The student news site of Francis W. Parker School

The Parker Weekly

The student news site of Francis W. Parker School

The Parker Weekly

The student news site of Francis W. Parker School

The Parker Weekly

New Director of DEIB

Erika Prahl Fills the Position After Seven Years of Vacancy
Photo credit: Cate O’Connor
Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Erika Prahl sits in her office.

A fridge. A “Snacktivity Cart.” A green couch. A pedestal table with two chairs. A charging station. A piece of art saying “I read Banned Books” with Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” These are all features of the new Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) Erika Prahl’s office in the administrative hallway.

Prahl was announced as Parker’s choice on Monday, April 17 and began her job on July 10. She is the first person to hold the role since the former Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Dina Levi, left in 2016, and DEIB leadership has primarily been the responsibility of the Assistant Principal since then.

At Middlesex School in Concord, MA, a 9-12 grade boarding school 20 miles from Boston, Prahl was the Director of Financial Aid for 9 years. She became the Director of Admissions in 2016 and the Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in 2020.

“Relationships are at the center of what she does,” Assistant Principal Priyanka Rupani said, “and that fits really nicely into our school.”

Prahl said she has noticed that DEIB work and education exists in many parts of Parker, and she hopes to “create some synergy across divisions and a throughline for DEIB.” She is hoping to lead the school in considering what DEIB and social emotional learning related “skills and capacities” it wants graduates to walk away with, and consider how that must be done at each age level.

Prahl and her husband have had their eyes on a move to Chicago for a couple of years, as a place for her family, including her now 15-month-old son, to land. They were looking to get out of the suburbs of Boston and be in a diverse environment like Chicago. They visited in December of 2022 to check out houses before knowing about the Parker opening.

Prahl heard about the position from Rohan M. Arjun, a Principal Consultant at the Glasgow Group, who connected her to Rupani, another Principal Consultant with Glasgow. Prahl and Rupani had met when Rupani did a climate assessment at Middlesex in 2020.

Prahl asked StratéGenius Search Consultant Ara Brown, who was helping run the Parker search, about the position, and she applied for the job. In March, she did an interview over Zoom and later did a full in-person day of interviews with many groups including parents, different ages of students, and faculty members.  

“She cares deeply about the student experience,” Rupani said. “What I saw was a deep commitment to schools.”

The Student Interview Review Board (SIRB) met with four candidates for the position including Prahl. Senior and SIRB member Alex Fidler thought Prahl was a “good fit” and “very qualified,” and she recommended her for the role over other candidates.

“I think for me I was looking for someone who could engage the entire student body with a more meaningful approach to DEIB,” Fidler said. “I feel like in the past, our DEIB sessions have felt like some people are listening and some aren’t, so for me I was looking for a candidate with new ideas who could engage as many people as possible.” 

Less than a week after her interview day, Prahl was offered the position and though she “played coy” and did not immediately accept, she and her husband put in an offer on a house right after she got off the phone.

At past jobs including at Middlesex School, Prahl has introduced herself as Erika, and students chose to refer to her by names including “Ms. Erika,” “EEP,” and, recently, “Rika.” She said she does not intend to be “Ms. Prahl” at Parker.

Prahl grew up in Cleveland, attending an independent school called Laurel School from fifth to eighth grade and then Phillips Academy, a boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts, for high school. She got her Bachelors in Modern Languages and Literature at Kenyon College and did a part time program at Harvard Graduate School of Education that she completed in May of 2022, 20 days after her son was born.

“I think that what my educational background and experience bring, particularly liberal arts education, and going to a boarding school or independent school in general, is the ability to think creatively and approach problems from different perspectives,” Prahl said.

While working in admissions and financial aid at Middlesex school, Prahl said her focus was often on offering students and families, regardless of background, a feeling of belonging at Middlesex.

“Every family through the process needs to feel special,” she said. “Because I was so focused on recruiting and retaining students from underrepresented or marginalized backgrounds, it was really important that I saw them through from the point of contact at inquiry, through their application process, all the way through to graduation.”

She attempted to look at the Middlesex experience holistically and make positive experiences that build a network of people with good feelings about the school. Prahl said another reason it was important for her to support students from marginalized populations was that she had been a young woman of color at the predominantly white Phillips Academy.

According to Rupani, some independent schools made the role of Director of DEIB a part of the admissions department, and they were meant to focus on diverse enrollment. Though the position now has a wide scope in most schools, Rupani said admissions officers sometimes deal with many of the same questions Directors of DEIB deal with.

Since starting at Parker, Prahl has primarily interacted with teachers. She said the role of Dean of DEI was more student facing at Middlesex, bringing several students to her office at any time of day. At Parker, the role will be more adult-facing, according to Prahl and Rupani, so she can think more structurally about DEIB at Parker, doing policy work, professional development, and more.

“Sometimes these roles get set up so that they have to be all things to all people, and she’s still just one person,” Rupani said. “Sometimes the roles can be so focused on student activities and clubs and programs that they miss out on the larger policy work. So we wanted to start with that foundation.”

