Last year, my family moved from the east coast back to California. As if moving across country wasn’t complicated enough, the added challenge of navigating our way through the COVID-19 pandemic made for a wild ride!
We decided to move back to the area where we lived three years prior as we were already familiar with the schools and had maintained friendships, but this would be our first experience with the middle school that my son and daughter would be attending.
An Unexpected Opportunity
My husband and I joined Millikan Middle School PTSA to support our children’s transition but decided our focus would be on cultivating partnerships with their teachers, especially since school was completely online.
So, I was shocked when I received an email from our PTSA president, asking me to be a part of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) committee that they were starting. It was the first time I’d heard about such a committee at the school level.
A Personal Connection
DEI work—specifically research and consulting—is my career focus, so I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to contribute to creating an educational atmosphere where parents, teachers and students feel seen, understood, valued and included. Especially when discussions about social, racial and economic injustices were at the forefront of conversations throughout communities worldwide.
As a fourth-generation educator, I have been an unofficial advocate for DEI in education for many years, finding creative ways to level the playing field for students from all cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. I often advocate for my children, making sure their teachers understand the educational experiences that I expect them and their classmates to have throughout the year—especially those who have learning challenges.
My children are high academic achievers—and one is at or above grade level yet has a specific learning disability that is not readily apparent. And we have experienced unconscious bias because achieving great grades does not negate the existence of learning difficulties.
It can be challenging to get the necessary resources or feel like your expectations are understood and respected. This is especially true when the diagnosis isn’t something that is commonly discussed. It can be very frustrating at times and was another reason why I knew that I needed to make the time to be involved and use my experiences to help other parents in similar circumstances.
How to Transform Your DEI Efforts
I feel fortunate that my children attend a school where DEI is a priority. Our PTSA recently won an award from our district PTA for Unit of the Year, and I attribute that to our executive board really taking the time to assess the needs of our community and take appropriate action when finding solutions.
Our PTSA has learned a lot over the last year! Here are five ways we found success. I hope you and your PTA use these tips to ensure your community is diverse, equitable and inclusive this school year and beyond:
1. Assess if Parents, Teachers and Students Feel Included and Valued in the Community
Our DEI committee created and distributed surveys to parents and students to gauge whether they felt included and valued at Millikan Middle School. We shared the results with the principal, so the administration could see where we stood as a school community. Our goal is to use the results to help create programming to improve now and in the future.
Remember, diversity is not simply about the number of students you have with a certain cultural/racial background. Rather, a truly inclusive school environment contains a diverse cross-section of students who interact with other students, teachers and the administration. There should be an understanding that a true community is made up of diverse sets of cultures, perspectives, socio-economic statuses and experiences, etc.
2. Educate Your PTA on the Intricacies of DEI and Unconscious Bias
Our committee is a group of parents, teachers and administrators with varying levels of experience in the DEI space. We all share a passion and commitment to cultivating a safe environment for the entire student body for years to come.
Over the last year, some of the committee members increased their knowledge by earning a certificate in DEI. The advantage of elevating our knowledge as a group is that the committee is better prepared to make an impact for in-person instruction this school year.
3. Build Partnerships with Parents and Teachers
Establishing relationships and creating a healthy repartee between parents and teachers is very important to our committee. We know we can’t do this work alone! The overall goal is to create a DEI action plan that is sustainable and a part of the long-term focus at our school.
4. Plan Inclusive Activities
As we start the new school year, our DEI committee has planned activities and events that build on the great work our award-winning PTSA executive board and members are already doing, with a focus on making sure everyone in our school community feels valued and appreciated.
5. Partner with Neighboring Schools to Make Sure Your Entire Community is Covered
Meeting with neighboring schools over the past school year was a great experience for our committee. By seeing the DEI practices at other schools, we were able to make sure our work was in harmony with what is being practiced in other school communities. Our goal is to maintain a sustainable DEI model that will help ensure long-term benefits.
India Dorsey Gaston is a DEI expert and educator, PTSA mom of two middle schoolers and member of the PTSA DEI Committee at Millikan Middle School Affiliated Charter & Performing Arts Magnet in Sherman Oaks, Calif.