DEI In Review

Parker Continues Work in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; DEI Director Hire and Strategy Plan Postponed to 2022-23


Photo credit: The Parker Weekly

In May 2020, Parker scrolled through stories of racism, sexism, classism, and marginalization on @fwpanonymous, an account that paralleled other accounts across the country. In May 2021, families received an email with the subject line “A Message from the Principal Regarding Racism and Hate Speech.” Black students in the seventh grade were identified by name and called racist slurs by an anonymous student on Snapchat. In May 2022, another email: “Regarding an Incident of Online Racist Hate Speech.” 

Another email came on June 3: “Community Update.” After an investigation into the anti-Black hate speech incident, the student who made the violent racist statement online will not return to Parker. The investigation found no active threat of violence, after asking that student to stay off campus the previous week and increasing security at County Fair in response to safety concerns. 

“I am someone who really is not shy about saying the areas of schools that needs to be worked upon, even if I’m a leader of that school,” Assistant Principal Priyanka Rupani said, “so this, to me, is just another reminder, a pretty intense reminder, that we’ve got more than we need to do in preparing our young people before they leave Parker around equity, justice, and belonging.”

“Part of that is knowing that no place is perfect, but at least at this little place, at Francis Parker, when problems do arise, we don’t hide under the table,” Principal Dan Frank said. We don’t ignore it. We take it on non-defensively, open-heartedly, open-mindedly”

Rupani said she is focused on the safety and well-being of Parker’s Black community following the hate speech.“We have to prioritize our community that was directly referenced,” Rupani said, “and I don’t know that we always do that.”

In addition, Rupani hosted processing spaces for Black and non-Black students. “We all have a role in repairing this moment,” Rupani said.“I think I’m wondering why didn’t more non-Black students show up, and what that’s about.”

The community was notified of this incident sooner than the last publicized instance of hate speech at Parker, which was initially only shared with seventh grade families last May. 

“One, we should always learn from the past,” Frank said. “In this case, it was public and made public even before it arrived to my attention. So we had to have a different strategy related to something that had a life of its own.”

Rupani added that the administration has learned from not communicating with the whole school.“We knew this was big and it was important to let our entire community know when something big happened, and that can sometimes cause more alarm,” Rupani said. “But I believe transparency around what happens, to the extent possible, is better than silence.”

Upper School Spanish teacher Yadiner Sabir said that individual racist incidents compound for students and faculty of color. “It might be a first incident for this person, a first incident for that kid,” Sabir said, “but it’s number 15 for me.”


DEI Director and DEI Strategic Plan

Fostering and promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) is one sector of the school’s work, one that’s presented on the website as a part of upholding the school’s mission. Diversity Coordinators, led by Co-Chairs Ashleigh St. Peters and Kingsley Tang, “promote awareness and understanding” of DEIB in each division, along with additional programming like conferences, symposiums, and speaker series.

The May 25 email acknowledging the hate speech that occurred came after the newly-created position of DEI Director was not filled for the 2022-23 school year, delaying the release of a DEI strategic plan that has been under development since the school’s last climate survey. Since the survey was conducted in 2018 by an outside diversity consultant, the school has hired new Upper School Dean Joe Bruno, Upper School Head Chris Arnold, Intermediate and Middle School Head Vahn Phayprasert, and Rupani. 

Rupani previously worked at Friends School of Baltimore and University of Chicago Laboratory Schools as the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. She also works as a principal consultant for The Glasgow Group, where she assesses DEI needs in other independent schools. One of the first suggestions she typically makes, she said, is to hire a dedicated DEI Director. 

“When everyone’s doing it on top of their full time roles, things fall through the cracks and it’s no one’s fault,” Rupani said. “When someone is living and breathing and thinking about this work all day every day, they can respond to things that come up immediately. They can be proactive.”

Part of Rupani’s work this year was continuing the DEI strategic document, which she said she hoped to complete with the new DEI Director and release at the end of this school year. 

According to Rupani, the plan has four main sections: creating a deliberately diverse and inclusive community, curriculum and pedagogy, climate and community engagement, and infrastructure. Section one focuses on representation, recruitment, retention in partnership with Admissions and Human Resources. Section two looks at the scope and sequence of DEI content taught from JK to 12, as well as professional development. 

Section three looks at the broader sense of belonging outside the classroom, both within Parker and in the context of Chicago-based civic engagement. Infrastructure means the financial and human resources to support the work in the previous three sections, along with collecting further climate data and examining existing DEI policies and structure.

Continuing work on the plan in collaboration with the Upper School DEI Task Force was a part of Rupani’s work as the Assistant Principal this year, which also includes significant disciplinary and administrative work. 

