A Widespread Petition, a Calendar Readjustment, and Ongoing Dialogue and Development: La Salle Responds to Calls to Equity and Social Justice Work

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Lukas Werner

One of the changes that emerged this summer was the edition of a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion page to La Salle’s website.

By Maddie Khaw, La Salle Catholic Preparatory High School

As students took part in the massive movement protesting racial injustice and police brutality that unfolded throughout the summer, and as these events and topics continue to swell as a point of dialogue for many Americans, several developments around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work have taken place within La Salle.

Among these developments are the creation of the new position of Director of Equity and Inclusion, the circulation of an alumni-led petition calling for more and better action from the school to help fight systemic racism and educate students about its origins and impacts, the addition of a new web page devoted to DEI on the La Salle Prep website, and the rescheduling of the annual “Better Together” month-long fundraiser.

In recent years, this student fundraiser took place during the month of February, with a variety of events and activities planned throughout the month. 

However, after many students expressed unhappiness with the placement of the event in the school calendar due to the fact that it conflicted with Black History Month, which also occurs in February, the fundraiser was moved out of that particular month. The new timing is still to be determined, but it will likely be moved to March or May, or another time during the spring. 

“That was an important moment for listening to students, and I think that the administrative team wanted to hear that,” Interim Principal Ms. Alanna O’Brien said. 

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Support Mr. Andrew Yoshihara said that it is a “good thing” that the fundraiser was moved, and hopes that it will remain that way.

“The month of February should not be overshadowed,” he said. “We’re overshadowed as Black people the other 11 months of the year, so there’s no point in taking February away from us too. And I think the kids were very eloquent in their delivery of how they let people know.” 

Mr. Yoshihara will be joined in leading DEI work by La Salle graduate Ms. Kiah Johnson Mounsey, who has been hired as the Director of Equity and Inclusion. While Mr. Yoshihara’s main role is to work with and facilitate conversations with students, Ms. Mounsey will work with the administrative team to evaluate policies and practices for equity. She will also work with teachers on professional development and curriculum, as well as with various affinity groups and equity teams. 

However, Ms. Mounsey also hopes to collaborate not only with adults, but also with students. While she does have some goals for her position, she is currently prioritizing conversations with community members to gain insight into the perspectives of individuals and groups around equity at La Salle.

“There is an importance of listening and gathering information from as many people as possible,” Ms. Mounsey said. “I want people to be really open and honest about their experience. I think [that] will only help deepen work that has already happened, and then allow me to get a big picture of maybe any holes, or directions that we need to go.”

The job description for this new DEI position was initially drafted by Ms. O’Brien and Vice Principal of Student Life Mr. Brian Devine, and was reviewed by students, parents, and members of the faculty equity team, who provided feedback.

Religious studies teacher and member of the faculty equity team Mr. Tom McLaughlin feels that Ms. Mounsey, and her role as Director of Equity and Inclusion, is a critical addition to the school.

“It’s a huge statement that we see that equity is a really important central issue for La Salle,” said Mr. McLaughlin, who is also known as Mr. Mac. “I think that she’ll bring all sorts of expertise and she’ll help us to know what is really important for us to work on, to help us prioritize on the institutional level… I think it’s also going to be really powerful for the students to have this person of color who is a La Salle grad, who is invested in the community, and wants to help us become better.”

In addition to the existing faculty equity team, parent equity team, and student affinity groups, President Mr. Andrew Kuffner said that the school is working on constructing an inclusion committee, which will be composed of representatives from each of these various equity-focused groups and led by Ms. Mounsey.

“The purpose of the inclusion committee is to ensure really that our commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and racial equity is realized,” Mr. Kuffner said. “[This commitment] would be articulated in a diversity statement and lens, but [the inclusion committee] would review our performances, if you will, in DEI work by monitoring key metrics and indicators, and then propose initiatives to support goals.”

Along with these developments, a petition was created in early summer by a group of alumni that urged La Salle to “examine the roles that privilege and bias play” at the school, and to “seize upon its privilege to broaden… students’ understanding of the world,” the petition said. 

In the petition, which took the form of a letter to Mr. Kuffner, the alumni called the school to three specific actions: “Craft a comprehensive curricula plan addressing the historic systemic racism of the United States and its reliance on police brutality, release this plan to the La Salle community for comment and discussion, and encourage peer schools to do the same.”

As a result of this petition, which received more than 1,500 signatures throughout the summer, Mr. Kuffner said that he met with eight different alumni over the course of six Zoom meetings to discuss the steps that La Salle has taken towards creating a more equitable community and how alumni can remain informed and become more involved. 

Mr. Kuffner updated the alumni group about planning for various actions, such as hiring for the new DEI position, establishing the schoolwide theme this year, and a staff retreat that took place at the end of the summer.

“They were given a pretty unprecedented amount of access to me personally, as the president,” he said. “They were putting in a lot of work too, just thinking and reflecting and reading and reaching out to each other… So there was a lot of effort all the way around.”

Mr. Kuffner said that he welcomes the involvement, discussion, and feedback that has come from this group of alumni over the summer. 

“They’re engaged and invested in seeing us progress,” he said. “By staying in contact, I think that’s one way of holding us accountable… I want them to recognize that we are authentically engaging in this and moving forward.”

One outcome from these conversations was the creation of a new page about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion on the La Salle Prep website, which the alumni group prompted the school to create so that information about La Salle’s progression with this work would be publicly available to anyone who is curious about it. 

Mr. Kuffner said that while the web page is still a “work in process,” the main aim of the site is to “make it a place where if someone wanted to learn about [DEI work at La Salle], they could find it, and you wouldn’t have to reach out to us,” he said.

At the top of the web page, it is noted that the school “has more to do” in terms of equity work, then references the ways that the Lasallian core principles of Inclusive Community and Respect for All Persons guide DEI work for the school.

It then goes on to describe steps that have been taken thus far, including the participation of 13 staff members — who now make up the faculty equity team — in a one-year certificate program with the Center for Equity and Inclusion, as well as the implementation of school-wide themes such as identity and empathy in recent years, and the hiring of Mr. Yoshihara and Ms. Mounsey.

The page also lays out future initiatives that include establishing a formal Parent Equity Team and a Student Equity Advisory Committee and developing a school-wide equity statement and equity lens.

It also includes a section of resources that the school uses for guidance and ideas around DEI, in addition to an Anti-Discrimination Statement that states that the school “does not discriminate against applicants or employees based on race, color, ancestry, national origin, age, physical or mental disabilities, sex, sexual orientation, genetic information, marital or veteran status, on-the-job injuries, or any other legally protected characteristic or status.”

Mr. Mac said that he feels that the web page is “a fine beginning,” but that there should be more added to the page to make it “a complete story.”

It needs to be clear, he said, that the school is “on a journey and we’re not there yet.”

“Be honest about where we are and where we’ve been,” he said. “Let’s not just tell everybody all the great things we’re doing. We’ve got to also say one of the reasons we’re doing these things is because we hurt some people, that we found ways in which we’re not doing as good a job as we can, and here are some of the examples. And then, this is what we’re doing to make sure that we’re better.”

Mr. Mac said that although it may be a daunting prospect to openly acknowledge the school’s shortcomings around equity, as a Catholic institution, La Salle is called “to have faith in the power of love, in the power of truth, in the power of reconciliation,” he said. “We are called to place more faith in [those concepts] than we are in fear of what we’re going to lose. I firmly believe that love is more powerful than fear.”

This story was originally published on The La Salle Falconer on September 30, 2020.