is respected and our school environment and curriculum validate all human variables, using the word diversity makes a powerful, clear statement. Who's the diversity champion at your school? If you don't have one, who could it be?
End Notes

1 Holmes, A. (November 1, 2015). Has "diversity" lost its meaning? The New York Times, p. mm21.

2 Steele, C. M. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi. New York: Norton.

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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