New Director of Equity and Inclusion Ms. Kiah Johnson Mounsey Hopes to Normalize Conversations About Race and Identity, Puts Emphasis on the “Sanctity of Human Life”

%E2%80%9CI+think+that+our+country+would+be+in+a+very+different+place+if+conversations+around+race+and+identity+were+normalized+from+a+very+young+age%2C%E2%80%9D+Ms.+Mounsey+said.+

Maddie Khaw

“I think that our country would be in a very different place if conversations around race and identity were normalized from a very young age,” Ms. Mounsey said.

By Maddie Khaw, La Salle Catholic Preparatory High School

Ms. Kiah Johnson Mounsey, who graduated from La Salle in 1999 and who was recently hired for the brand new Director of Equity and Inclusion position, didn’t talk about race much when she was younger. 

No one ever really talked to her about it, either. 

Instead of being celebrated or even discussed, differences were shoved under the rug, ignored, or looked over, ever-present, but not outwardly addressed. 

Throughout her childhood and teenage years, Ms. Mounsey said that she was not engaged in authentic or productive conversations about race, nor did she have the opportunity to be in any form of affinity spaces. 

From a young biracial high schooler who was not exposed to conversations about race and who was often the minority in mostly white spaces, Ms. Mounsey became an educator who is committed to improving both her own self-understanding and her understanding of others, and who is devoted to bettering the experiences that young people, especially students of color, have with equity and inclusion. 

“Having grown up here in the Pacific Northwest and being a person of color, I experienced firsthand what it meant to be the only or one of the only,” Ms. Mounsey said. “I think about how common affinity groups are in this day and age, and I wonder if I had had that opportunity, how that would have shaped my life.” 

The idea of racial identity was not often explicitly discussed around Ms. Mounsey. She grew up in Vancouver, near Portland, which is one of the whitest major cities in the U.S. She attended La Salle, where most of the faces she passed in the hallways were white. She played basketball and ran track with mostly white friends. However, the differences in identity between Ms. Mounsey and many of the people around her were, for the most part, left unspoken. 

Even within her own family, she grew up with the reality of being “one of the only,” with a white mother and a Black father who was an only child. Ms. Mounsey was also an only child in her younger years, so growing up she only had her father to share a sense of affinity with. When her father passed away 10 years ago, Ms. Mounsey was left as the only person of color in her family. 

“I know my family loves me, but I was also very aware of it, from my skin color and how I would get so dark in the summer to my hair,” she said. “I always kind of struggled with what to call myself. I didn’t have a name, other than brown, and I wanted to make sure that I used that because it was a mixture of both my mom and my dad.”

Ms. Mounsey recalls when she would walk down the street with her mom and feel very “in tune” to strangers looking at them and puzzling over the difference in color between the pair. 

“It was always an unspoken awareness that was just not addressed really a lot,” Ms. Mounsey said. “Differences weren’t really recognized… It was just something I was always aware of.” 

With her disconnectedness with her own racial identity in her earlier years, Ms. Mounsey never thought that she would eventually end up working with students around race and identity as a career. She didn’t even think she would be working with the high school age group, much less returning to her own high school. 

She began her role in education 17 years ago as a third grade teacher at Pacific Northwest Academy, which has since shut down. She then taught third grade at Oregon Episcopal School, where she has worked for the past 13 years. During her time at OES, she also coached track and field and cross country, and later taught an eighth grade health and wellness section that centered around social justice and identity. 

“Because I began as a third grade teacher… I never thought that I would be doing this work,” she said. “It’s a bit surreal. I never imagined myself working at La Salle, and the events that led up to me accepting this position have been very serendipitous.” 

Eventually, her role at OES expanded, as a position called Youth Engagement Coordinator was created for her. In this position, she operated out of the Office of Inclusion and Community Engagement at OES, working with other teachers on professional development, as well as with students and parents of color. 

She has also had experience working with high school students; at OES, she worked with ninth through 12th graders as an advisor for the school’s Intercultural Student Association, helping to plan a social justice and diversity day that the school hosted called “Culture Shock.” 

