The Diversity programme at Beaulieu College

| August 22, 2018 | 0 Comments

By ANDREW BROUARD AND BUSISIWE MAVUSO

You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But you’re more damned if you don’t.

In essence, that’s what it’s like to introduce a diversity programme to an organisation. It is not a job for the fainthearted, but the rewards are deep and life-changing for the pupils and teachers involved. My colleague, Busisiwe Mavuso, and I speak from the experience of the programme we have been implementing at Beaulieu College, an independent high school in northern Johannesburg, with 460 pupils from diverse backgrounds and a mostly white staff.

A racist social media spark

Our story begins, as these so often do, with a racist incident. In this case, one of our students approvingly reposted a series of racist comments from social media. The response, from our black students in particular, was immediate and vehement. While the school management adopted a sincere, measured approach, weighted towards atonement and counselling, many pupil voices demanded punishment and even expulsion. Perhaps we should not have been surprised by the opposition to our strategy, but we were. An incident like this compels retrospection. Previous events, easy to reframe as the routine frictions of life, now gained greater significance. We remembered that pupil who said he hadn’t made the first team because the coach was racist, and the ex-pupil who vilified us on Facebook. We began to ask ourselves if the signs of tension had not been there all along. The answer might seem obvious, but there was no public glare. There were no newspaper headlines, no radio presenters spreading a bit of stick about. Despite the painful selfexamination, this was a private affair that our school could have dealt with and moved on from. It’s to the credit of our head of school, Danielle Meikle, that this did not happen. She saw the incident for what it was – a sign of trouble brewing. Not because Beaulieu College was rotten, but because Beaulieu College is an organisation of this country, of this fractious world. At the time, students on South African tertiary campuses were toppling statues, marching for ideas that not everyone was in agreement with, and the air was thick with insults and invocations to embrace this or that revolutionary idea.

A brave move

This leads me to the first key idea about implementing a diversity programme: leadership from the top is crucial. If one is to take the momentous decision to address history and transform an organisation into a more inclusive environment, then the programme used must speak for and from the organisation’s leader. How could we begin? We could find no blueprint for introducing such a programme in a South African high school. We were on our own. At least we knew what we didn’t need. We didn’t need the sum of interventions to be the occasional talk by a guest speaker, a Heritage Day that was only a celebration of traditional dress, and a policy in a file. That’s not a diversity programme – that’s ticking a box. Luckily, we made contact with a group of psychologists who were prepared to use their collective experience of clinical transformation and academic work in other contexts to create a programme for us from scratch. They decided to call themselves the Thinking Space Team (TST). There was a clear plan from the outset to use critical diversity literacy theory1 to build a “diversity grammar” as a precursor to actions. They would target three levels: the individual level, building personal awareness and insight; the social level, building understanding of how everyone contributes to the school culture and how individuals could be agents of change; and the structural level, targeting policies, hiring and leadership practice. As organised as this sounds, there was always a sense of experimentation and risk, of moving into unfamiliar and unpredictable territory.

Teachers talking to each other

We were not able to introduce the programme to parents first; instead, the TST began with two five-hour staff workshops. They took teachers through a series of experiential exercises examining privilege, identity, race and intersectionality. I remember activities on group-think, the bystander challenge, and a very powerful one in which we imagined our world from the perspective of a different race, sex or gender. Workshops like these are gruelling at first. Teachers have been going about their lives, forming personal and professional ties based on a tacit agreement not to reveal too much about their pasts. Now they are asked to do so and, unsurprisingly, difficult memories well up. I learnt more about my colleagues and their collective stories of hardship and tragedy than I had learnt in 10 years at the school. The question might be asked whether this is necessary; whether it is not preferable to keep a lid on the past. The answer, for Mavuso and me, is an emphatic no. While South Africa became a democracy many years ago, the legacy and pain of our shared past is still with us today. To have a meaningful future, young people need to be able to engage with the world in which they live. Our history walks into every room with us – a cloak we wear that is invisible to us but visible to everyone else. When we step into the diverse classroom, we bring our history with us. What we say and the way we say it, the values we favour, the stories we tell, the ideas we promote – all of these come from our invisible history. And they make a deep impression on our pupils without our realising it, alienating some, inviting others. Do we truly know our audience? Do we know, as our pupils have revealed in these workshops, that B has a mother who hates white people and C’s father is racist? Do we know that Z’s aunt was killed in a farm attack,2 T’s father was tortured in an apartheid prison, L is a boy in a girl’s body, M wants to attend the Reed Dance,3 N witnessed a genocide in the Congo,4 and J has been quietly cutting herself?5 Did we know that all these stories are alive and kicking in the classroom 24 years after the beginning of democracy? A generation of brave teachers must create safe spaces for young people to engage in uncomfortable conversations honestly, compassionately and with humility. As a white person myself, I have come to understand that it is especially difficult for white people to see their history, to see the way in which their privilege is so ingrained that it has become invisible, even in a country where whites are a minority. For example, one of my black colleagues – a smart, educated woman born in post-apartheid South Africa – said that no matter where she is, if a single white person walks into a room, whether at the Sandton Towers or Home Affairs in Soweto, she feels the mood in the room change and the power shift.

“The world is an angry place with angry opinions. It is imperative for schools to create safe spaces for pupils and teachers to find each other in honest and civil conversation.”

