Representation: Creating More Mirrors at Latin

Illustration+by+Elro+Starr%3A+Ms.+Maajid+believes+strongly+that+representations+can+help+set+students+up+to+succeed+in+school.

Elro Starr

Illustration by Elro Starr: Ms. Maajid believes strongly that representations can help set students up to succeed in school.

By Marin Creamer, Latin School of Chicago

Latin highlights its diversity in bold letters in admissions pamphlets and on the school’s website, but both the administration and community members have vocalized a need for more representation of people of color among students, faculty and staff.

Heading into the 2021-22 school year, Latin’s administration set representation as a focal point in the school’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) objectives, in addition to accountability, inclusion, professional development, and curriculum.

Director of DEI Eleannor Maajid said, “Representation is extremely important for students of color.” She explained, “If you go into a community and you don’t see those mirrors for yourself, you may feel like, ‘Is this a place I can work, is this a place I’m going to feel comfortable, included, or have that sense of belonging?’”

Of the 1,190 students enrolled at Latin, 40.6% identify as people of color, and 24% of faculty and staff across all divisions identify as people of color.

Upper School English teacher Lang Kanai said, “Although we have prioritized diversity among our faculty, when you look at the current percentages, to me it’s fairly clear that we still have work to do in both hiring and retaining faculty of color.”

Director of Human Resources (HR) Susan Bolon said the school does not share its retention rate for faculty of color and would not provide a breakdown of how teachers identify by race and/or religion. She noted, however, that “Latin’s percentage of teachers of color is higher than most schools in our benchmark group.”

Although HR would not provide specific statistics for faculty and staff, Innovation and Data Manager Mike Kegler outlined the percentages of enrolled students based on race: 56.2% of students identify as white, 40.6% as people of color, 0.8% as international, and 2.4% as unreported or unsure. More specific to the Upper School, 38% of students identify as people of color.

In comparison to the data on Latin, the 2021-22 INDEX median—an average used to compare Latin to 13 other independent schools such as the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and Francis W. Parker—lists the benchmark as 61.3% white students, 32.9% students of color, 0.8% international, and 3.9% unreported or unsure, showing that Latin has a higher proportion of students of color than do peer schools, on average.

With a majority of students at both Latin and similar institutions identifying as white, Ms. Maajid said, “Independent schools, in general, were not necessarily made for people of color.”

According to Mr. Kanai, the reputation of independent schools as predominantly white institutions may detract teachers of color from seeking work at Latin. He outlined a possible dynamic at play:

“Potential faculty of color might not apply if they feel intimidated, insecure, or unwelcome entering a largely white-identifying space. As a consequence, the pool shrinks and more white faculty are hired. Faculty of color see new hires that don’t reflect their cultures or held identities, and they might feel isolated or even disillusioned with an institution that includes diversity and inclusion in its mission statement. So they move on, and the cycle continues.”

Mr. Kanai added, “There is nothing the school is actively doing, per se, to perpetuate this cycle, but what can we do to actively disrupt it?” He said that reaching out to teachers who may never have considered applying for a job at Latin, such as those who work for Chicago Public Schools, could help break the barrier when hiring faculty and staff.

Although Head of School Randall Dunn acknowledged that he “can’t say that these changes have taken hold,” he noted that HR has partnered with recruitment firms focused on finding faculty of color in hopes of increasing representation. “The other thing is that some of the significant agencies have also frankly expanded their efforts to be more inclusive of candidates of color,” he said. Mr. Dunn cited Carney Sandoe, a major search firm for independent schools, as an example of an agency that is trying to be more progressive in its recruiting efforts.

While schools such as Latin are working to make their hiring process more inclusive, College Counselor Devon Jones explained that some prospective teachers may not want to be “a pioneer” at a school with few faculty and staff of color. “Not having a critical mass of people that look like you or think like you or come from a similar background can come with its own issues and struggles,” she said.

As the wheels of the cycle that Mr. Kanai described continue to churn, Latin’s relatively low percentage of faculty and staff of color begins to affect students, too.

Last year, one of the faculty advisors for senior Noor Ahmed’s affinity group, the Asian Student Alliance (ASA), left to spend more time with family, and the remaining advisor left at the beginning of the first quarter. “I think that was the first time I really noticed the faculty diversity, especially since I paid attention to the teachers coming in this year,” Noor said. After reading the list that the administration sent out at the beginning of the school year and noting that she did not see many incoming Asian teachers, Noor said to herself, “So that’s not a good thing.”

Thankfully, Mr. Kanai could take on the position as an ASA advisor, but the lack of religious representation at Latin still hindered the Islamic Student Association’s (ISA) attempt to earn affinity distinction in the fall.

