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Starting the School Year Practicing Cultural Consciousness


As students return to school filled with ideas, goals, and hopes for the new year, we must be aware of the complex changes that many educational institutions and learning communities have gone through these past years. Whether we are working to heal and reunite a community, decolonize our curricula, democratize decision-making, or unlearn our biases, we often know exactly what we want. However, we might feel overwhelmed or disheartened by the complexity of the problem or the inertia of the overall institutional structures and culture, and simply not know where to start.


Campus-wide initiatives to deepen diversity, equity, and inclusion can empower our communities to address some of these challenges and practice our core values right from the start. This blog hopes to share practical recommendations to achieve greater outcomes for inclusive initiatives.


The why, who, and how of gathering more intentionally.


Entering a new academic year means a marathon of gathering: faculty and student orientations, team, committee, and working group team meetings, welcome dinners, goal-setting sessions, and college assemblies. It can be easy to slip into last years’ routine, especially when working on complex challenges, but these gatherings set the tone for the next weeks. It matters which perspectives and experiences are included in the room, whether we have a clear purpose for the meeting, and how we design the gathering experience. How can we get people to connect in meaningful, relevant, and accessible ways?


Why: Identify the specific, unique purpose for each gathering you host.

  • Are you seeking to rebuild trust and confidence in your audience after a leadership transition or traumatizing incident?

  • Is your goal to initiate a deeper culture shift around mental health and well-being?

  • Are you trying to support a diverse cohort or new students in forming a community?


Who: Who do you need to invite to achieve this purpose?

  • What kind of affinity groups can create safer spaces for salient identities?

  • How might nurturing spaces like these interact with “coalition spaces” and do justice to the intersectionality of both discrimination and solidarity?


How: Reflect on how the gathering experience will help you achieve your purpose.

  • Can you imagine turning a central space in your building into a “past, present, future wall” that brings together challenges, learnings, and successes from the past year, creates a shared pool of meaning in the present, and assembles your community’s agenda for the next year?

  • Will you start your first school gathering with a whish gifting ritual and end it with a community dance?


As you design your gatherings, think about the rules that will support your purpose and how you will establish them. If setting rules seems counterintuitive in the context of transformative gathering, remember how community agreements have helped you create an inclusive climate or proactively address microaggressions. Rules and guidelines can help because they document a community consensus and make explicitly expectations and boundaries where implied etiquette, or creative chaos might disempower new or less experienced community members to step forward and claim space.


Set your goals, set your tone.


You cannot go anywhere without a road map, so taking the time to play what you would like to do for the year is essential to accomplishing your goals. Be realistic and start small; perhaps find 2-3 goals and create timeliness to accomplish these. While addressing complex issues, we cannot let fear lead to inaction. Change must be done intentionally, and we must be mindful of the environment that we are seeking to change. A more incremental approach may be in order in one organization whereas another may be more open to a large sweeping change. Your goals should thus reflect the reality of you situation. Begin by assembling a team and designating a point person who is responsible for driving this initiative. Regardless, it is good to form a small group of senior leaders and faculty who can begin to set DEI-informed goals for the year.



It is important to involve your audience early in the process, but if you do not currently have any DEI structure in place, it may be better to have some initial goal-setting discussions without them. Those in teacher / mentor / advisor roles can then invest in their own learning and unlearning and build trusting relationships, allowing them to give consistent guidance and co-create an inclusive climate for those in their care. Perhaps your goal is to write a policy. Another goal may be to create a designated DEI role or committee. From here, other ideas like creation of affinity groups or designated DEI spaces to foster conversations may emerge.


Whatever your goals may be, use the beginning of the year to discuss them openly with your community. Goal setting should focus on tone-setting. Address the importance of DEI in your organization and host brainstorming sessions in a community setting to introduce the concept of DEI and demonstrate your commitment to its principles. Establishing a timeline is as important as setting goals – it signals to others what to expect for the year (and years to come) and allows you to being to work in changing your organization’s culture.


Policy creation or review.


Creating an intentional DEI policy creates awareness and a shared pool of meaning. It also sets clear priorities, and thus community members have a clear framework within which they can seek justice, give feedback, and hold one another accountable. If your organization already has a DEI policy, review it with your community to reflect if you actually practice the core values articulated in the policy text and if changes need to be made. A policy should be written specifically for your institution, considering the different groups in your community. The policies of other organizations can provide a helpful starting points and inspiration. A DEI policy should be acceptable and comprehendible by everyone in your organization. Keeping the policy alive is also essential, ensuring it is a living, breathing document is important as DEI is an evolving field or research and practice.


Activate the 3 essential DEI change-making ingredients.


1. Diverse teams are often the most innovative. Combine perspectives, avoid biases, think outside the cultural, generational, or disciplinary box, and bring a wealth of resources. For a diverse, trusting team, effective problem-solving often takes the form of a particular kind of strategic experimentation: “prototyping”. When faced with a complex challenge, the team brainstorms, multiple approaches and then tests them one by one, trial and error, to chart what works and does not work in practice.


2. Constructive failure. Establish a culture of “constructive failure” that treats mistake-making as part of how we learn. It also shifts an institutional mindset that tends to focus too much time and resources on long planning processes toward continuous practice and concrete action.


3. Are curricular diversification and decolonization your priority? As you convene action plans for specific challenges, think about who should be included, and how much time is needed to brainstorm, implement, and evaluate. It is important to consider how you can document your work for professional portfolios, the collective and reflection process of your learning community, and external assessments.



Remember to set your goals and begin to examine how you intentionally gather as a community. Writing a policy and co-creating DEI committees will help your community take concrete steps towards the goals you set for the year ahead. In fact, you might find that the steps above amplify one another’s impact and, because they are really practices, not one-time events, you will see a culture shift in your organization. DEI is a collaborative effort, and it is through sharing our own experiences and entering often challenging conversations that we can come together and realize our potential as a community of educators and learners.




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