Students, staff hopeful but uncertain if school will meet equity goal

Some see disconnect between school’s claims and actions regarding racism in the community



In light of the Black Lives Matter protests, New Trier released an updated equity plan for 2020

In light of the Black Lives Matter protests that have broken out across the nation, conversations around racism have ignited in nearly all spheres of society. Many businesses and institutions, including New Trier, have made public statements committing themselves to implementing anti-racist practices and policies.

Among the plans New Trier has laid out are reforms to its hiring practices and curriculum to be more inclusive of the racial identities and experiences in our community. 

Though the administration has often declared its dedication to combating racism, some students and staff feel the school has a long way to go before it meets the equity goals set for this year and the next decade. 

Senior Zara Anwar, who identifies as Pakistani, is skeptical of the effectiveness of the administration’s efforts because there are so few POC voices included and uplifted in the school’s dialogues around race.

“The number one thing they need to see is it’s not powerful to have a White teacher with no racial background be like, ‘Don’t be racist,’ ” she said. “What would be most powerful is if there were actual students talking about their experiences, or even just people of color in general talking to the school about actual impacts of racism. Because most people think it’s not here.” 

Equity Team Co-Chair and Special Education Coordinator Pat Savage-Williams, who identifies as a Black woman, says what’s really crucial to making progress is White people taking the time to educate themselves before they speak to students about racial issues.

“They have to do their own work and really learn about these issues that are difficult, and to understand their own race as a White person and how racism has impacted their life as a White person,” Savage-Williams emphasized. “White people need to work at understanding this. They need to stay in the struggle, and they need to stay in a place where they don’t feel comfortable.” 

Some students fault the school for being too lenient when students break school policies by directing hateful speech and behavior to students of color, fostering an unsafe learning environment. 

“New Trier’s reaction to some of the racial issues that have been going on in the past few years have been a little bit underwhelming,” senior Jabari Thurston, who identifies as African-American, said. “I just think [they need] to take further steps to ensure these kids learn from their mistakes because I really don’t think as of now they’re doing a very good job of that.”

Even when the school makes sporadic efforts to open a discussion around race, some staff and students say the lasting impact is usually minimal as numerous students are still tone-deaf to racial issues or espouse racist rhetoric and behavior.  

“[The school] tries to start courageous conversations, but I think they [happen] so infrequently that the lasting impact of them isn’t there. The potential is there, but I don’t think the impact they’d like to have is there,” explained MCL teacher Kerry Smith, who identifies as White. 

Anwar agreed, adding that she feels the school doesn’t do enough to educate students and prevent future racist incidents. 

“I [thought] back to after that guy wrote the N-word on a stall and then I tried to think, ‘What happened after that?’ and like nothing happened after that,” Anwar said. “We got one or two talks in advisery, [but] there was no real change in the actual students. If anything, I think things got worse.”

Senior Victoria Chan, who identifies as mixed-race with Asian and North African descent, described how a lack of substantial anti-racist actions at the school makes her feel more alienated as a POC. 

“I’ll be walking down the halls or sitting in classes and see that I’m literally the only person of color there and the fact that I’m a person of color at our school is just very blatantly obvious to me and kind of makes me feel isolated,” Chan said. “And when these racist acts happen, obviously it makes the school environment feel less safe and welcoming and it’s especially disheartening when I’m not really seeing the administration taking big steps towards making our school safer or more anti-racist.” 

Savage-Williams believes a more diverse staff would aid greatly in fostering a healthier, more inclusive environment for all students as she believes the lack of POC on staff is detracting from students’ experience at New Trier. 

“Very few of our students have seen a person of color in charge as a teacher and that’s a loss. And we have to understand and see it as a loss,” she said. “Many of our students don’t have much exposure to people of color. We have to understand and see that as unhealthy in our environment and in our society.” 

Chan attests to the value of having teachers of color as she appreciates relating to her IGSS teacher, Tom Lau, who is Chinese as well. 

“I’ve been able to have conversations with him about race at our school and what it feels like walking down the halls. I’m just very grateful that I met him and have him as a teacher,” she said. 

When it comes to whether New Trier will follow through on its equity goals, staff and students are both hopeful and ambivalent that real change will take place. 

“I personally don’t believe they’ll follow through. Maybe on some things, but in the past I know they’ve said they’re gonna work to combat these issues regarding race and they haven’t really done a great job of that, considering these issues are still happening on a fairly regular basis,” Thurston said.

Savage-Williams hopes the recent heightened attention to racial injustice will carry over when the pandemic has passed.

“If we talk about what life will be like on the other side, what will we have learned about ourselves and our institution and how we treat people and how we understand them? And how will that impact what we do moving forward?” she said.