How a life-changing museum visit is helping BOCES build DEI culture

Among the very first steps a new director of diversity, equity, and inclusion took was a leadership trip to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
Evelyn Lafontaine
Evelyn Lafontaine
Evelyn Lafontaine is the director of human resources and diversity, equity & inclusion at Ulster BOCES. She can be reached at [email protected].

I recently had the honor of becoming the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Ulster BOCES in New York. Among the very first steps we have taken as an organization in our DEI efforts was a trip to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

The purpose of the trip was to get members of our leadership team on the same page with a shared experience and common understanding about issues of discrimination and systemic racism. District leaders who made the trip included Ulster BOCES Deputy Superintendent Jonah Schenker, his predecessor Charles Khoury, the president of the teachers union, the president of our employees union, an officer of our teaching assistants and aides association, two principals, a leader from our instructional services team, and one teacher, who is also a member of the DEI committee.

Here’s what I learned from my experience in Montgomery, and how it’s informing our initiatives to build DEI culture.

The trip to Montgomery

I am not prone to hyperbole, but the trip to the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice has changed my life. I believed I was knowledgeable about the history of racism in the United States, but I walked away shocked at what I learned and experienced there.

It was incredibly affecting to walk the streets and understand that I stood in the same place where enslaved people were unloaded from ships and marched to an auction block. The memorial itself, which is a monument to the victims of lynching, was a heavy experience. Seeing all the names, which included children and many “unknown,” really puts into perspective how many people were impacted by this racial terror. Seeing that some of lynchings took place as late as 1959, which I would consider the modern era, brought into focus how recently this all continued. My own parents were alive and in school and very much participating in the world at that time.

One of the more emotional experiences for me was realizing just how many families were arbitrarily separated. Most of the people who were enslaved were mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers who had been torn apart from each other, never to be reunited again. How difficult it must have been for them to keep their sanity, let alone maintain any sense of community, when their children were systematically stolen from them, and their familial ties severed.

Making this trip as part of an educational organization, I was struck by the enormous risks enslaved people took to learn to read and write. Looking at it all as someone who is tasked with helping to make an institution welcoming and equitable to all, I was embarrassed by how many of the laws that enabled this brutality are still on the books. The fact that racism was codified, actually built into the governing institutions of this country and the states, can get lost when people talk about “systemic racism.”

I experienced a profound shift in perspective. I came away with so much to think about, and an understanding that I have so much to learn.

Some lessons learned about DEI culture

Experiences like this trip bring people to a common understanding of this country’s past. After visiting I realized that, not just in K-12, but in college as well, I had been taught a very sanitized version of this history. When we understand the truth, our history, it allows us to frame conversations within the idea that there is a basis for the discrimination and inequality we see today. There is a legacy of deliberate decisions and practices that have led to the reality Black people experience today. Many people bristle at the idea of systemic racism, but the museum makes it impossible to deny.

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In Montgomery, we were encouraged to sit quietly with this new knowledge, to process it, before discussing it together, and I think the whole experience made us willing, authentic participants in difficult conversations about race. For me personally, knowing that I was talking about tangible historical facts gave me footing, and confidence, to engage in those conversations. It’s not just an opinion or a perception of mine, but an undeniable reality created by a history of laws and practices that our federal and state governments enacted over centuries.

Setting DEI goals

Having experienced the power of this visit, I’m interested in finding activities that can provide similar common experiences for not only members of our DEI team but everyone in our district, and don’t require cost-prohibitive travel. They make these DEI culture discussions so much easier to navigate.

DEI work, however, is a long-term commitment and our work has only just begun. Last year, from January to June, we focused primarily on learning what DEI could mean for Ulster BOCES by looking at tools such as the New York state’s Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Framework. I expect our own model to be quite bespoke because it will be based on the existing culture and the particular challenges of our district, but tools like the framework are a great place to begin understanding what is possible.

Our first goal as a DEI committee has been to establish a community amongst ourselves. We began as a group of 28 individuals. By virtue of my position as the head of human resources, I knew everyone on the committee already, but most did not know each other. We have teachers, pupil support personnel, and other staff from all around the organization. As a result, our primary focus has been on creating a place where everyone can feel safe to be honest in these difficult conversations, because we cannot expect progress if we shut down the moment someone says something that challenges us in some way. So we’ve been establishing norms such as practicing courage and forgiveness, listening more, assuming everyone has the best intentions when they speak, and more.

Supporting diversity also requires understanding who we are as an organization. I think we often take that for granted and skip past trying to understand it systematically. And so, in order to explore what conditions exist, we are launching a climate and culture survey.

Using data to guide next steps

We have more than 450 full-time employees, not including incidental employees or summer school staff. Personally, I am completely separate from our school buildings, so I know very little about who our students are. To make sure we aren’t defaulting to our own biases, the climate and culture survey will go out to all students, families, staff and faculty. Once the first one is launched, we’ll survey the community periodically to help us understand changes as they occur.

We plan to come up with action steps based on the survey responses, and the outcomes we observe, but already have some ideas for things we’d like to do in the future. Personally, I would like to bring some text work to the DEI committee. The Legacy Museum website has a number of resources, including reports, studies, and videos, that I was able to explore before the trip. I would like for the committee to use some of those resources to inform our need to look at our curriculum, for example.

So far, everyone who has participated in this work has shared the opinion that it needs to be done. From my own personal experience, however, I know that we live in a heavily polarized society and the words “systemic racism” can start an all-out argument in a matter of seconds. We are going to run into skeptics, so finding ways to engage and work constructively with all members of our community will also be a priority in the near future.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion don’t happen by accident. You have to carve out time and resources for it. It’s scary, difficult and necessary work that requires both immediate action and long-term perspective. Students and employees who feel marginalized deserve improvements now. The only way forward is as a community—and there are going to be people in the community who do not believe this needs to be addressed at all. That means work and commitment, and having hard conversations about things we don’t want to hear and, sometimes, about attitudes or beliefs within ourselves we don’t want to acknowledge.

Nevertheless, I pinch myself every day that I get to do this work. It’s such a privilege and an honor to be able to contribute to improving our community this way, because I know that if our most marginalized students are able to thrive here, then this will be a community where every child can succeed, regardless of their background or circumstances or how they identify.

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