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The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

Senior Gift Divides Class of 2020 and Administration on Handling Racism at WIS

Map by Beka Tatham. Photos courtesy of Camila Levey (Ward 1), Beka Tatham (2), David Allen (3), Naomi Breuer (4), Beka Tatham (5), Rose Boehm (6), Aniekan Udofia (7) and Austin Graff/Washingtion Post (8).

In the midst of losing the spring of their senior year due to a global pandemic, the Class of 2020 reflected on George Floyd’s murder and death of a longtime art teacher and D.C. native, Mara Wilson. Nearing the end of their WIS careers, the Class decided to turn their senior gift to a fund aimed at tackling issues of racism that they had experienced, leaving a lasting impact on the school.

Ultimately, the Class of 2020 and the administration worked together to create a fund in Wilson’s name. Wilson bridged the gap between WIS and more diverse areas of D.C., through her involvement in middle school minimester, educating students on food deserts, street art and trolley cars in D.C., according to Wilson’s tribute. The fund was fully capitalized last May, at $100,000, which amounts to $3,000-$5,000 towards educating the WIS community on racism per year. 

Class of 2020 alumna Anthea Walker, who is white, wanted to bring Wilson’s advocacy to WIS in a new form. “She was really working with the WIS community and teaching her students about not only D.C., but about the issues that plague D.C. and disproportionately affect Black people and people of color,” Walker said.  

Traditionally, WIS senior gift options are dedicating spaces or donating to financial aid, but the Class sought out a new way to think about senior gifts.  

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“The default was financial aid, and there weren’t really any ideas or thoughts about a third option,” Walker said. “We thought, ‘why don’t we use our position in this really unique time to come up with a third option that’s really our own and that’s based on [their experiences with racism].’” 

While the fund dedicates money to supporting education on racial inequities, the Class of 2020 initially wanted to help WIS diversify the student body, and still feels that WIS should have more diverse students. 

The background of the fund 

The Class of 2020 originally suggested that WIS admissions sponsor an US-born student of color to attend the school in an email to Head of School Suzanna Jemsby. However, because of the complexities of admissions, the administration encouraged the students to instead focus the fund on educating the current student body on racial inequities. This decision was because the administration tries to keep anonymity with financial aid, according to Head of School Suzanna Jemsby.

“We’re not allowed to channel funds to an individual,” Jemsby said. “We can only fund a pot of money. And then, we would then have to report back to the endowment who the individual is, and we anonymize that.” 

In response, the administration suggested that either they add money to the D.C. Scholarship Fund or focus their fund on educating the student body on racism. The D.C. Scholarship Fund is a preexisting financial aid fund run by WIS for students that meet national poverty criteria, according to Jemsby. 

The students chose to pursue the fund focused on education because it was more closely aligned with their original intention. Additionally, there was no guarantee that the money in the D.C. Scholarship Fund would go towards a student of color. 

Amidst the initial creation of the fund, racism at WIS came to light through an Instagram account, called “blackatwis.” The account details accounts of racism at WIS, such as a discontinued cotton-picking activity, teachers confusing students of color and prevalent use of slurs. These instances of racism on campus lead Black students to feel unsupported, according to Fabrice Gray, a Class of 2020 alumnus who is Black. 

“A huge part of this is that a lot of Black students at WIS did not, I don’t want to speak for a lot of them, but some of them did not feel very supported by WIS,” Gray said. “And the fund was meant to not attack WIS, but to help WIS.” 

The administration strongly encouraged every Class of 2020 member to donate money and sign off on the fund in a matter of days, according to Jemsby. She outlined that this was because the board needed to approve the fund, which would be more likely with full participation. 

“I actually think that it was a really good move to have 100% participation because [the fund] became more than it already was,” Walker said. 

Gray agrees. He felt confident that they could gain full participation, even in a short period of time. “I made enough good friendships at WIS where I could FaceTime anybody in the grade and say, ‘hey, we need 100% par​​ticipation,’” Gray said. 

However, other involved students felt the requirement was strenuous, especially because their original senior gift of donating money to financial aid did not need full participation. 

“100% of the students did not sign off on the original money being sent just to financial aid,” Ye’Amlak Zegeye, a Class of 2020 alumna who is Black, said. “It seems very iffy of them to suddenly want confirmation from everybody.” 

