Diversity, equity and inclusion are three words that can easily be defined separately, but together as an initiative can stir up a lengthy discourse.
“I can go on for hours talking about that, and I welcome that opportunity privately if you want to do that,” Oscar Macias, Luther Middle School principal said on Tuesday during a Burbank Unified School District discussion about its DEI efforts.
Macias and six others gathered in a virtual session for about 90 minutes to have an open conversation about DEI and what it means for BUSD students, parents and employees going forward.
“This is a monumental moment for the district,” Macias said. “This is a long time coming. Diversity should be a positive attribute. It should be a resource. It shouldn’t be a challenge or detriment.”
BUSD school board member Armond Aghakhanian, who helped form the district’s DEI committee nearly two years ago, opened the conversation by saying that only through education can a community be free of racism, discrimination and bias, and Macias echoed that sentiment, adding that it can only be accomplished if everyone performs an “internal audit” and approaches it with an open mind.
“It starts with the relationships, that commitment, that trust and partnership,” Macias said. “And extend that to every school site and that commitment to our city. We need to open up these conversations, not only for our district, but to connect with our city officials… because we’re embedded in this city.”
At its core, DEI is really about the social, emotional wellness of students which also extends to teachers, staff, parents and the entire Burbank community, panelists explained. Juan Avila, an intervention specialist at Dolores Huerta Middle School, said it is also about embracing each other’s differences.
“Each and every one of us has a different story,” said Avila. “The way diversity has to be seen is as a salad. We used to hear the [term] ‘melting pot.’ We need to stay away from the melting pot. No more melting pot. … We have to go into every school climate and see a salad of beautiful human beings of different colors and different languages. … We have to stay away from integrating assimilation into a culture. We have to include culture, tradition, include languages from other countries, and include students who learn differently than I do. We can’t ignore diversity in learning abilities.”
Avila has listened to many BUSD students during the past 29 years and has learned that they only want to be seen and heard. “That’s all they want,” an emotional Avila said. “Every time I speak with students, they thank me for listening to them. They want to tell their stories.”
Emily Hasunuma, a junior at Burbank High School who is part of the DEI committee, made her voice heard on Tuesday and shared her experiences as an Asian-American in Burbank, saying it is “not easy to talk to faculty on campus about racial experiences.”
“It’s very difficult because there’s always that fear that they’re not going to understand and because you’re touching on something so sensitive and so difficult, they might say something that’s more hurtful and dismissive of your feelings,” Hasunuma said. “They might not mean to, but a lot of times it will come off that way.”
Madison Clevenger, who is Black, agreed with Hasunuma in that many students of color don’t feel comfortable approaching their teachers or administrators about race, making it somewhat “taboo” to talk about.
“In my experience with classrooms, the sensitivity in which teachers take the time to speak on race is not where it needs to be,” said Clevenger, who went on to tell the panel about an experience she had last year. “We were reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and my white teacher said the n-word. It made me incredibly uncomfortable. It made my other Black friends uncomfortable, but because we did not feel comfortable speaking to that teacher because we just thought it would be too hard to have that conversation — we didn’t say anything.”
Professional development with DEI in mind will be key to providing a safer space for students. “Often times, we assume that our educators are sort of wired to do this work and we’re not,” said Board of Education member Emily Weisberg, who moderated the virtual event. “I think about it as you need specific tools to do specific jobs, and so providing our staff, not just our teachers, but our administration, board members, you name it, with the tools they need to engage in this work, is vital. We can’t expect our teachers to walk in and know how to engage in a conversation about race in a way that makes students feel safe and heard unless they’re given tools to do that.”
Ericca Dent, a 2nd-grade teacher at Joaquin Miller Elementary, has engaged with her young learners about race and other issues by implementing stories from different cultures.
“The main big question is ‘How can we be a good human?’” said Dent, who was a California Teacher of the Year finalist. “And then, from our standards we came up with smaller questions. For example, our first unit is government, so our question is ‘Are all laws fair for all people?’ Then we really encouraged students to think about this and question ‘What’s going on in our world?’”
Going on two years now, the DEI committee remains hard at work focusing on policy, instruction, engagement and social emotional support for students. The district took a big step when it adopted an anti-racist statement in October.
“That’s something that every school should have,” said Africa Turner, a BUSD parent and DEI committee member who helped create the statement. “I’m really hopeful it’s going to be the first step as far as making these policies and making things more concrete so not only students, but also teachers and staff and parents are aware that it’s not fair [for] everyone. It’s not equal.”
The panel agreed that while it’s a good start for Burbank, there is much more work to be done, including community outreach and engagement to better inform stakeholders.
After defining DEI and emphasizing the importance of the district’s initiative, Weisberg took a brief moment to elucidate what DEI is not.
“This is not a political conversation. This is a human conversation,” Weisberg said. “This is about challenging ourselves to do that audit that Dr. Macias mentioned early on and to recognize areas where we can do better and places where we can provide more representation and support so the students can see themselves in what we’re learning, see themselves in their teachers, in administrators. And that’s not about excluding one group; it’s about including all. And that’s, if we’re being completely frank, not something that’s happened in the educational world. To politicize it is to make a choice.”