This is an extraordinary thing for me to contemplate, to believe at first, but something I must listen to, I must hear.

Paying attention to each pupil

These staff workshops were followed by a series of whole-day diversity workshops with every one of our grades. Pupils were taken through videos, did group work and had plenary discussions on critical literacy ideas. Subsequent workshops were aimed at building awareness, empathy and listening skills. The sheer range of views expressed in these workshops can be summed up in these quotes from pupils:

• “I don’t care about all this race stuff. I just enjoy life.”
• “I wasn’t even born during apartheid. Why do I have to talk about it?”
• “But I don’t see colour.”
• “We need to change some of the ways we do things.”
• “The whole system needs to be destroyed and rebuilt.”

What happened next? Did everyone grow together, hold hands and sing Kumbaya? In truth, the rule of thirds generally applies. A third of pupils and teachers fully embraced the opportunity to reflect on diversity and privilege, another third was open to the possibility, while the final third questioned the need for a diversity programme. Again, it comes down to leadership and core values. It has to be made unambiguously clear by the leadership group that while all members and all views will be supported in a diversity programme, the programme itself is nonnegotiable.

New policies, portfolios and programmes

For nearly two years, our workshops have continued. This frequency allows the TST to explore the full range of diversity issues including race, gender, sex, class, abled-ness and culture. We have written an anti-discrimination policy and a thinking space policy. A new student council was created, called the Embracing Differences portfolio, which assists with diversity work. We have also come to understand that diversity work must become ingrained; it must emanate from within and without. For that reason, we no longer only have workshops implemented by the TST external facilitators, we have also created an internal Thinking Space programme run by teachers and pupils. Most weeks, the teachers run this internal programme by holding meetings for pupils to attend on a voluntary basis. Attendance ranges from 5-15% of the school body at each meeting. Here are some of the topics we have covered: are South Africans suffering from “erotogenia” – a peculiar fixation with another race as the cause of their problems?; the Subaltern Effect – neither black nor white in a black and white world; cultural appropriation; are men really trash?; intersectionality – what is it?; is your life driving you crazy?; and the mental health of teenagers. The idea of the internal Thinking Space programme is explained by its vision statement: “Civil discourse in a diverse world.” We aim to create an everyday practice of civil discourse around all kinds of issues, especially but not only diversity. Sometimes we just listen to pupils, and we do a little research so we can expose our pupils to new ideas and theories about the world, followed by discussions. At other times, we use the meetings to teach a social cohesionoriented skill. Next year, the possibility exists that we will integrate the internal Thinking Space programme into the lesson timetable. This year, we also introduced what we call “Custodian” training. We invited pupils who wanted to be agents of change and custodians of a discrimination-free school to undergo specialised training with the TST experts. They learnt skills ranging from negotiation to listening, mediation and problem-solving. More than 25 pupils have signed up and will soon undergo their third training workshop. Working with the custodians is one of the most rewarding things a teacher can do – to see our pupils’ intelligence and sensitivity in play, their openness to helping others and understanding themselves, is a reminder of the power of education.

Commemorating with care

While all this training and workshopping is going on, we don’t ignore celebrations and historical moments. Recently, we celebrated Africa Day by holding several events over the course of a week. Last year, we organised a particularly powerful Heritage Day, based on the theme that cultural identity is intersectional. Some pupils did presentations on their traditional and modern lives, a group of grandparents from diverse backgrounds spoke about their pasts, and a variety of guest speakers presented a wide variety of presentations such as living in Japan as a South African; the personal experience of being a Rwandan refugee who has survived genocide; the process of becoming a trans man; and living with multiple identities as a coloured South African. The point is, these sorts of celebrations should be integrated into a diversity programme and should also be opportunities for reflection, not just opportunities to fetishise tradition. Where does Beaulieu College stand today? Well, we are still learning how to do this. We are not immune to future incidents of prejudice. People struggle to hear each other. We have to work hard to bring the polar opposites of political purism and indifference to engage with each other. Social forces continue to work against us. (Two of our Grade 11 students recently attended a Roman law lecture at a local university, only to witness the entire lecture degenerate into a racist slanging match.) But we have made encouraging progress in our own space, and that is the first important step a school can take.

A deep conviction carries diversity forward

Recently, we surveyed 106 pupils from all grades and asked them if we should continue with the programme. Fifty-four asked us to continue exactly as we had been doing, 48 asked us to continue but with changes, and four asked us to stop. One of our pupils said: “The school’s wonderful embrace [of] culture is very uplifting. These talks are the only space where pupils feel safe to express their opinion.” There will always be those who cannot be won over. Butmost pupils and teachers are courageous and will embrace change if it is led from the top. The world is an angry place with angry opinions. It is imperative for schools to create safe spaces for pupils and teachers to find each other in honest and civil conversation.

Andrew Brouard and Busisiwe Mavuso are the teachers in charge of the diversity programme at Beaulieu College.

References:
1. See: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275570434_CRITICAL_DIVERSITY_LITERACY_DIVERSITY_AWARENESS_IN_TWELVE_SOUTH_AFRICAN_ORGANISATIONS
2. See: https://africacheck.org/factsheets/factsheet-statistics-farm-attacks-murderssa/
3. See: https://eshowe.com/zulu-reed-dance/
4. See: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/democraticrepublic-congo
5. See: https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/cutting.html

Category: Winter 2018

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