Regardless, the students worked with the administration in order to create a fund that aligned with their vision. The fund now “supports initiatives at WIS that increase awareness of racial inequities; instills a culture that directly challenges and denounces racism; and cultivates a school environment where individuals of color feel safe and confident,” according to the WIS website.  

Philip McAdoo’s report spurs WIS action

The Class of 2020 also urged the school to hire an external company to do an evaluation of racism at WIS and where WIS could improve in their initial email. In response, the school hired Philip McAdoo, a diversity and inclusion consultant, who filed a report with insight from focus groups of faculty, parents, students and alumni. McAdoo finished his report in March 2021. 

“I think one of the pieces that came out of the focus groups that we had with [McAdoo] is that students want to be seen in the curriculum,” International-mindedness, Diversity and Inclusion (IDI) director Lisa McNeill said. 

McAdoo’s report outlined where WIS could improve. The school set up the faculty IDI committee focused on three areas. 

“The group is looking at school culture,” McNeill said. “We’re looking at the curriculum and teaching, and we are also looking at professional development.” 

At the beginning of the year, the fund sponsored faculty IDI professional development, focused on intersectionality, led by an organization called Human Rights Campaign which will continue to do two faculty trainings a year. The fund also sponsored a review of library materials on both campuses. 

“We’ve done a review of the library materials at both primary school and Tregaron, really looking at what voices are missing and seeing how they reflect the population,” Jemsby said. 

Other responses to the McAdoo report consist of a faculty fair searching for faculty of color, which will foster relationships with Historically Black Colleges or Universities (HBCUs) like Spelman College and Howard University. 

Continued frustration with lack of diversity at WIS

While WIS has made efforts to strengthen racial education at the school through the fund, the lack of diversity at WIS still frustrates students. McAdoo’s report also found that students wanted more diversity from their faculty and peers. 

“Representation needs to happen simultaneously with this change of curriculum because the problem is not only having the educational material, it’s having somebody in the room with the adequate knowledge and experience to be able to say, ‘this is the right way to teach it and this is the right thing we’re teaching,’” Zegeye said. 

As of the 2020-2021 school year, 52% of the WIS student body identified as non-white. However, only 6% identified as African-American comparatively to 46% of the D.C. population that identifies as Black. 

Gray wishes other students that looked like him had the same opportunities he was given, like his full ride to college. He points out the return that WIS could receive bringing in more students of color. 

“It doesn’t really matter how many kids we sponsor,” Gray said. “If we sponsor one kid, we’re going to get a return on it, that’s what we understand by investment. WIS invested in me and my family so much.” 

However, becoming a more diverse space is a lot more difficult than it seems, according to Jemsby and Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Mary Hastings Moore. 

Hastings Moore explains that WIS attracts internationally minded families, and that people who come to WIS ultimately have shared values. Many American minority students may not have been exposed to these ideals like internationalism and language, according to Hastings Moore.

“If you grow up in a very American focused educational system, you don’t have an appreciation for internationalism; you haven’t been exposed to languages,” Hastings Moore said. “We’re not going to resonate with you.”

Additionally, in comparison with other D.C. independent schools, WIS is younger, with much smaller financial aid endowments. For example, Sidwell Friends School’s endowment is $60 million, compared to WIS’s $6 million endowment, according to Jemsby. 

“The average [financial aid award] at WIS is actually higher than the average reward at any of the other schools,” Jemsby said. “But we are able to give fewer awards because our endowments are smaller.” 

Both Jemsby and Hastings Moore emphasize the importance of diversity in the WIS community but outline that an obstacle to diversity is that families of color may be unlikely to choose WIS. Student creators of the fund agree that it is a good first step, but it is hard to educate on racial issues without significant numbers of students of color in the room. 

“If they’re going to put it in their mission statement, they need to be allocating money to actively making WIS a more diverse place, and I don’t know if they’re doing that,” Zegeye said. 

Students want to have further representation in the classroom and grant other students the same opportunities.

“WIS invested in me as a little Black kid, and I’m trying to give back to other little Black kids like me,” Gray said. “I think that’s how WIS will grow. Inequalities will go down, diversity will go up and only the school can go up.” 

The Mara Wilson Fund creators hope that WIS will continue to make WIS as diverse as possible while simultaneously supporting students of color. 

“Obviously, this problem is not solved,” Walker said. “But I think that it is a first step, and I hope that this will inspire and lead to further more concrete steps and programs and changes.” 

By Rose Boehm

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