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Piece by Piece: Mrs. Justice talks Difference, Dialogue, and Opportunity

KPS DIVERSITY - art by Kelsey Burrows '20

art by Kelsey Burrows

On the first warm day of the year, I sat down over Skype with Mrs. Justice, our new Director of Diversity and Inclusion. We talked about opportunity, dialogue, collaboration, and digging deeper into the strong foundation our community already has. Her excitement to fill this important and unique role is evident, and after talking to her, I have no doubt that she will be a positive addition to Kent Place. Read more to learn about who she is, how she works, and what some of her goals are for the future.

Why are diversity and cultural competency important to you, and why did you decide to go into this work?

Diversity is important to me because it’s about difference. My parents, who were both educators, were grounded in who they were in terms of their culture. Because of that, I grew up in a household where we were very open and transparent, so talking about issues like race, gender, and class were just ongoing conversations. Having those conversations early in life led me to realizing the importance of learning about others. Ultimately knowing who you are is key, so that you can show openness to others’ stories and their journeys.

What is most exciting about your role?

I have not had the opportunity to work in a single-sex school, so I’m very excited about that opportunity. I think there is a special connection and community that you have, so I’m eager to be a part of that and learn what that “secret sauce” is that I hear about. The other piece is that I really love being in inclusive communities, so I am excited about the fact that Kent Place has done a lot of diversity and inclusion work already and is trying to, in many ways, maybe go next-level and do some things that might be a little more innovative or that haven’t been tried before. I’m even thrilled to enhance some of the programs that already exist.

What is most challenging about your role?

It’s challenging, but I wouldn’t use the word “challenge”; I would choose the word opportunity. At Kent Place, you’ve already created community and a sisterhood, and you’ve probably started some dialogue work within the community. I think that there is an opportunity to build on that foundational level of trust and dig deeper among students and faculty. Often times, in life, people can wear masks, but I’d like to believe that Kent Place is a place that would allow students to take down those masks and be more authentic. With that comes an opportunity to say, “if I can walk into this space with my whole self and really, truly show you who I am, and you accept me, isn’t that truly what community is, and isn’t that what an inclusive or safe space looks like?” The opportunity to create new spaces and enhance existing spaces is thrilling to me.

What is important to you in working with students and faculty?

With students, what is most important to me is trying to find ways for students to have time and space to talk, to create safe spaces, and for students to feel as though they are included within the community, no matter who they are or what they bring to the table. The other piece would be allowing students to be their best selves, so that they’re able to achieve at an optimal level for them. Overall, what I’d like to see with faculty is a community where we’re able to have dialogue and engage in conversations that might be difficult but are needed, because they’re the kind of conversations that move a community forward. My sense is that faculty have begun those conversations, but maybe we could build more opportunities for faculty to discuss the specific needs of students; how are we meeting those needs, and in what ways do we fail to meet students’ needs?

One of Kent Place’s strengths is that many of the students here are highly motivated, engaged in a lot of activities, and passionate about a lot of issues. We are eager to initiate change and plan student-led projects. In what ways are you planning to support our student power?

One of the key ways I would do that is, obviously, having open conversation with student leaders about what they see working and what doesn’t work. In addition, I am open to having dialogues about the issues of the day, the issues that we’re dealing with in our country, the issues of the world, or the issues that are pressing on students’ hearts and minds.

A common Kent Place complaint is that we like to “talk about talking about things.” In what ways are you planning to encourage us to lean into discomfort and actually talk about things?

I’m a big proponent of dialogue because it is a way to learn how to respectively talk about an issue, but beyond talking about the issue, we get to a point where there are action steps that you actually have to go through to solve whatever that critical problem related to the issue is. I think, through dialogue, students will become more action-oriented and more service-oriented, and I think the end goal would be discovering what is it that we really want to do within the community to solve our problems.

In what ways do you plan to support the different diversity clubs here at Kent Place?

