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Tradition and transformation: making the way as we go at DSG, Grahamstown

| September 13, 2018 | 0 Comments


When writing an article for a magazine to be read by esteemed colleagues and peers, it is tempting to focus only on the successes and the shining moments – those times when we were sure and clear and felt that we had it together.

Those times exist, to be sure, but it feels more honest to acknowledge the confusion and uncertainty of our unfolding journey of ‘transformation’, this story of our efforts to achieve a real sense of belonging for all in our school. The Diocesan School for Girls (DSG), Grahamstown, was established 144 years ago in a young town that was maturing from its military outpost beginnings into a regional hub of enterprise and activity. The town was situated at the frontier of the westward expansion of British settlement in the Eastern Cape – its very existence is owed to the colonial project. This Anglican girls’ school catered for young white women of genteel descent and aimed to offer a liberal education, underpinned by the values and practices of the Christian faith. DSG has always had close links to St Andrew’s College and tradition plays a central role in both institutions – there are many families where five or even six generations of children have been educated at these schools. The first black pupil enrolled at DSG in the early 1980s and after a number of years where black pupils made up a very small proportion of our student body, these numbers began to slowly increase after 1994. The first black headgirl was appointed in 2007.

Assimilation or alienation? The ‘cost’ of scholarships

Over the past 10 years there has been an intentional focus on increasing the diversity of both the pupil body and the staff. One of the strategies in this regard was to offer strong local candidates from economically disadvantaged backgrounds full scholarships for tuition at DSG. These young women have enriched our school considerably, contributing to our cultural, sporting, academic and leadership programmes, and inviting the other girls and staff to become more mindful of the lived realities of communities in our country to which they had little exposure. Many of our scholarship recipients have gone on to thrive at university and in life. However, what we only began to fully realise over the past few years was the cost of this project to the girls who earn these scholarships. People tend to focus on the wonderful opportunity that such a scholarship represents for the recipient. Whilst this is true, it is by no means the whole story. What we now realise is the extent of the challenge that faces these young women: having limited access to financial resources in a context where wealth is the norm; overcoming the disadvantage of their educational foundations in under-resourced schools; carrying the hopes and expectations of their families; and finding themselves members of a black minority in a predominantly white school. Girls in this position face various decisions. Do they assimilate – focusing their energy on learning the accents and practices of this strange environment and losing their own as fast as possible in order to ‘belong’? Or do they, as scholarship numbers grow, band together with those more superficially similar to themselves and create their own sense of ‘outsider-insiderness’? Both options carry significant costs. Assimilation often alienates girls from their home environments, leaving them with the sense that they do not belong anywhere. Exclusive groupings on the other hand, cut off opportunities for friendships to develop across difference and exacerbate the ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation. Even if one tries to avoid both options and walk a narrow middle line, just being in the space demands a higher level of emotional energy and processing than experienced by the girls who, by virtue of complexion and wealth, just slot right in. Add to this the navigation of regular comments and experiences that exclude, diminish or overlook their life experience, as well as, sadly, instances of overt racism. Mix in the normal teenage angst around identity and belonging and you have created the conditions for a complex and often painful experience of school life.

Meeting the needs — and rights — of a diversifying demographic

As we became more aware of the hurt and complexities through listening to our girls, we put measures in place to mitigate against them. We appointed a person to manage both our scholarship and teacher internship programme (a programme instituted to contribute to the training of teachers in South Africa and to purposefully diversify our staff complement) who would be primarily a mentor and support person. We secured funding to ensure that all girls on scholarship could participate fully in the activities on offer in the school, including sports tours, exchanges and so on. We worked hard to change the language we used and to challenge stereotypical views that emerged regarding the girls on scholarship. We also offered every girl on scholarship in the senior school the chance to board. The vast majority of DSG’s pupils are boarders and despite our ongoing efforts, daygirls often feel excluded from the bonds that are forged in the dorms at night. In addition to this, the local girls on scholarship had been transported home every night on designated transport and this had become a further marker of difference. Whilst the experience of our scholarship recipients was at the most extreme end of the diversity scale, they were not alone in being aware of their otherness in this environment. Our pupil body was diversifying across the board as more black families chose DSG for their daughters, and it became increasingly apparent that a change in demographics was not sufficient to transform the school into a space that was truly welcoming and inclusive. As a school we were, and still are, a microcosm of our broader society and, particularly with a history like ours in South Africa, any change in attitudes and practices requires intention and commitment.

Bringing authentic meaning to transformation

Fortunately, the DSG leadership is fully committed to facilitating transformation, promoting mutual understanding across difference and eliminating prejudice. DSG, therefore, like many other schools, sought the help of experts in offering multiple workshop processes to both staff and pupils, grade by grade and in other groupings. We successfully instituted restorative processes where necessary and possible, sometimes alongside more formal disciplinary processes. We investigated, consulted and brought about changes in areas as diverse as curriculum, artworks and photographs on display, terms we use, hymns sung in chapel, meals offered in the dining hall and the naming of buildings as the opportunity has arisen – most recently naming our new Grade 8 House “Manyano”, meaning “unity”. We set up staff and pupil transformation and diversity committees and a dedicated transformation prefect portfolio in the senior school, whilst our junior school instituted regular pupil forums. We subscribed to an online anonymous reporting app, offering pupils an alternative avenue for raising concerns and reporting incidents. And before, during and after all of these initiatives, we have talked, listened, grappled, agonised and dreamed.

