WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional Schools superintendent Thursday gave a detailed explanation of the opening stages of his diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging initiative and responded to community members who have been critical of his approach to the issue.
"The real part of this work is working to better understand and know ourselves and to know those with whom we share our community and our county and our commonwealth and our world," Jake McCandless told the School Committee at its monthly meeting.
"We are always with our students and within ourselves working to build a greater empathy and understanding of not only ourselves but our shared history and our understanding of one another. … And this is an area where I have to assume we all agree: working to end bias and working to end hate and working to end the notion that anybody feels unsafe in a place like a school is work that we can all agree is absolutely vital."
The evening began with the committee hearing a letter signed by five residents of the district who asked whether the school district was "indoctrinating or educating."
"Families, caregivers, teachers, students and taxpayers are deeply concerned with the approach some schools have taken with regard to their diversity and equity initiatives," according to the letter read by signee Janean Laidlaw. "Thus, we are prompted to ask a number of specific questions of our district.
"We have, to date, made two previous written inquiries about the underlying philosophies upon which the Mount Greylock initiative is to be based. To date, our written inquiries, including those about the underlying philosophies that inform the district initiative, have not all been answered to our satisfaction."
On Thursday, McCandless spoke for more than half an hour about specifics of the DEIB work that he has initiated and about the reasons why he believes it matters.
McCandless pointed out early on that he is a white, heterosexual male who was raised with a degree of privilege and, as such, it is incumbent on him to recognize the advantages that he has been given.
"Implicit bias exists in all of us," McCandless said, noting that he grew up in a white, rural community in western Pennsylvania. "It is not a shame to have implicit bias. What might be a shame is not working to overcome the implicit bias I believe is present in each and every one of us.
"While I am not ashamed of who I am, I do have to remain hyper aware of who I am. I have to be hyper aware, as Jake McCandless, the person, of the immense amount of privilege that I have, automatically, because of who and what I am that many people who I know, that I care about, that I love deeply, that I work for and who I work to serve have a very different life experience because of who they are."
McCandless walked the committee through a 14-page presentation that explained his still evolving initiative, which already has begun with an assessment of perceptions and lived experiences of members of the district's community. DEI consultant Cortney King Tunis, a 2004 Williams College graduate, is taking the lead on that work.
"Cortney's work will help us understand the experiences of the students we serve," McCandless said.
Other consultants who have signed on to help the district include Khyati Joshi, a scholar whose work focuses on "promoting cultural and religious pluralism," and Simran Jeet Singh, a best-selling children's author who Time magazine recognized as one of "16 people fighting for a more equal America."
Joshi will do professional development classes with district faculty. Singh will present his book, "Fauja Singh Keeps Going," at both of the district's elementary schools and do a full-school presentation at the middle-high school, McCandless said.
"Dr. Joshi will be working to some degree with us in person and sometimes online," he said. "Her schedule is full. The need for this work is great. The need for somebody with her national reputation is great. We feel very fortunate she is coming here to work with us."
McCandless said Thursday that he tries to avoid social media, but he is aware of some of the conversation going on in the district about the DEIB work he identified this winter as a priority in the fiscal year 2022 budget.
One highly-trafficked Facebook post questioned whether Mount Greylock should be teaching critical race theory, an academic movement that looks to address long-standing institutional racism in America.
McCandless said he was not an academic and would not attempt to delve into the issues in depth. But he did note that among the books in his office are Ibram X. Kendi's "Stamped from the Beginning" and its companion book for younger audiences, "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You."
"This is not ‘anti-white,'" McCandless said of Kendi's work. "It is causing me, as a white guy, to take a hard look at the fact that, if life is a 100-yard dash, because of the way I was born, I am starting the 100-yard dash from about 10 feet from the finish line."
Members of the School Committee expressed their support for McCandless in his DEIB initiative and considered whether to vote on a resolution to that effect. McCandless said he did not think a resolution was needed but said he and all the district's employees know and appreciate the fact that the School Committee has their backs in the effort.
"It's very hard to read [the criticism]," Carrie Greene said. "It must be very hard to respond to it. You've done it graciously a number of times already. I'd like to know how this committee can support you focusing on your attention to the work rather than defending it."
McCandless said responding to criticism is part of his job.
"At some point, the questions, the queries, the continual undercutting can almost seem like a strategy to take time and energy away from the actual work at hand," McCandless said, pointing out that he is not saying that is the case yet in the district. "I think my years as a superintendent, my years as a principal and my years as a teacher with dozens of ninth-graders, I have a pretty good radar for when that's happening and when I need to say, 'Thank you. I've received that,' and proceed with the work.
"I don't know an answer to [Greene's] question tonight, but I will think about it."
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