(1) One of the things that I find very helpful when working with diversity clubs is trying to have those clubs themselves work together. For example, I’ve had students hold joint meetings together. (2) Events! You may already do this, but if you don’t have a special cultural event or something that significantly brings cultural groups together, I think that events like that are nice, because it’s a project that you’re all working towards, and it’s also a way to create visibility in the larger school community about your clubs. (3) The other piece I would add to it is that often times students want a safe space to talk about issues, and I’d like to make the diversity clubs a space for that. I’m sure in some ways they are, but providing that space and making sure there are adults in the community, maybe of that same affinity, who are there to help and assist in those talks, I think is helpful.

What do you hope to achieve at Kent Place?

My overarching goal would be that the school, which I definitely think is already fairly inclusive, becomes a more inclusive and welcoming space for all students. I think how you do that and how the school has done that in the past is educating teachers to be more culturally competent. I know some of that groundwork has been laid, but I’m hoping we can dig deeper and do even more work. One of the ways I would like to do that is through dialogue. Teaching teachers how to dialogue, with students, gives them an opportunity, when hot topics in the class come up, to actually open it up and give students the space to talk about it in the moment and process. The other piece of dialogue is self-work and your own journey to understanding your cultural identity, so I’m hoping we could create affinity groups for the faculty and staff to help them work on understanding their own identifiers. I believe it makes them more proficient in the classroom in working with students along the lines of difference. The last piece I would add is that dialogue, specifically intergroup dialogue, allows students to go out in the world and be able to actually interface and work with anyone, no matter the differences, you have to learn and practice cultural competency. I feel like Kent Place is a place that’s developing young women successfully, so if you were able to add that extra skill set, I think it totally enhances who you are and what you can do.

In what ways do you plan to listen to the community?

In my past experiences working with schools, I tend to create small focus groups, where I can get together a group of student leaders, students from a certain affinity, lifers, or students who just came in high school and just ask questions about their experience, finding out what it’s really like day-to-day, what you like, and what you don’t. In addition to that, I would want to go to your club meetings, go to some classes, go to the larger events on campus and just get a sense of the school culture. The piece I would add to that is that I would like to have focus groups of parents, because I think parents have perspectives and insights that are helpful and inform the work that I do. So my goal, especially my first year, would just be kind of listening, gathering, observing, and figuring out how this place ticks, and what are the ways in which I can help, encourage, support, and be a resource.

What ideas do you have to promote unity at Kent Place?

When I think about the unity piece, the biggest way that we were able to create unity in my experience is through community events. Another idea, I would say, that brings unity is that we’ve tried to do some Diversity Days here, and usually when I do event like that, it would involve a speaker, discussions, and small groups with the students after the speaker, or it could be some sort of presentation. But I do believe that large community events are a good way to show the entire community why diversity and inclusion should be important to everyone. You want to reach the whole community, and sometimes those grand events are the best way to introduce the community to the work that the diversity clubs are doing.

In what ways can students help you get acclimated to our community?

I am a person who likes to have students gather in my office. I usually get to know students by chatting in my office, one-on-one, through their clubs, or going to the dining hall and sitting and talking to students directly. So for me, the way I get to know students best is through your own stories, and just connecting with each of you, individually or in groups. I think I would just like to be in your presence, in your conversations and get to know you all uniquely in your own way and see what a day in the life is like for a KPS student.

What advice would you give your former high school self?

In high school, I was very driven and I liked a lot of different things, so I wanted to be a part of a lot of different things. I probably shouldn’t have stuck with that for all four years, and after I graduated, I had to take a step back, exhale, and say, “you can’t start college like this.” I enjoyed it, but I didn’t want to take anything away, and it’s hard to create balance when you just keep piling it all on. When I learned to let things go and create balance, I felt like I was a better service to myself and to others because of it.

Is there anything else you would like us to know?

I am extremely excited! When I visited Kent Place it felt familiar. After meeting the students, faculty, parents, and the administrators, I felt a connection with everyone. Each and every individual made me feel welcome throughout the day. When I stepped foot on campus, I felt like I instantly belonged. The fact that I felt at home, from the start, makes me certain that Kent Place is a community that I want to be a part of.

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