“It is the only ethical and hopeful way forward.”

Against this backdrop and recognising the need for a clear policy on racism and other forms of discrimination, we sent out a community survey in March 2018, seeking submissions from current and past pupils, parents and staff members regarding what they felt needed to be addressed and included in such a policy. We also asked them to share experiences that informed their stance on the policy. The overwhelming majority of respondents were supportive of the development of the policy, with many expressing surprise and/or disappointment that there was not yet one in place. Their feedback has informed the development of our policy, which is currently in final draft form. We have deliberately written it in clear, simple language so that it is accessible to all members of our broader DSG community, from our Grade 4s up. It will also be translated into isiXhosa. The policy emphasises the central role of education and awareness-raising in addressing racism and discrimination and the joint responsibility of the school and parents in this regard. It also prioritises responses aimed at changing the attitudes and behaviours of offenders and therefore recommends restorative interventions where possible. However, it remains absolutely clear: “We will not tolerate the expression of racism, prejudice or discrimination whether in speech, writing, attitudes, actions, or any other form. Derogatory, hurtful and hateful practices of any form have no place in our school community and are not in keeping with our ethos or values.” We will shortly be holding focus groups with staff, pupils, parents and old girls to discuss and further refine the draft policy, before it is finally ratified by our council.

The community agreement

What we have realised, however, is that whilst the policy speaks to behaviour and attitudes that are unacceptable and will incur a sanction, it does not describe the behaviour and attitudes that we do want to foster. It became clear during workshop and dialogue processes that many people were looking for, or needing guidance on, how to manage interactions across difference, particularly when conflict had arisen. Based on these experiences, members of the transformation and diversity portfolio drew up a short draft document that they decided to call a community agreement. The document described ways of being and interacting that we as a school community could agree to and strive to achieve. It would not be a new set of rules but a statement of our best intentions as a community to stay committed to each other, especially around issues of difference and identity, and to the work of coming to understand one another more deeply; a tool not for policing others, but for holding ourselves accountable. We workshopped the document with all girls in our senior school, grade by grade. Working in small groups and analysing the agreement section by section, their robust and insightful contributions shaped a document that is both rich and very practical. In mid-July this year, the reworked community agreement was offered back to the girls and the staff in brochure format. We hope that this document will live and grow with the school, shaping and being shaped by our ongoing grappling with what it means to transform and live well together.

No turning back

Whilst we might prefer to claim that we as the adults and leaders were consistently proactive, alert and aware, the truth is that it has most often been our girls who have alerted us to the changes that were needed and the practices that were causing harm. We have more often responded than initiated. We have often been uncertain as to how to proceed. It would also be true to say that every change that we have instituted has met with at least some resistance within the pupil, parent, staff or old girl constituencies, and also that we have made mistakes along the way. However, what is clear is that there is no giving up or turning back on this journey of transformation. It is the only ethical and hopeful way forward. We press on towards our goal of living out our identity as a church school in a loving, respectful community, committed to justice and creative, critical citizenship.

Kim Barker and Tami Maiwashe are co-chairs of DSG’s transformation and diversity committee.

What is transformation? – by Tami Maiwashe

Recently one of our Diocesan School for Girls students asked me what transformation was with much bewilderment, and my instinct was to flip out, gloriously. I mean, so many advances and conversations later, and someone is still asking what we are trying to do? Yet on further contemplation, I realised that this brief moment summed up much of what our school’s transformation journey has meant for me. This journey has called for patience with people whose questions rub me up the wrong way. It has called for humility when it was easier to believe I was right about something and turn my back on anyone who thought otherwise. It has called for kindness and gentleness, and in fact all the other things that the apostle Paul once called “fruit of the Spirit” too. Indeed, a conviction I have inherited, is that transformation is fundamentally spiritual work, ‘inside’ work, heart work. The girl’s question also turns out to be a question I have heard many other times, in different guises: What is the goal of transformation? Who is transforming, what is transforming, and into what? How will we know we have ‘transformed’? A powerful tenet of the agile software development methodology is that in a project, you define ‘done’. I think the same of transformation. We are never quite done, and in ongoing conversation, we keep defining a new ‘done’ to strive towards. For me, transformation is changing a space so that it enriches each of its inhabitants’ lives. The work looks different everyday as different aspects of the space are addressed, and some days the work looks stagnant because some features of the space refuse to budge. But for as long as everyone at least stays committed to doing the heart work – the recognising and unlearning of biases, the interrogating of reactions, the unpacking of privilege and how it can be shared and used positively – then we are always moving closer to ‘done’.

Category: Spring 2018

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