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  • Holding Difficult Conversations About Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Gould Academy

    by Kim Siebert MacPhail ’73, P’07

Truth-telling Through Personal Stories

When College Guidance Counselor Maggie Davis undertook the role of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Task Force Coordinator in the spring of 2020, she had already heard certain stories from Gould’s past. But Davis rightly suspected these stories were only the tip of a much larger iceberg.

May 2020 had become an inflection point. George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement were prompting Gould alumni to share long-suppressed sentiments and relate painful, formative experiences. Davis determined that she would embark on a “listening tour,” intended to provide a platform for these stories. From them, the Gould community could learn and begin to understand.

“The listening tour brought to light so much that was unknown,” Davis reported. “But it was only unknown for white alumni. Our alumni of color didn’t learn anything new. They already knew all of it. For white alumni, though, it was pretty shocking.” 

Davis believed, then and now, that Gould had to “create opportunities for healing and agency and [thereby] create an opportunity for our white alumni to hear—for the first time—and to give an opportunity for forgiveness. Even when we (Gould) knew, we didn’t do anything about it.”
Davis interviewed more than 40 alumni, parents, trustees, faculty, and staff from across the decades and a variety of backgrounds. To a person, each expressed love for Gould—but with that love came the desire to help the school grow and change.

Davis’ interview transcriptions make for sobering reading: slurs and name-calling; racist graffiti; intended and unintended faculty/administration biases; off-campus incidents (in town, at games, on trips); the loneliness of marginalization; a lack of cultural understanding; white homogeneity in the curriculum and co-curricular programs; a lack of diversity among students, faculty, trustees; desires to rejuvenate the relationship with A Better Chance (ABC); concerns about financial aid and its allocation; lack of cohesion between domestic and international students; suppression of blackness in order to fit in; disappointment with Gould for not addressing racial incidents and harassment.

This last point—disappointment with Gould—was repeatedly conveyed.
Perhaps the single most horrifying story is one told by Brian Walker ’83, who witnessed a cross-burning by Bethel youths on Halloween night in 1981. Walker included the incident in his 2012 novel Black Boy White School. He also vividly recalled that night in his keynote address at Gould Commencement in May 2021.
As well, Walker reports that even when he returned to campus as a teaching intern and admissions officer after college, Gould at no point appeared open to talking about the incident, even when he initiated the conversations. He still holds out hope for some form of acknowledgment—through conversations within the Gould community and even potentially through restorative justice with the Bethel residents responsible.

Holly Bancroft Brown ’82 was also there that Halloween night. During an MLK Jr Day breakout session hosted virtually last January, Brown recalled that the cross burning marked a loss of innocence—for her as well as for Gould as a community. She, too, has no recollection of the school ever addressing the incident.

Brown reported that she raised the subject of the cross burning on social media following George Floyd’s death. Alumni who responded said it was the first time in the intervening 39 years they’d heard anything about it.
In a March 2021 interview, Lexi Stewart ’15 recalled her time at Gould being difficult as one of a small handful of students of color. For a while after graduation, she distanced herself from the school and “put [her] four years of memories away.” But George Floyd’s death and social media—once again—provided an opening. That was when Stewart felt compelled to express disappointment in Gould’s lackluster response.

“I voiced my frustration on Instagram and said, ‘You guys just aren’t getting it. You have an alum who is reaching out and offering help. I’m right here.’  Yes, I was calling Gould out, but I was also offering my services. If you talk to me, you might get more information and a better understanding about the pain that comes with all this stuff, what needs to be done, and changes that need to be made. Gould is very stagnant, very stuck in its ways. It’s tradition, yes, but sometimes traditions need to change with the times.”

Gould took notice of her comments and reached out. Stewart agreed to join Gould’s DEI Task Force and to become a mentor to students in the DEI Club.

Stephanie Montgomery, Gould Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is a lifelong commitment. That is the reason it is often referred to as a ‘marathon…not a sprint’ and/or a ‘movement…not a moment.’

The Task Force Identifies Challenges

Now an ongoing endeavor, the DEI Task Force, coordinated by Maggie Davis, first embarked on its mission by drilling down into six focus areas developed by youth organization consultant bethany allen ’89 for Gould’s DEI Road Map.

The focus areas included: Institutional Review, Campus Culture and Mental Health, Engagement and Outreach, Training Opportunities, Hiring Practices, and Curriculum Review. 

Davis emphasized that the beginning stage of inquiry is about pulling apart “business-as-usual” and identifying institutional sticking points and blind spots. It is not about prescribing solutions. That will come later and will include recommendations, mapping, and strategizing. 

Moving ahead too quickly, Davis explained, would have been like “trying to build the plane and fly it at the same time.”