“I felt like I was stretched really thin and not able to dedicate enough time to any one part of the job,” Rupani said. “When we have a full time DEI Director, that’s not going to mean I’m going to just step away from the work like, ‘Okay, you’ve got this, not my job anymore.’ I’m always going to have that lens, and it’s why I work in schools: to make them more equitable and more inclusive places.”

From twenty candidates, two finalists were selected, both of whom declined the offer for the position. “We were excited and enthusiastic about the candidates,” Frank said. “Each has dynamics going on in their own personal lives. It just didn’t work out. But we keep on keeping on.”

The search will re-open earlier than it began this year to fill the position for beginning July of 2023.

Rupani said she hopes the DEI Director will be able to focus on parent and guardian education, one-on-one faculty support around curriculum, and DEI vocabulary education in each division. She said race and gender are two of the biggest identity categories she hopes the director engages with.

“While DEI work in schools often has been reduced to ‘we’re just talking about race,’ I think at Parker, I still see a need to talk about, and really dig into, conversations about racial identity,” Rupani said. 


Student and Faculty of Color Experience

“The Weekly” interviewed eight faculty and students of color about their experience with race at Parker.

Litzy Tafolla, junior and WOCA head, said the addition of students of color into a predominately white grade can be difficult for new students. At each main entry point – JK, sixth grade, and ninth grade – the percent of students that are non-white increases. 

“Students of color come in [in high school], but it’s like they [existing white students] weren’t raised to recognize, and embrace, which often comes out in sentiments like, ‘oh, I don’t see race, I don’t see color’, even if it’s not so explicitly said here,” Tafolla said.

When incidents such as these happen, they are seen by many students not just as a product of not having been raised with students of color but a general ignorance. 

“So it’s like, okay, I understand where you’re coming from,” Tristen Tate, a senior and founder of BSU, said, “But at the same time, I wonder how much they’re doing to understand where I’m coming from.”

Over the past two years, microaggressions have been a major focus of DEI work for the school. 

“Microaggressions are only micro in the eyes of whoever commits it,” Sabir, a Upper faculty advisor to the Muslim Students Association, said. “The aggressions that happened pile on top of one another. You are not hearing about it. Or if you’re hearing about it, you’re choosing not to handle them.”

Even when Sabir tries to report an incident, it can be a struggle.

Let’s say there’s an incident today,” Sabir continued, “and I have to report it to somebody. I might have to go to a person who might be new here. And I have to tell that person the story started seven years ago. And it can be overwhelming. And you can forget things and people get confused. And there are a lot of questions, and then they’re inheriting something that could have been resolved, but it wasn’t.” 

Repeated microaggressions, like those described by Tafolla and Tate, are draining for students of color. When that happens, many turn to faculty of color.

“The faculty of color,” Chelsea Njei, a senior WOCA head said, “the women of color at the school have been a very great support system. And if I didn’t have them, I probably would have left Parker a long time ago.”

“I don’t know where I’d be without Ms. Shepard and Ms. Pantoja and the other women of color at this school who’ve always been like ‘you matter to us,” Taffola said. “Especially having someone like Ms. Pantoja who speaks Spanish and is involved in affinity groups was incredibly important to me staying here.”
“They know you need academic support and also emotional support during that transition,” Tate said, “and it is hard having to deal with student interactions, but the teachers of color especially understand that. Their support has been great for me especially when I first came and really didn’t want to be here.”

At the end of the 2020-2021 school year, 70% of faculty who left the school were people of color. While the pace of FSOC leaving the school has been increasing over time, it’s seen a dramatic increase in the past few years. 

When I first came to Parker, I was told that the cohort of faculty and staff that was joining that year was one of the most diverse in Parker’s history,” Sabir said. “In the seven years, I am one of the last two people of color from that cohort. Next year there’ll just be one.” 

 “We have had revolving doors in terms of administrators,” Sabir continued, “and a lot of faculty of color that go and then we bring more faculty and staff of color that then end up going At some point somebody needs to precisely look at the experience of these individuals, and be firm and willing and take the risk of implementing accountability and support and face the consequences of that.”

Frank, an alum, is currently the longest tenured administrator at Parker. He said he’s interested in the subjective experience of belonging. “How do you know whether they have that experience or not?” Frank said. “How do you find out what people are really feeling? So it’s multiple layers, but the aim is that  we want the culture to be as committed to humanity as possible, and how do we have the structures in place to get us there?’

“Whether it’s this school, or any other school, America lives in us and we live in America,” Frank said. “There’s good things about America and then some problematic things. What can we do to help students in an ever growing way, understand something as fundamental as kindness and respect?”

“While schools are a reflection of society, and there’s no way that we can avoid that,” Sabir said, “there’s nothing to say that we need to reflect the worst of society.”