SEEDing Anti-Racist Leadership Qualities in Our Parents

Agnes Irwin parents and guardians are joining in the school’s commitment to collectively build an anti-racist institution by engaging in intentional conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

More than a dozen parents and guardians met throughout this academic year as part of Agnes Irwin’s parent offering of The National Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED) Project. SEED seeks to develop leaders who guide their peers in conversations and drive personal, institutional, and societal change toward social justice — while acknowledging and reflecting on intersecting identities, drawing on each person’s authority on their own experiences, cultivating spaces for self-learning and peer-sharing, and facilitating ongoing constructive conversations.

Now entering its third year at AIS, the parent SEED group serves as a cornerstone of parental involvement in creating an anti-racist school, and stems from survey feedback that indicated parent interest in taking a greater part in the shaping of school culture. Agnes Irwin has partnered with SEED for nearly nine years, with training for faculty, staff, and students.

Parent SEED’s philosophy is based on a three-pronged “head, heart, and hands” model. Participants explore academic research and empirical data to examine what has been done previously to address equity and inclusion issues; reflect on how each topic applies to them personally; and put their knowledge into practice: working toward the ultimate goal of enacting meaningful understanding and change, fostering an environment that welcomes and celebrates differences in backgrounds, perspectives, and cultures.

“We want to understand what is going on from an empirical and systematic view, while empathizing and feeling a sense of commitment to one another — and then work to enact change,” explained John Gomes, Interim Director of DEI and Upper School Coordinator of Equity and Inclusion.

The program centers on discussions and activities that foster open communication and dialogue. Participants use articles, videos, and current events — including the protests at the Capitol building in Washington, the rise in violence against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), and a Holocaust Remembrance Day discussion about the changing face of anti-semitism — as catalysts for fruitful discussion.

Prior to COVID-19, Agnes Irwin’s parent SEED group explored these ideas over meals and in-depth dialogue about gender roles, racism, cycles of oppression, the power of names, and more. Moving to an online format posed challenges, but did not deter members from engaging in conversation and reimagining their usual in-person interactions. In fact, with a decrease in the logistics of travel and finding childcare, more parents have been able to participate.

“Given the topics, we are asking people to be vulnerable — which is much harder when you aren’t face to face,” Gomes adds. “We’ve gotten great at using Zoom and Padlet to mimic our activities.”

In the wake of the national racial reckoning that began in spring 2020, spurred in part by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, Gomes has seen a renewed interest in programs like SEED, as parents seek a more active role in shaping their communities. In June, several of this year’s participants attended Agnes Irwin’s Summit on Racial Justice, a three-day virtual gathering of healing, reflection, and solutions-focused discussions surrounding anti-racism, equity, and inclusion.

The SEED experience has had a profound effect in challenging the group members’ implicit biases and views concerning DEI work. “As a white female, I don’t have enough knowledge about racism or inequality in all forms,” remarks Tara, a Class of 2030 parent. “For me, to be true in saying I am welcoming and accepting of all was to embrace anti-racist work, [to] continue to learn and listen, [and] by having uncomfortable and vulnerable conversations with others. The SEED program at AIS has helped me do just that.”

For Kristen ’88 P’21, the program provided a framework and language for further discourse and learning. “SEED enabled me to develop myself more as a person who could then advocate for those who needed support,” she notes. “Participating in SEED not only developed my understanding of my own views on race, but gave me a wider understanding of and respect for the multitude of perspectives within my Agnes Irwin community.”

As Agnes Irwin’s SEED program looks ahead to the 2021-2022 year, Gomes is encouraged by the growing interest and outpouring of parental support. “We are going to think about the best way to continue the program that allows for the greatest access for all our parents,” he said. “We want to ensure that people who want to be involved have that opportunity.”

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