Ms. Mounsey said that as a teenager, she was “naive” to the realities of racism because she usually assumed good intentions of others. Looking back, she realizes that she had experienced microaggressions and other acts of discrimination, but she had not really recognized or acted on this at the time, because, she said, “I had no frame of reference to try to even explain to somebody what was happening.” 

Aside from one or two instances of explicit racism, she said, she was not usually aware in the moment of discrimination when she was younger.

“I always assumed that there’s no way that people could do or say something that harmful to another human being,” she said. “It’s not [until] I became an adult and I looked back, and I really honestly admitted to myself that there [have] been times when I have been discriminated against or been a victim of racism. And that’s a really hard thing to admit, not only to myself, but to other people.” 

Now, Ms. Mounsey continues to grow in her understanding of her own identity, as well as the concepts of racial identity and racial discrimination as a whole. She frequently watches documentaries, reads books, and listens to audiobooks and podcasts about these topics. 

“Nine times out of 10, if I’m watching anything, it’s some sort of documentary or something related to it,” she said. “I’m learning and growing every day, not only about myself, but about this work. And I use not only my resources, but I use my community that I’ve built up… because I think collaboration is important.” 

She also reads children’s books about race and identity with her two sons, Kingston and Keston (ages five and seven), and has conversations with them about these topics as well. 

“We read books all the time on race and identity and what that means,” Ms. Mounsey said. “I do it for myself, but I also do it for my two little boys. I do it for the students that I teach, even though I’m not teaching a class right now… I think it’s important to have these conversations and to first learn about yourself and then learn about others, and to celebrate those differences.” 

She said that it is important to establish these discussions from a young age, and to continue to maintain similar dialogue with people of all different ages and backgrounds. 

“I think that our country would be in a very different place if conversations around race and identity were normalized from a very young age,” she said. 

As she learned more about racial identity during her professional work and training in intercultural competency, as well as through her own experience, reflection, and research, Ms. Mounsey realized the importance of involving young people in open and honest conversations about race. 

“I struggled with all these questions and this lack of understanding that I had about my own identity, and I never really understood why it wasn’t talked about,” she said. “As I learned and did my own research… [and] experienced the impact that race had on my day-to-day life, it just became so strikingly clear that this work is necessary and needed, and that more people need to be engaged, not just somebody who identifies as a person of color.”

Ms. Mounsey said that because of her own personal experience around identity and learning about equity work, she possesses a perspective that allows her to see areas of need for current students. 

“By knowing what I didn’t have or didn’t have access to, I now have this lens of what I would like to do or to strengthen or to provide for students today,” she said. 

A monumental moment in Ms. Mounsey’s journey in race and identity was when she attended the People of Color Conference for her first time. This conference is through the National Association of Independent Schools and takes place in a different location throughout the U.S. each year during the first week of December.

Ms. Mounsey said that the purpose of the conference is to “provide a space for leadership and professional development and networking for people of color and allies.”

The conference features a range of workshops with a variety of speakers, from poets, authors, and teachers to business workers and human resources professionals. It is attended by individuals of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, though Ms. Mounsey said that the conference tries to “hold the space for the people of color because it’s so therapeutic, in a way, to be in a space where you’re not the minority all the time.” 

During her first few years at OES, around 12 years ago, the Head of School offered Ms. Mounsey the opportunity to attend this conference, which was in New Orleans that year. At first, Ms. Mounsey wasn’t sure what to think. 

“Oh my gosh,” she said. “There were so many thoughts that entered my head at that moment. Like, first of all, there’s a whole conference for us? And then I was wondering how [the OES Head of School] thought I identified… I had no idea what to expect.” 

When she got to the conference, it was unlike any experience she had ever had before. 

“That was the very first time I was in an affinity space,” she said. “And that was life changing. I walked in and I started to cry… At that point I had never been the majority anywhere.” 

Ms. Mounsey described the conference as “amazing” and said that she “cannot recommend it enough.” 

“I walked into that multiracial affinity group, and while there were so many people that looked very different than me, we had the common experience of being this beautiful mix of all these different things,” she said. “It was just really so affirming.”

