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Beloved Offers a Mirror for Libertas
When Libertas College Preparatory School opened in 2015, Anna Carlstone-Hurst wanted a partner to make inclusion and equity central to the school’s mission. Then, she met Rhonda Broussard, Founder of Beloved Community. Beloved is a nonprofit consulting agency devoted to developing leaders and transforming organizations into models of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). In this back-to-school recovery project, Beloved supported Libertas through the COVID-19 pandemic by moving Ana’s vision into action.
Facilitated by a team of DEI experts, Beloved offered Libertas an opportunity to examine its inclusion practices and develop a vision for supporting the wellbeing of its whole community. Like a mirror to see itself, Libertas was led through a series of self-reflection activities that culminated in an Equity Audit and community engagement training. This project forged bonds among the Libertas community and equipped Libertas’s leaders with the tools to remain responsive to their community, throughout and beyond the pandemic.
The Opportunity & Need
Libertas teachers, students, and families were feeling stressed and exasperated over many aspects of returning to school, including fear of being infected with COVID-19, worries that their children were falling behind on their learning, and concern about lack of social support. One parent expressed,
“It’s a bit stressful. You feel like you are in a tight bag and you can’t move and can’t stretch.”
Libertas and Beloved partnered to address recovery needs around:
- establishing a process of listening and responding to their community
- nurturing a sense of connection threatened by virtual learning
- responding to inequities that became sharply visible because of the pandemic
Beloved said that their goal was, “to deepen not just [community] relationships, but specifically this work around community engagement, and building a stronger sense of wellbeing and belonging for young people and families.” Beloved thus centered their work around the following question:
“How can we start to make some next steps and recommendations that center students, families, and teachers that have not been getting all the support they would like to have be their best selves with Libertas?”
Key Aspects of the Project
- Community Councils. An important step of the project was for Beloved to help Libertas organize two community leadership panels: a steering committee and a co-design council. These two groups led the project with Beloved, designating key insiders from the Libertas community that reflected many of the voices and the vision of the school. The steering committee and co-design council convened once a week during the project to discuss the progress of key activities of the project.
- Interviews & Focus Groups. To understand the needs of the school community, Beloved’s team conducted interviews and focus groups with Libertas community members. The goal was to gather information about members’ unique insights about Libertas and to provide a forum to voice their needs, especially as it related to the pandemic. Insights from the interviews and focus groups were presented back to members of the steering committee and co-design council for their feedback. The final product of this work was a collaboratively designed set of recommendations that served as an initial implementation plan for the school.
- Equity Audit. One of the culminating activities of this recovery project was an Equity Audit, an intensive inventory of the school’s DEI practices across a number of domains (e.g., curriculum, parent leadership opportunities, school events, funding sources, and student activities). It was completed by school representatives who convened for a number of hours over three days. In many ways, engaging in the Equity Audit was an intervention in and of itself, raising participants’ awareness of personal and structural biases. This initial Equity Audit served as a benchmark for which to guide Libertas’ future goals and track their progress.
- Capacity Building Training. The project concluded with training sessions designed to position school leaders and teachers to continue the work they began in this project. These sessions focused on building Libertas’s capacity for community engagement. For example, one group of teachers envisioned a family engagement style that was “fluid and flexible”, involving actions such as “not assuming families’ preferences for engagement,” scheduling school activities and meetings at times when parents are available, and offering parent focus groups and surveys as exemplars for how to hear from parents about what students should be learning in schools.
“The Queen Team”
Another key aspect of this project is the team of expert consultants that led this project with Libertas. “The Queen Team,” as Rhonda referred to them, represented a range of ethnicities and backgrounds with many years of experience in DEI leadership. In a significant way, they embodied inclusion practices that served as a model for Libertas. Rhonda Broussard brings expertise as a National Board Certified teacher, founder of a charter management organization, and a school reform leader.
Dra. Nicole Caridad Ralston, who interfaced with the Libertas staff, has extensive experience in curriculum development and social justice workshops. She also serves on the board of directors for the Louisiana ACLU. Dr. Faith Kares, who led interviews and focus groups with students and their caregivers, brings expertise as a cultural anthropologist, specializing in diaspora, race/ethnicity, and urban development processes. Patrizia Santos, who has a degree in neuroscience and public health, interpreted and led discussions for the Spanish-speaking community at Libertas. She shares her expertise in community engagement and dismantling systems of oppression as a graduate student in biostatistics and data science.
The Benefit of Seeing and Being Seen
In the end, this recovery project offered Libertas the opportunity to see itself in a new light, one that challenged what it means to be neutral at such a critical time. Beloved shared a quote by Desmond Tutu with Libertas staff on neutrality: “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you’re neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” The Beloved team elaborated,
“There are ways that we have been trained to think that something we’re experiencing is neutral when actually there is a particular lens on it. There’s a cultural lens, there’s a cultural linguistic lens, there’s a sociolinguistic lens, there’s a class lens, there’s a race lens, there’s an ethnicity lens, and for us the work is questioning what we think is neutral in a system and renaming who this current operating system is designed to center and here we’re talking about Libertas, and who it has been designed to push to the margins.”
Beloved helped Libertas to be more responsive to the whole school community they served in the context of the pandemic. They helped surface issues of equity that surrounded distance learning; language diversity; and maintaining caring relationships with children in the context of remote schooling. For example, the focus groups and interviews revealed how the Spanish-speaking community reported issues with bullying and with the school’s preparedness regarding the pandemic while the English-speaking community gave “effusive” praise for the school’s response to those issues. Caregivers also revealed difficulty accessing the school’s food pantry, which administrators thought was working well for parents. Students voiced their frustration over teachers’ use of GoGuardian to police their participation, eroding trust between teachers and students.
For each issue that was raised by the Libertas community, Beloved noted their own recommendation as well as the community’s ideas for responding to those issues. Recommendations included “reconvening monthly parent council or offer a monthly, informal chat with the principal…to vocalize their concerns, ideas, and praise;” “ensure access to Libertas food pickup and determine or extend new times for food pick up;” and “relax ‘video-on’ policy and loosen GoGuardian restrictions.” All of those issues and recommendations opened up dialogue and community-building among stakeholders at a time it needed it most.
“La Escalera” for a New Beginning
One parent likened the impact of Beloved ‘s work to a ladder, which she represented in an image she called “La Escalera.” She said, “I think it helps create an alliance between teachers, students, and parents.” A teacher agreed,
“I think Beloved has served as this glue that has taken these different community stakeholders and made it so they are on this same ladder, like a stepping stone where there’s only room for growth and they’re bonded in this way, and really creating trust between these different groups…It made it so we are one team, and on the path to growth.”
In a time when parents, teachers, and students all communicated a feeling of being stretched thin, suffocated, strapped, worried, and fatigued, this project’s recovery effort provided relief by centering their voices and creating a sense of mattering. As one of the students and his mother noted,
“I think the back-to-school project helped by showing us how everyone is going through the same things as us. It makes sure we are all being seen and heard.”
While this project’s activities produced a sense of connection, trust, and hope for the Libertas community, this was only the first step. The outcome of those renewed bonds as well as the tools, strategies, and initial plans that Libertas walked away with are yet to be seen as Beloved only helped to lay the groundwork for a new beginning.
To find out more about Beloved Community’s other projects and offerings, visit: https://www.wearebeloved.org/
Jun 3, 2021