EMS Launches New Racial Equity Working Group

Debbie Katz, high school counselor, and Maria Archer, K-8 principal, plan for a meeting of the Racial Equity Working Group
Debbie Katz, high school counselor, and Maria Archer, K-8 principal, plan for a meeting of the Racial Equity Working Group

Three weeks after the death of George Floyd and two days after the school’s outdoor COVID-19- adjusted graduation ceremonies, Eastern Mennonite School launched a new Racial Equity Working Group, which builds on past work of a Diversity Committee, as well as ongoing restorative justice initiatives.

“The time is long overdue for our society at large, and our own school to do the hard work of listening, self examination, and learning about the ways those who are white benefit from systems that hurt people of color,” said Paul Leaman, head of school.

The working group is made up of 10 teachers, staff and administrators who represent the elementary, middle and high school, varied disciplines and backgrounds. The group will meet weekly over the summer break. Co-chairs Andrea Wenger, director of advancement, and Maria Archer, K-8 principal, work with high school counselor Debbie Katz to lead the group.

A preamble to the newly established group’s section on the school’s website states:

Eastern Mennonite School was founded in 1917 by Mennonites for Mennonite students. EMS has undoubtedly hurt people of color throughout its history, while offering benefits to people of white, and Mennonite, background. This included racial discrimination in its admission process up through 1948, when black students were first allowed admittance to EMS. [See a timeline posted by Eastern Mennonite University, which shares its early history with EMS.]

As followers of Jesus, we believe we are called to advocate for just treatment of all God’s people. The civil unrest of spring of 2020 — in the midst of a global pandemic — awakened us to more deliberate work to educate ourselves, engage our students, and be part of the systemic changes needed to address racial inequity in our school, local community and across the United States. The Racial Equity Working Group was formed by the school’s Strategic Leadership Team and held its first meeting, June 16, 2020.

Our overarching goal is to “know better, then do better” (Maya Angelo) one step a time…

In its first gathering on June 15, participants shared what led them to join the group and their hopes for EMS and anti-racism work.

“It was clear that we want this to be a group that does more than talk,” said Maria Archer. “We want actionable change.” Common themes included the need to create space for difficult conversations, to listen and learn about systemic racism, and to examine everything about school life through the lens of racism: curriculum, traditions and practices, hiring and admissions processes.

In the weeks leading up to a new academic year, the group will formulate goals and objectives, and plan ways to invite the full community into conversations and change processes.

A student-led group is also in its early stages with Abby Garber ‘23 and Rahel Lema ‘21 giving leadership. The two met June 17 with Justin King, high school principal, and leaders of the Racial Equity Working Group to share their hopes for the group. They hope to meet with students who want to commit to the group in person or virtually early in the school year, depending on COVID-19- related restrictions.

Another important step for the school at this juncture is to hear from former students and staff, according to Paul Leaman. “We want to hear stories where people were hurt, and learn how we can do better,” he said. “We cannot undo past wrongs, but we can hear stories of pain, learn from them, hopefully apologize in ways that bring healing, and do better in the future.”

Alumni (includes anyone who attended the school, as well as former staff) who have stories to share are invited to email those to stories@easternmennonite.org. The stories will go to the chairs of the Racial Equity Working Group for review by appropriate administrative personnel.

“I hope this is the beginning of a new era,” says Maria Archer.

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