Fear Less, Love More: The Move from DEI to ECC

Dr. Kee J.E. Straits
In the wake of a pandemic that has shattered our routines, wrought significant loss, and unveiled to those privileged enough to live outside societal fissures the depth of these structural malformations at our foundations, I found myself applying for the position of director of equity, community and culture (formerly, diversity, equity, and inclusion) at Bosque School—a choice I made after 10 years of establishing, owning, and running my own consulting business. Since arriving at Bosque School, I have learned that I am the first person in this position who is Indigenous and speaks Spanish fluently. I have learned that the average turnover of faculty of color at independent schools is five years or less, and the average percentage of faculty of color at independent schools is 17%. Bosque School has a relatively higher percentage at 27% staffulty of color; however, the gap remains significant when we know that New Mexico’s children are 74% ethnic minority. My personal experience in education gives me intimate familiarity with the statistics.

As a student in elementary and secondary school in the suburbs of Denver, I only remember ever having one teacher of color. In my undergraduate years at a small liberal arts college in the East, although taught primarily by White straight (to my knowledge) faculty, I had the pleasure of being taught by a handful more of faculty of color; but it was my first academic mentor who was openly gay and from whom I learned how deep the cost he paid, personally and professionally, to avoid societal erasure. I remember another brilliant undergraduate faculty member in the hard sciences whose first language was Spanish. In his heavily accented Spanish, he told us students of color that he would constantly be mistaken for the janitor. It was also in undergraduate school that I began to notice how every year I remained in school, there were fewer and fewer students of color. This came home multiple times through my trek to achieve a PhD as every level seemed to threaten my own demise. My ability was not in question; I’ve always been an A+ student. Yet, every year I survived academia, several more of my classmates of color did not, in spite of their intellectual aptitude. It was a terrifying phenomenon that had me question my own relevance in educational spaces that flipped cultural and linguistic assets into deficits and rendered BIPOC students invisible or completely erased. My first undergraduate mentor saved me from academic erasure so that I could reach the next level. In my Master’s program at the University of New Mexico, I finally had the experience of both bilingual Latinx and Indigenous faculty to reflect back to me the potential for achieving a doctorate. Yet, it still took significant nurturing by my two closest doctoral program mentors (one, who is from the Blackfeet Nation, and the other, a bilingual Puertorriqueña) in Logan, Utah, to learn how to navigate academic realities while maintaining my cultural background, values, and worldview intact, regardless of the many barriers and contradictions this imposed.

Why am I sharing with you this arduous personal journey through academia? My education has been in institutions that were predominantly White, where my presence was the “diversity.” My lived experience taught me that diversity means having token representation of individuals with marginalized status to validate a system of meritocracy and continued colonization. Every step of the way, I learned the visceral feeling of inequity. It may be important to share with you that White communities raised me for most of my childhood. I was adopted transnationally from Peru as an infant. I, personally, felt embraced by the White community in which I grew up. My mother was as fierce as she was loving. Some of you might wonder how I could feel so embraced, achieve such strong academic success, and yet be gut-wrenched throughout. Every moment of my life from childhood on up, I could look to my same-aged neighbor on the other side of town, another person (immigrant, Black, Native, speaking a language other than English, any girl “of color”) who mirrored me, but was having a completely different experience—an experience I came to learn had a name: inequity. Others of you with personal and communal historical experiences of marginalization might have different wonderments … maybe how I survived?

New Mexico’s Native American, Chicanx, Mexican, undocumented, queer, immigrant, bilingual, special education, South Valley, northern Hispanic, urban Indian, Asian, Black, system-impacted, and rural communities loom large as my teachers about equity and survival. These very communities have taken me in and transformed my lived experience of “community,” “culture,” and “equity.” These were communities that I did not have access to growing up in White cultural spaces. Yet, the NM communities in which I am now immersed are the very ones that could provide the kind of cultural teachings that can serve to protect from the racism that my mother could not prevent from occurring because it was integrally woven into every fabric of American existence (I’m not talking about individual acts of racism, prejudice or discrimination as most individuals I have ever come to know are beautiful, kind people who want to do good in the world. I’m referring to systems designed to maintain privilege, position, money, and power for particular groups of people at the expense of others. History, and most recently the pandemic, make it clear which is which). 

These are some of the things I have come to learn through lived experience as a brown-skinned Spanish-speaking, long-haired, dual citizen, Indigenous woman here in New Mexico. Community is tied to land. It is creating and maintaining our relationship with the land we live on and understanding that her original caretakers have generations upon generations of accumulated lived history, knowledge, and ties with her that cannot be broken by Western colonization’s political “ownership.” Community is in our prescience for the wellbeing of future generations, and thus we caretake the land and her sacred sites for the children yet to come. Community is “con unidad,” and when we come together, without division, usando multilingüismo, standing up for each other, we all win. Culture is preserving, practicing, and passing on traditional lifeways and indigenous languages. Culture is also where you find an unconditional sense of belonging when everyone else decides you are “fringe”, a minority, or unfit. Culture heals. Culture is resilience. Culture, in its true sense, is a love we feel in our hearts because it speaks our first language: emotion. And equity… is not enough. The gap between “those with'' power, privilege or wealth and “those without'' is so wide that, in order to raise up “those without” to the same level, “those with” would have to let go of their very identities. And “those without,” in order to receive the lift up might also have to let go of their identities (not necessarily their culture, nor their communities, but certainly their identification with powerlessness).

My question I pose to you, dear Bosque School families, is: are you ready to let go? For example, what does it mean to you that Bosque School is a college preparatory school, otherwise referred to as “elite” or “exclusive”? For you and your family, is this synonymous or antonymous with, say, changing the school demographics to reflect NM demographics of 74% ethnic minority? Or 25% of students coming from families below poverty? After all, the traditional definition of an elite education generally could be considered the exact opposite of equity, a conundrum that I’m sure many of you have pondered in your choice of schools for your children (I know I had to). So, we come to Bosque School determined to see how long we can juggle the tension? But what if we didn’t have to juggle the tension? What would we have to let go of so that an “elite education” would be synonymous with “equity”? 

Equity is letting go of fear. Fear of losing power, fear of losing privilege, or fear of losing wealth. Or, fear of losing culture, fear of losing community, fear of losing one’s identity. And if equity is letting go of our fears that prevent us from transforming, then, achieving equity would be fearlessly writing new definitions that could combine opposites to become synonymous. We could fearlessly recognize that our group’s gain comes at another group’s expense, even when we, personally, never meant to harm, and even when that recognition challenges the very core of how we have always lived or what we have always been told. Then, we could fearlessly redress the harm and heal together. Or, we could fearlessly forge new paths that our families warned from generations of experience were not ours to tread, and we would do it with fearless belief and belonging that it is ours, and it is wide enough for all of our relatives. Bosque School families, let’s not just dream it, or talk about it, or strive for equity. I invite you to let go of your fears and come together with love. Let’s live a Bosque School culture of “challenging education” systems as we know them. As a Bosque School community, let’s BE a college preparatory school that IS SYNONYMOUS WITH equity. Together, let’s forge a new academic identity that deeply reflects our New Mexico children back to them in our educational policies, systems, physical structures, values, content, traditions, and people. Let’s forge an academic identity designed for the world in which our New Mexico youth seven generations forward, for whom we have the responsibility to caretake our current NM lands, will thrive.