Diversity, equity, and inclusion: A personal and professional journey
In 2018-2019, Shelburne Farms supported an equity assessment of its policies, programs, structure, culture, and practices. Since then, we’ve been responding to that assessment. The ongoing work is to build an equitable and inclusive organization, and more broadly, to support an equitable and inclusive society.
At a recent Shelburne Farms Board meeting, our School Programs Coordinator Courtney Mulcahy reflected on what this has meant for her and the programs she’s part of.
I am grateful and proud that Shelburne Farms is doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work as an organization. It’s critical for every institution, workplace, and community – and it’s basic decency – because there is no oasis from what we are currently facing as a country.
Back when we started the process, it became clear that it’s not possible to separate this work into personal and professional spheres. I couldn’t commit to these ideas professionally and not commit to them personally. So I’m always working on whole life implementation of the ideas and practices that I’m continuously learning. It’s at times daunting and overwhelming, but it is so important, especially because as an educator, my personal values and beliefs have implications that ripple far beyond my own life, and into the lives of those I teach.
Topics of equity or diversity can often unearth thoughts or feelings that make people feel vulnerable and emotional, so before we ask people to engage with them, we need to set up the right learning conditions. At the Farm, our learning conditions vary because each educational experience we offer has a different audience and lasts for a different period of time.
For example, in our school programs, where we generally see students once for about 4 hours, sharing and telling stories is one way we have started connecting students to diverse experiences and perspectives, since storytelling is familiar to people and can easily be incorporated in our programs. We’ve asked participants to share their own stories, or we will read stories that highlight the perspective of the natural world, and we also have incorporated more stories and storytelling with indigenous origins, consulting with Chief Don Stevens and other Abenaki educators, such as Judy Dow and Fred Wiseman.
In working with these teachers, we have further embraced indigenous ways of knowing and being, including cultivating gratefulness and setting up experiences that help learners to see how we as humans are a part of–not separate from–the natural world. The hope is to create empathy and understanding, which in turn can lead to action.
Using an “equity lens,” we have begun to take a critical look at our curriculum. As we develop a program, we ask who the program is for, who is benefitting from it, and whose voices are missing, and adjust accordingly. Then we try to examine the program activities with a fresh eye – especially with programs we’ve been running for a long time – to see where we are inviting in multiple perspectives and how we might incorporate (or drop) ideas, activities, resources, stories, or knowledge to make the program more accessible to all.
We also know that language is very important. How we speak about something reveals a lot about our relationship to it. During introductions with older students, for example, each of us shares the personal pronouns we use (she, her, he, his, they, them, etc.) to create a more inclusive environment for all genders and gender expressions. We are careful with words like “stewardship” and “conservation,” which can make our relationship to the natural world sound very “human-centric” and potentially create that separateness from nature that I mentioned earlier.
As we go through programming with this equity lens, we are able to better identify where our continued work lies. With issues of equity and inclusion, it’s important to realize that the work is never done. There’s always learning. There are always mistakes. And hopefully, there are always a few steps forward! For me, I’m thinking about issues of accessibility for students of all physical, cognitive, and emotional abilities, finding ways to better engage new American and English learners, and bringing more diverse authors into our library of resources.
In our professional learning programs, we often see teachers for several days or more, so we have time to develop the relationships and trust needed to really dive into topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion. And we do! We have shared many resources and brought in experts to engage teachers on a personal level with the issues and to explore how they can do the same with students. For many of them, it’s their first time formally tackling these topics in a group setting. Often they express thanks for the opportunity, even though it can be uncomfortable and challenging.
It’s true. Systemic racism, biases, unacknowledged privilege – these are heavy topics! But unpacking them in conversations and in our own lives can be transformational. And like our campus itself, the outcomes can be inspiring and exciting! Addressing these issues is an essential piece of educating for sustainability and essential to building a better future for all on this planet.
In hiring new education staff, we’ve added a question around diversity, equity, and inclusion to our interview process. What has really stood out for me is that several of the applicants have thanked us for the question, and are excited that Shelburne Farms is tackling this work. They go on to acknowledge their place and privilege, sharing their own experiences with these topics and where their areas of growth lie. It’s inspiring!
I am excited to continue learning through a facilitated “Community of Practice” that the Farm supports. This is a group of coworkers committed to diving deeper into the “itchy bath” (as a former coworker called it) of dismantling racism and privilege. As people and professionals, we share thoughts, ideas and perspectives, meeting each other where we are at without shaming or placing blame.
Which brings up a final comment about this work. Often I’m afraid I’m not doing or saying the right thing. And I know I am not alone. But as I have learned, if I shy away from what’s uncomfortable to me, I’m not helping anything, and in fact, am being hurtful. It’s not enough to just not be racist or misogynistic or xenophobic; I have to actively work against these ideas in order to create the world I do want: one that embraces difference, opportunities, and access for all.
I am indebted to the Farm for providing the space, resources, and time in order to do this incredibly important, life-saving work, and for having the vision to know that this is a critical investment as an organization with a mission of sustainability and for the betterment of all living things on this planet we call home.
There are SO MANY resources on the topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I encourage you to explore online. Here are a few resources that have been particularly helpful to me:
- Rethinking Ethnic Studies, book, Editors: R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, Miguel Zavala, Christine Sleeter, Wayne Au
- Courageous Conversations about Race, book, by Glenn Singleton (Also a website: Courageous Conversations)
- Braiding Sweetgrass, book, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- Seeing White, podcast (one of THE most helpful, informative, insightful resources, especially as a starting point)
- The Conscious Kid, website (also on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter)
- Embrace Race, website (They conduct a monthly webinar/online conversation on “Talking Race & Kids”)