The discussions of the Institutional Review subcommittee offer a snapshot of what early efforts looked like. The group started by talking broadly about issues such as power structure: Who has the authority to make decisions and do they have the resources they need? How does the budget reflect Gould’s values? How is financial aid allocated?


Conversations, such as the one above, open up issues like “transparency”—a subject, among others, that has proven to have many tributaries within the larger institutional watershed.
The pace of change—generally—can be glacial. At Gould, however, allen has seen an acceleration of pace in the last couple of years, demonstrated by greater openness to discuss issues such as diversity. She also sees glimmers of hope in the leadership of Head of School Tao Smith ’90, P’23, and hopes this will serve to move the school forward less haltingly.

From her professional experience with other schools—both private and public—allen has seen good examples of the process of change. She believes greater transparency and accountability create places where young people can “thrive and be their authentic selves.” The work begins and continues with ongoing exercises in self-examination.

In an interview, Brady Wheatley ’03, another DEI Task Force member who serves as Head of Upper School at Rocky Hill Country Day in Rhode Island, reported that due to ongoing efforts, DEI practices have become well-integrated into the fabric there. Wheatley reported that she became encouraged to offer assistance to Gould when she started seeing messages from Tao Smith that signaled a greater commitment to diversity.

“I felt more welcome,” Wheatley explained. “[So] I helped put together a program for Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021 and I’ve also been working with Maggie Davis and the faculty on the Professional Development subcommittee.”
Noting some efforts that are working at Rocky Hill, Wheatley suggested adding student supports, such as providing time during the school day for affinity groups; increasing faculty-of-color representation; hiring a full-time Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging; increasing professional development so faculty are more equipped to address micro-aggressions or racial abuses, and de-centering whiteness in the curriculum to better support all students and learning.

“There are all kinds of ways of doing this, Wheatley noted. “But still—like any school—what we’re doing at Rocky Hill feels like not enough.”

She added: “One of the most pressing best practices for any school is to provide mirrors and windows within the curriculum. Mirrors in which students can see themselves reflected; windows to see into different experiences, cultures, identities.”

In separate interviews, Wheatley, Davis, Stewart, and allen all emphasized that Gould’s DEIB effort should not be thought of as merely a box to be checked off. They strongly encouraged hiring a full-time director—a recommendation that resulted in the creation of the position at Gould and the recent hiring of former Trustee Stephanie Montgomery, P’00 to the role.

Another important point, they noted, is that adults need to be more attentive to what students have to say. Maggie Davis expressed it this way: “The number one thing that needs to change is how many questions we’re asking the students. We’re just not. The students know everything we need to know.”

Lexi Stewart ’15

It might rub people the wrong way but it’s for a good purpose—so that everybody can feel like Gould is their safe space. Be ready for the hard conversation, but positive change is going to come from it.

To Lead, Follow

Like the Blue and Gold survey respondents in 1968 [see Timeline], today’s Gould student attitudes and perspectives point the way forward. Encouragingly, there are signs that a greater understanding is developing.

One example is that students in the “History of Indigenous Peoples of America” course crafted a “Land Acknowledgement” proclamation, with the goal of urging the Board of Trustees to formally recognize that Gould sits on lands of “the Indigenous peoples of both the Abenaki and Wabanaki confederacy.”

Additionally, according to student Silas Summers ’23—a leader of the student DEI Club— the DEI Task Force has added student priorities to the DEI Road Map. Besides hiring a full-time Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Director, students also asked Gould to conduct a comprehensive diversity/equity audit of operations, programming, and curriculum; and to improve diversity overall.

“Gould as an institution is trying its best,” Summers said last March, “but the student population is also trying its best. Gradually, we’re working together to get a general consensus. We don’t want to assume [things about] each other.”

Stasis, Change, or Transformation? Gould Needs to Decide

The difference between “change” and “transformation,” bethany allen says, is that “change is looking at the past and making things in the present different while transformation is looking around you and imagining a different future.” About diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at Gould, she said, “It’s worth noting that both are needed.”

“Being away for so long before I started working on this,” allen added, “I had nostalgia for Gould, but part of me was unsure if it was still the mythical place of my youth. I’m really happy that for everyone I’ve talked to—including recent graduates and students who are there now—Gould continues to be a special place.”

But, she added, Gould has to decide in this moment—given its history—what it means to be Gould.
“Who are we, and who do we want to be?” she asked. “We need to create space to have honest conversations where people can speak truth to power without fear of repercussions.”

In the same spirit, Lexi Stewart noted that Gould has prided itself on being a kind of haven for all students, “but it’s time for Gould to realize that it’s not a safe space for everybody. This is going to be an uncomfortable conversation, but it needs to be had. It might rub people the wrong way but it’s for a good purpose—so that everybody can feel like Gould is their safe space. Be ready for the hard conversation, but positive change is going to come from it.”
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