Culture & Belonging

February 22, 2023 Hans Mundahl

At the start of our recent online anti-bias training for admission file readers, a question came into the chat. It was deceptively simple, yet remarkably complex. The attendee was curious about the words and acronyms we use to describe diversity work. Should we be saying diversity, equity, and inclusion? Should we add belonging? What about justice? Dr. Derrick Gay teaches us that even the word "diversity" can be a double-edged sword: often used to unite, sometimes used to divide.

To find out more about the words we should use, I reached out to two experts to get their take.

Rohan Arjun, Director Of Enrollment Management and Financial Aid at Friends Select School (PA), says, "I tend to use DEIJB when I present to include as many schools' thinking as possible." The most important thing, Arjun continues, is that "schools are aligning their work with their mission, intertwining it within their culture, and bringing it into their day-to-day work."

Connecting diversity work to the school's mission is something Lisa Shambaugh, Assistant Head of School for Enrollment & Strategic Projects at St. Andrew's Episcopal School (MD), is familiar with. "Under the leadership of Lorraine Martinez Hanley, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Belonging, and Glenn Whitman, Executive Director of our Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, we talk a lot at our school about the connection between mind-brain education (MBE) and diversity, equity, and belonging (DEB). I think part of the community commitment to this work came from the fact that we guide our discussion of belonging on brain science and emphasize the connection of DEB and MBE to enhancing teacher effectiveness, student achievement, and the whole child's school experience."

The Strategic Enrollment Management Spectrum defines the eight factors (or levers) school leaders can control that contribute to sustainable enrollment. One of these levers is Culture & Belonging, which the Spectrum describes as: 

The school intentionally lives out its values through its daily practices. All members of the community are known, needed, cared for, have the agency to shape their environment, and can become their authentic selves. 

Of particular importance to culture and belonging are the experiences of historically underrepresented groups. As we've mentioned, the word "diversity" may be divisive to some, but the idea that every child should be cared for at a school shouldn't be. Schools have different values and live them out in different ways, but one thing is clear: what it feels like to be a student in a school community has not only a profound impact on the student but also is critical to the school's enrollment health. 

Authentic diversity work happens in the context of each individual school. That work should be named in such a way that it both represents what is truly taking place and also communicates something essential. School leaders will know they've selected an appropriate name (and a resulting acronym) when the answer to the question, "why did you pick those words," is easy to provide because it's grounded in the ethos of the school and comes from the voices of the students, teachers, and others.

"Words have meaning and power," says Shambaugh, "and I also want to meet people where they are in their understanding of the work and not get too stuck on the exact acronym.”

What do you call the work of diversity at your school? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!

About the Author

Hans Mundahl

Hans Mundahl is the Director of Professional Development at EMA. He has been an educator since 1995 when he first stepped into the classroom as a Fulbright exchange teacher in the former East Germany. Since then Hans has done just about every job possible at an independent school from teacher to administrator. Most recently Hans was the head of school at a K-8 day school in central New Hampshire. Hans’s spare time is usually spent with his family but he is also passionate about the outdoors and protecting the environment.

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