Rupani said the role will eventually be more evenly split between adults and students once some of this work is done. However, students will still be a large part of Prahl’s work from the get go and she hopes to find ways to support and connect with students in informal settings.

Prahl is planning to create a “Snacktivity Cart” in her office with snacks and little activities and she will keep an “open door policy” to bring students to her room. She wants people to come to her to talk about anything from DEIB to NBA Basketball, particularly, her favorite player, Lebron James.

Rupani said Prahl plans on working with senior Izzy Markel who is serving as Student Government’s Inclusion Coordinator. The two have exchanged emails and will meet in person once the school year starts and Prahl has seen Parker in action.

“In the past, there has been a huge disconnect between the student body and the guests who came in to talk with us about DEIB,” Markel said. “We need to find new ways to get students to engage with and respect the messages being relayed to them. I believe that seminars are not the way to handle DEIB education and hopefully the new [Director of DEIB] and I can evolve the current curriculum into something more lively, impactful and effective.”

Parker has had a Director of DEIB in the past but had not had one for several years when Rupani arrived in the summer of 2021. Soon after beginning at Parker, Rupani, having served in the position at other schools, advocated to Principal Dan Frank that they look to hire someone. 

Though Rupani believes DEIB work is everyone’s work, she says it is important to have someone working to unite and lead the DEIB work of a school. She also said Director of DEIB is a position that most independent schools now have filled.

Parker launched a search for a new Director of DEIB at the beginning of 2022 and despite finding two finalists, the position did not end up filled. Rupani declined to say what had gone wrong but said that Parker chose to wait and relaunch the search the next year with a longer process and a search firm, StratéGenius.

Prahl believes that the Director of DEIB will be involved in bias-based incidents, including some disciplinary situations. She also sees Parker potentially implementing an incident report that students could fill out and directly submit to Rupani, Upper School Dean of Students Joe Bruno, and her.

“I don’t like DEIB work and directors to be seen as part of discipline,” Rupani said. “I think that’s an unhealthy message to send to students. Do I think that as part of discipline or consequences, should there always be education? Absolutely. And so can she influence or impact that? Yes. I hope she’s involved in supporting administrators and navigating those things.”

Prahl mentioned restorative justice as a key piece of dealing with bias-based incidents and working to engage with community members who “harmed or hurt others based on their identity markers.”

At Middlesex, students who had violated a major school rule would appear before the discipline committee made up of students and faculty for questioning and the committee would make a recommendation for institutional response to the head of school. The head of school would then read the incident and punishment to the entire school with no names. Though Prahl does not necessarily think this system should be put in place at Parker, she hopes transparency will be considered when dealing with these incidents at Parker.

Although Prahl is not aware of the exact instances of bias-based incidents that Parker has dealt with, she believes it is likely similar to what she has seen at Middlesex. She expects there to be microaggressions, probably not instances of serious overt racism, but potentially some outright homophobic things being said.

At Middlesex, the South Asian students affinity group lacked a faculty sponsor who also identified as South Asian, so the school connected with another school who had faculty with a shared identity. Prahl sees this as a possibility for the Muslim Students Alliance at Parker as Parker currently lacks a Muslim teacher to sponsor the club.

Prahl is a lover of sports, having been an athlete in college and coached many teams including field hockey and lacrosse. She is also a women’s lacrosse official in her free time, and she is hoping to pick up some college games in Chicago. Prahl follows NCAA Basketball and is excited for the March Madness Bracket Challenge. 

“I am a Cleveland sports fan, I was never a New England sports fan, and I’m not gonna be a Chicago sports fan. I am a Cleveland sports fan for life,” Prahl said. “Also, I’m a huge Lebron fan. That’s my guy.”

Prahl also loves music of all kinds and seeing theater. She saw “Hamilton” twice with the original cast and recently enjoyed the all-black production of “Death of a Salesman.” 

One bit of DEIB planning that Prahl is already working on is for Hispanic Heritage Month, which starts in September. Prahl is looking to bring in alumni speakers to Parker to talk to students about their experiences as Latino people in professional spaces.

When asked about turnover of faculty members of color at Parker, Prahl said she would be interested to learn more about Parker’s exact teacher demographics and its exit interview strategy. She also hopes to lend her position toward building a community in which faculty members feel comfortable and supported.

Rupani shared her intention to be a resource to Prahl to make her feel supported in her role to ensure a long tenure at Parker.

“It is certainly not my intention to leave in two years,” Prahl said. “We bought a house. I’m all in on Parker. I’m all in on Chicago, until further notice.”

More to Discover
About the Contributor
Harry Lowitz
Harry Lowitz, Editor-in-Chief
Harry Lowitz is a senior who is animated to be in his second year as Editor-in-Chief, and fourth year on "The Weekly." Outside of the "The Weekly," he is the DCA in Student Government and a member of the Second City Teen Ensemble. Harry’s favorite journalism movie is “All The President’s Men.” Inspired by the film, he hopes to break into the college counseling office to hide listening devices. Perhaps, after that, he will swing by the Parker Democrats.