Noor, who is a head of ISA, said, “There aren’t really any Muslim teachers at this school, so I think there could be a lot of improvement.”

“Latin generally is a welcoming community, but I think just when you look deeper and you realize that you have very limited options for who to talk to or where to go when you’re having difficulties with identity issues or personal issues, that’s when you start to notice that there’s no one really there for that.””

— Eleannor Maajid

As a Hispanic and Latine student, sophomore Carmen Quinones explained that, because students are required to take a language that they don’t speak at home, many Spanish-speaking students don’t have much exposure to teachers who share the same language unless they take the Heritage-speaking elective or seek out a class with a Spanish-speaking teacher.

Carmen added, “When you have a faculty member that you share an identity with, you become very close to them. I know I have Profe [Alma] Deleon. I know I share that identity with her, so I know that I can bond with her a little bit better, and it has helped me be just in general more comfortable in class and more confident in my abilities, because I know I have that support.”

Although Carmen found a teacher she can identify with, she said that seeing Hispanic people hold positions primarily in the Spanish Department rather than, say, in math or science, ingrains a message for the roles she can take on in the future. Without one of her identities reflected across faculty in all areas of study, Carmen said that the lack of representation conveys the message, “You can be a Spanish teacher or maybe a history teacher.”

With few teachers of color for a larger population of students to connect to, faculty of color may have to do additional work for which they aren’t compensated.

Mr. Kanai explained, “Faculty of color often perform official and unofficial work as a result of our identities.” He used affinities as an example. “I absolutely love being a faculty co-sponsor for CIDA and ASA. It’s some of my most cherished time spent at school, and it’s also two more responsibilities.”

Ms. Maajid said,

When kids of color see you, and you are one of a few, your walls get knocked on, and it’s loud, and I love it. But they need me.”

— Eleannor Maajid

She added, “While you want to be supportive, and you want to do all those things, it is additional labor that is unpaid.” The administration has yet to have conversations about supplementary payments for affinity heads, but they recognize the additional work for teachers of color. “I think that there are some things that I think we can do to support affinity group leaders that we need to consider for teachers of color,” Ms. Maajid said.

In addition to increasing the number of faculty of color, Latin continues to strongly support diversity and inclusion in the student body. “We want minorities to feel seen and heard,” Associate Director of Enrollment Management for Diversity and Inclusion Ibrahim Fetuga said. “We want them to know that they will be seen and heard at Latin.”

In an effort to recruit students from all backgrounds who prioritize diversity, the admissions committee now asks all applicants the following: “Diversity, equity, and inclusion are important values within Latin’s community—can you tell me how you speak about DEI issues at home, and how you wish to see DEI play a role in your child’s education moving forward?”

Ms. Jones’ perspective aligns with that of the admissions team. “It’s up to everybody to educate themselves and to be comfortable having uncomfortable conversations,” she said.

When comparing Latin’s work to recruit students of color versus the focus on recruiting faculty, Mr. Dunn said, “The effort on the school’s part is twice as much to recruit students than it is to recruit adults.” While the admissions office works with programs such as High Jump, the Jack and Jill Foundation, and the Daniel Murphy Scholarship Foundation in addition to attending virtual fairs and holding events in predominantly-of-color communities, there aren’t comparable outreach opportunities when recruiting faculty.

“I also think it is complicated in terms of the history of the school,” Mr. Dunn noted. “Not everyone feels comfortable in our society being a part of a predominantly white institution.”

In terms of fostering more dialogue around increased representation and DEI initiatives, senior Arjun Singh said, “It shouldn’t be force-fed. It should be a natural discussion that occurs.”

“Lack of diversity is always going to be an issue, and I think there are definitely ways for Latin to improve upon it, but I also think that, as someone who has been through it for six years, there’s going to be a give-and-take,” Arjun said. “As people of color, we’re going to have to be able to live in a white-prominent society because right now, that’s what kind of is still there.”

Ms. Jones said, “The work will never stop, and I think that’s another thing that everybody needs to understand. If you’re looking at retaining and recruiting and sustaining folks of color within this community, there’s lots of different moving parts, there’s lots of different responsibilities, and there’s lots of ways that we can take part in it, big and small. Not everybody needs to be on the front lines necessarily, but everybody can do something, and I think if we can have that attitude as a collective then we can see some real change.”

The Forum acknowledges that, as a publication with a predominantly white staff that reports issues regarding a predominantly white community, we too must address the lack of representation in our publication and are working to do better.

This story was originally published on The Forum on April 5, 2022.