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Listening, learning and committing to action

By Carma Elliot, College President
15 July 2022

Reflecting on our DEI journey of systemic change


Over 60 years ago, Kurt Hahn’s vision recognised the power of an education that deliberately brought people together from different backgrounds, with shared purpose. At UWCSEA, over 50 years, we have acknowledged that our vision of peaceful, sustainable futures would only be achieved through the combined strengths and differences of many, working together and committed to deliberate actions for greater equity and inclusion on our campuses. We also recognise this as one of our greatest challenges; as we consciously cultivate a diverse community of around 5,600 students and 1,000 staff from over 100 nations, we cannot leave the development of intercultural competency to pure chance.

A strategic focus

In 2017/2018, when UWCSEA was devising its five year strategy—taking the College to its 50th anniversary and beyond—there was a strong focus on diversity as one of our greatest sources of strength, and as a strong compass for our future direction. As leaders and educators, we understood our vital role in creating and promoting change, and that we had a responsibility to stand up against social injustice in all forms. In this, we acknowledged that we had not done enough to address systemic change.

The Values in Action initiative launched in 2019, which convened community dialogues to review our core values, focused closer attention on issues of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI). In the 2020/2021 school year, unconscious bias training for leaders deepened our awareness of less visible forms of bias. How we recruit, how we communicate, how we represent multiple perspectives and listen to underrepresented voices—these are just some of the behaviours and practices that we reviewed to improve.

Our DEI journey of the last few years has been about all in our community feeling heard, valued and respected. About all of us valuing the investment of time and resources to push through the inevitable challenges; and about all of our planning being grounded in action.

Throughout, we have encouraged students to debate, discuss, and engage with topics surrounding race, class and privilege, and how they could take control of their education and educational experiences in a world where these things matter a great deal. Supporting students to better understand their identity and the role that cultural differences play in relationships and strong communities are key themes across all the elements of our learning programme, and this has proved a rich seam of knowledge and insight.

Lessons along the way

It has been a journey in which we have challenged ourselves and each other and held each other to account for commitments made. We have worked on how we build bridges within and among our community to foster a culture of respect, trust and understanding. Has it all been smooth FEATURE 12 | Dunia June 2022 sailing? By definition, DEI work is difficult, complex and challenging—so the answer is no. Have we learned from our mistakes, our missteps? Undoubtedly, yes.

Understanding diversity and working towards inclusion is complex and takes time, as do raising awareness, building trust and understanding. Engaging the broadest community is critical: our community has valued the extended dialogue; and although on occasion we have appeared to be making slow progress this work is such that these conversations take time to work through an embed.

Some reflections on the lessons we have learned, often the hard way:

  • As we began to explore how we might further support diversity to flourish throughout our College in the future, a series of ‘World Cafés’ in 2019 created an opportunity for all to contribute to an Action for Diversity plan. This provided a strong baseline and benchmark for our work— but also revealed significant differences in priorities among students, staff, parents and alumni.
  • We had a fairly clear idea of what our mission required of us, but did we have enough difficult conversations to start with? Did we have a shared understanding of what ‘good’ might look like—and how we might recognise and mark milestones along the way? Did we do enough at the outset to seek partnerships? More recently, we could have spent more time establishing a clearer understanding of what systemic change would mean.
  • Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, we signalled that we were taking a deliberate anti-racist stance, and this commitment was both important and urgent. However, we did not do enough to communicate that this work was not to the exclusion of other work—a powerful lesson learned. We have a wide spectrum of voices in our community: concerns were expressed about over-intellectualising DEI issues, or for jumping on a US-centric response—perhaps because we were without a solid justification and strategy specific to our South East Asian context. Navigating these tensions while ensuring all voices are included continues to be challenging.
  • In our large community, as well as gathering information, data and perspectives from focus groups, it took us almost a year to map the many initiatives already underway across both campuses. We identified early on that we needed a shared language and lexicon for our dialogue and we spent time exploring options to achieve this. A particular challenge has been a shared understanding of the language of diversity across our whole community. We have sought to bring the widest community with us by engaging parents in workshops on Intercultural Competence and Unconscious Bias in English, Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
  • We invested significantly in our professional learning, by designing a roadmap which focused on identity and intercultural competence, as well as how our cultural values shape our (unconscious) biases. The roadmap has helped us to surface the main issues, both from a personal and professional perspective, and to engage across our large community.
  • What we teach and how we teach it is key: work continues on a review of our curriculum which includes close examination of whether our broad programme included perspectives beyond the traditional Western narrative.
  • We have not always succeeded in creating inclusive and safe spaces for all community members. Acknowledging that this may look different across the community, we could have spent more time agreeing what constitutes a safe space. We have added more structures for support, embedded in schools, and created a pilot bias incident protocol, with a focus on restorative practices.
  • We have adapted our recruitment and selection processes in order to make this more equitable. We have also invested in training on recruitment bias, and we lobby our government partners, where we feel policies mitigate against diverse recruitment.
Sharing ownership to accelerate change

This work has been a powerful validation of our UWC Mission, and purpose: the peace and sustainability of our planet has always needed communities operating with a high degree of intercultural competence. Intentionally promoting intercultural competence throughout our school culture as well as through the individual actions of our students, staff and wider community is well within our grasp.

Looking back on our DEI work, there are many things we could have done differently, and better: in particular, we could have worked toward greater buy-in from our community when we acknowledged change was needed, and in determining how we were going to address the changes in a systemic way.

Our main learning has been that—without being complacent—it is possible to find a way to address the big issues through collective endeavour, and to build trust even while disagreeing. We can and should allow space for kindness in the process of difficult discussions and decisions. A lot of this is about challenging and changing behaviours, attitudes and belief systems. It is the responsibility of us all.

From next school year the College will adopt a model of distributed leadership on DEIJ, with shared ownership facilitating positive change. We acknowledge that there will always be more for us to do; as our founder Kurt Hahn said 60 years ago, “there is more in us.” We can and will achieve most by working together, for full accountability, as we move towards the next 50 years in our UWCSEA story.