Speaking Out Loud: Alumni, Students Weigh In on School’s Anti-Racist Work

Since the summer, Hotchkiss has continued to focus on anti-racism across the School community. The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee (DEI) of the Board of Trustees has been working on policies and practices to enact change, as have volunteers from the Alumni Association’s Board of Governors. Earlier this fall, Hotchkiss Magazine reached out to several Black alumni and students active in this work for their take on the School’s progress toward building a more diverse and inclusive community. Annika Lescott ’06 and Danielle S. Ferguson ’97, along with students Aleema Kelly ’22 and Langston Harris ’21 agreed to share their thoughts.

Hotchkiss Magazine: Do you feel the School is actively working toward becoming an anti-racist community? What stands out to you?

Aleema: The School has definitely begun to make progress. It is important to accept the discomfort we feel when engaging in conversations pertaining to racism and discrimination, and I have noticed over the past few months that the administration and many of the students have begun to show up for these discussions. Whether it’s BaHSA, a community conversation, or a demonstration, many members of our community have gotten involved and are continuing to work to be active allies. There is a lot more work to do, including reforming the anti-hate disciplinary process, creating more standard processes, and creating honors/rigorous cultural classes. I hope that the School will continue to be open to change and not make this movement a moment.

 Langston: I agree we have a long way to go before truly being an anti-racist community, but I think every community does. I was impressed by the School’s overall receptiveness to the “Hotchkiss Proposal for Change” that was sent to the administration over the summer by a group of students led by Aleema. Although not everything we outlined in the proposal was implemented this year, many members of the administration and the Board of Trustees have displayed a commitment to that work. Examples of that commitment are the creation of an anonymous bias-incident reporting form (for students and teachers) and the creation of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee within the
Board of Trustees.

Annika: From an alumni point of view, Hotchkiss has made significant strides, but we still have work to do. The black@hotchkiss Instagram accounts [in which students and alumni wrote about their experience with racism as students] have forced us to reckon with our past and confront racism head-on. I serve on the DEI Committee along with other alumni, trustees, and School leaders who are dedicated to creating a learning community where all students feel safe, seen, and supported. The committee is tasked with improving admissions, curriculum, and pedagogy, hiring and retention of faculty, student life and culture, and alumni engagement.

When students returned to campus, proctors and dorm faculty received training on implicit bias, anti-Black racism, and LGBTQ+ identity. Faculty and staff also voluntarily participated in anti-racist reading and discussions. These discussions and training continue today. It is important to note that faculty and staff have taken on this anti-racism work with fierce dedication and in addition to their normal duties of teaching, coaching, and serving as dorm faculty.

 We also engaged alumni voices to share their experiences. In July, the Board of Governors and Black alumni hosted an Alumni Town Hall. During the event, alumni shared how racism impacted their Hotchkiss experiences and presented recommendations for the School to consider.  In turn, School leadership, including Head of School Craig Bradley, listened intently, committed to change, and formally apologized to alumni who experienced racism during their tenure at Hotchkiss. The Board of Governors will continue to amplify and celebrate diverse voices of our alumni community through our programming.

Danielle: I agree, Annika. I would not have joined the DEI Committee if I did not firmly believe that the School was working toward creating an anti-racist environment.

Annika spoke about the readings, discussions, training, and Alumni Town Hall that took place. What stands out to me, and what I recognize to be different from some other schools, is that the work is not falling solely on the shoulders of one individual or small group, and the student voice has been strong throughout the process. Director of Diversity and Inclusion Yassine Talhaoui has the full support of the head of school, the board, administrators, and faculty. That matters! Over the last few months, through countless Zoom calls with Hotchkiss reps, I continue to be impressed by the way that areas for growth are called out, challenging questions are asked, and everyone commits their time and talents to our shared goals.

Hotchkiss Magazine: Can you explain why this work is so important to the School?

Aleema: Hotchkiss welcomes such a diverse range of people with so many different perspectives and experiences, which all of us can learn from. It is crucial for everyone to be able to live in a community where they feel comfortable and safe enough to walk down the main hallway without getting their hair grabbed or slurs thrown at them. Which is why this work needs to continue, so that every single student, faculty/staff member, or person can be their authentic self unapologetically.

Langston: High school is a transformative experience at any school; especially at a place like Hotchkiss, the boarding school experience is vastly different from any other. During this time, every one of us is going through a unique experience that can shape us for the rest of our lives, for better or worse. This work is important — not just to aid students during their time at Hotchkiss, but post-Hotchkiss as well. Once students cross that stage at Commencement, they are presented with a myriad of opportunities as leaders at their respective colleges and in their careers. That is where the work that we do at Hotchkiss in becoming an anti-racist community can benefit not only students while they are here, but also the world, once we graduate.

Annika: That’s absolutely right. What students experience at Hotchkiss will help shape their roles as future leaders and changemakers. Every student should feel “at home” at Hotchkiss — included in the community and appreciated for the diversity of thought, perspective, and background they bring to bear.  We owe it to our students and ourselves to dedicate our time, talents, and treasures to this work. 

Danielle: During one of our early DEI Committee Zoom calls, Board of Trustees Vice President Ray McGuire ’75 said, “Whatever we do in the Hotchkiss community will resonate across the globe and set a standard.” With students from 36 states and 27 countries, we must do the work to ensure that graduates are immersed in anti-racist work and have the muscle to be empathetic leaders, wherever they go. I think the success of our program depends a great deal on students’ perceived sense of belonging and the School’s willingness to create a supportive environment.

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