Ms. Mounsey has since attended the conference nine more times, and has also taken groups of students, who she said “have just been completely altered in the best possible way” by their own experiences with the conference. Though this year the sessions will be digital, Ms. Mounsey is making sure that she will be able to attend for an eleventh time, and is advocating to take other staff and students in the future as well. 

“I would probably say that’s what started my journey,” she said. “I have learned and grown, both professionally and personally, in so many different ways.” 

Outside of her work, Ms. Mounsey is occupied by her family life. She spends time with her husband, AJ, and her two sons. Together, she said, they make an active family and she likes to do whatever activities her sons want to do, such as playing with Legos, building a fort, skateboarding, or going to the park. 

One of Ms. Mounsey’s lifelong passions is running. She has been running since she was nine years old, and competed in cross country and track and field while she was a student at La Salle, along with basketball and volleyball. She has completed a total of 25 marathons and 50-kilometer races, which she typically runs at least twice a year. On a weekly basis, she likes to run every day with two rest days throughout the week. 

“I set aside time for myself for running — that’s my self-care piece,” she said. “It helps me mentally to go out and clear my head, to have that outlet.” 

She was also a pace group leader for the Portland Marathon Clinic “for many years,” she said, and is a nationally certified coach. 

“Part of the reason I love to coach so much is because running is such a huge part of my life,” she said. She hopes to be involved with track and field and cross country at La Salle at some point, but while events for athletics are on hold due to the coronavirus, she is focusing on moving into her new position and getting re-accustomed to life at La Salle. 

As she moves into this new role, Ms. Mounsey will spearhead the efforts for equity and inclusion in a number of different aspects of the school. 

She will work to improve curriculum and professional development, evaluate the school’s policies and practices, diversify the staff and student populations, and develop a formal equity lens with the staff equity team, among other initiatives.

She hopes to collaborate with administrators, staff, parents, and students in all that she does, and also would like to create space for individuals to share their stories around race. 

“I want to be able to connect with specific groups of people, like families of color, alums, faculty and staff, employees of color,” she said. “That’s definitely one of my top priorities… I also want to be very intentional about the process to create something that is long lasting and sustainable for everyone.” 

One of Ms. Mounsey’s main goals is to build on the work that has already been done at La Salle, and to improve the experiences of all community members with race and equity. One way she hopes to do this is to work with student affinity groups, both to help grow the ones that already exist and to establish new ones. 

“To have… [an] identity-based space where you can go and be with people who have similar experiences can be really empowering, and it can also be something that’s very necessary,” she said. 

Ms. Mounsey said that she approaches her work with a mindset that focuses all things race and equity to be centered around “the sanctity of human life,” and hopes that others will do the same. 

“Black men, women, and children are being murdered at the hands of cops, and justice is not happening — that’s where the problem lies,” she said. “I don’t think that it needs to be politicized; I think if people really thought about the sanctity of human life, [then] conversations would look differently, they would sound differently. How can a person debate whether or not somebody has the right to live, or to go for a run in their own neighborhood or to fall asleep in their own bed in their own apartment? I struggle to come to terms with how you can argue over the value of a human life.”

Ms. Mounsey said that she wants to engage with all groups of people in the La Salle community, and to help facilitate conversations among others as well — even when people don’t share the same perspective.

“I know that it can be difficult when people don’t agree with one another,” she said. “But I also know that these conversations are possible if people approach it with open hearts and open minds and are willing to listen to one another.” 

“I also think there’s a sense of community and understanding when we’re willing to engage in these conversations in an authentic way,” she said. “We should celebrate human differences and realize that we all walk through life with our own perspective.”

Ms. Mounsey has experienced the beauty of diversity and the convergence of differences. She also understands that it is sometimes difficult to acknowledge differences and address areas where people have been hurt, but said that these conversations are essential. 

“Doing this work, it can be really uncomfortable, and even painful sometimes, but that growth can happen when you allow yourself to dive in and to be vulnerable,” she said. “And it’s understandable that people don’t want to do that — I can’t say that I enjoy feeling like this — but also, how I come out on the other side and what I learn and how I grow has been amazing, and I’m so appreciative that my life has led me to this point.”

This story was originally published on The La Salle Falconer on October 7, 2020.