Working behind the scenes since the fall of 2021, it was somewhat of a mystery what function, approach and impact Scarsdale Schools’ diversity, equity and inclusion consultant Dr. Derrick Gay was serving, taking and having on the district. Community members finally got a taste of Gay’s style and message Tuesday, April 25, as the PT Council’s DEI Committee sponsored a public workshop called “Are Scarsdale Students Prepared for Success in the Globalized 21st Century?”
While there is no concrete answer to that question — it really depends on the attitudes of students as they head out into the great world — the school district is working to make the answer as much of a “Yes” as possible.
In becoming a renowned DEI strategist, Gay has decades of experience working with schools and organizations across many sectors, including as a consultant for “Sesame Street” and Broadway’s “Phantom of the Opera.”
“This work includes exploring community life frameworks, national and regional demographic and inclusivity trends and best practices to strategically embed inclusive values into curriculum and pedagogy, student life and programming and the intentional cultivation of an inclusive school community,” said PT Council’s Diksha Mudbhary.
Gay calls language “messy,” as two people can hear or read the same thing and take away a completely different meaning. They can watch the same video and not notice the same things. Even the word “diversity” means different things to different people, and triggers different responses, too. Gay called diversity a “double-edged sword” and encouraged engaging in active listening, where you acknowledge “the possibility that you can be changed by the words of someone else.”
The most common characteristics of those who people consider diverse in the United States are people of color, LGBTQ+, those with learning or physical differences, those from lower socioeconomic groups, non-Christians and non-native English speakers.
But it doesn’t end there, according to Gay. It doesn’t even start there.
“We’re all diverse,” Gay said. “Some people say this is great, so we don’t have to do this work anymore. That’s not what I’m suggesting. I’m suggesting that we all have a background, a viewpoint, an identity — we’re all human — that needs to be taken into consideration when we’re considering inclusion and belonging. Everyone has a right to inclusion and belonging. And we know that this isn’t always the case and so that defines the work that we need to engage in. The challenge is if we don’t have everyone included in the term diversity, then we don’t have some of the very individuals we need to advance the work.”
Gay summed up the goals he hears parents and guardians have for their children’s education globally as similar to what he heard from Scarsdale parents at the workshop, which is to be “academically prepared to be a good person and have a choice-filled life,” with attributes such as empathy, respect, character and integrity. Employers are looking for qualities like being analytical and able to engage in creative problem solving; having complex communication (oral and written); leadership and teamwork skills; digital and quantitative literacy adaptability, initiative and risk-taking abilities; integrity and ethical decision-making skills; and an intercultural competency/global perspective. These fit in with the power skills — formerly called soft skills — the district put in the spotlight this school year.
Research, Gay said, shows diversity is “a good thing” and “makes us smarter.”
“When we have people from different backgrounds, different ways of thinking, different perspectives in a group where they also feel included, that’s associated with positive outcomes,” he said. “Yet there are also lots of critiques around this word.”
Among the critiques Gay has heard are:
- · Diversity dilutes academic rigor.
- · Teaching about diversity takes time away from meaningful content.
- · Teaching diversity makes my child feel bad about their background.
- · How does my family benefit from diversity teaching?
- · It’s not developmentally appropriate.
- · Diversity is reverse discrimination.
- · Diversity takes away all of our traditions. And now we have to be PC? And give holidays to people?
- · What about math? Science? Traditional books? The canon?
- · Diversity is political and anti-conservative.
- · We didn’t learn about this stuff when I was growing up and we are fine.
“So people feel that they’re liberal, they’re progressive, they’re Democrat, that they are perfect. And we don’t need to do anything,” Gay said. “And we need to worry about all the conservative people because those are the bad people. And conservatives feel as if they don’t have a voice in this work. And adults often say we didn’t learn about this stuff when I was growing up and we’re fine. We’re not fine.” But Gay emphasizes, “We’re not fine.”
An activity Gay has led throughout the district is diversity bingo, where he demonstrates that diversity can be any characteristic a person has whether it be physical, experiential or knowledge-based. People go around the room looking for people who were born in New York, speak multiple languages, prefer Androids to iPhones or have seen “Hidden Figures,” etc.
“I love this exercise because it is a wonderful embodiment of what diversity is,” Gay said. “Diversity is all of these characteristics, all of these attributes, not just one. It’s not just people who are left-handed. It’s not just people who have what they call Androids. Right? It’s not just people who have been in a district for more than 40 for years. It’s not just people who attend religious services. Diversity means differences, not different.”
Another way Gay showed diversity was a simple counting exercise. He had the attendees count to five with their fingers. Some started with their index finger, others with their thumbs, likely depending on their country of origin. The only time everyone was in agreement was when he reached No. 5.
“And again, if you’ve never lived in different countries … you may think that everyone counts exactly the same way,” he said.
When Gay learned PowerPoint offers real time transcription, he began using it for all of his presentations as it appears across the bottom of his slide deck. That helps people who have hearing or visual impairments follow the presentation better and feel connected and included.
For Gay, it comes down to “framing,” seeing things from a perspective that isn’t necessarily your own to make others feel welcome. He said understanding oneself is a good first step.
“Self-awareness, my understanding of who I am, my understanding of how I connect with other people, my family values, my background, my language, my region, my religion, all of these things have informed how I see myself and how I see you,” he said. “And recognize that no one is perfect.”
Gay spoke about the “blind spots” all people have, often missing things that are right in front of them. The reasons, he said, are that “your life doesn’t depend upon it” and “you haven’t been trained to look for it.”
When George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis in May 2020, Gay said “scores” of people who had known him “for decades” said they were surprised and angry at the way Floyd died. He had conversations like these:
“Does this happen?” “Yes.”
“Has something like this happened to you? Have you been pulled over?” “Yes.”
“Have people had assumptions about …?” “Yes.”
It’s the same type of blind spot Gay sees in corporate America when he has conversations about the glass ceiling and there are people who don’t notice that female senior vice presidents are asked to get coffee.
“They don’t see it,” Gay said. “It’s a blind spot. One of the challenges around inclusion and belonging and developing empathy is that we all have blind spots …
“So the question is not, who has blind spots? The question is always … what are your blind spots? We all have them. Then are you willing, when people tell you about their experiences, to engage in active listening? Just because it’s not your experience doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”
It wasn’t until he was in college that Gay learned that the world was designed for right-handed people like himself. The struggle of lefties was brought to his attention when he was asked to hand a lefty friend a pair of scissors, which led to a conversation on the subject.
“Every object we use is designed assuming right-handedness,” Gay said. “So if you’re right-handed or left-handed, we just learned a lot. If you’re left-handed you can’t believe so-called intelligent people have gone decades unaware of something that is so obvious to someone who is left-handed …
“It’s a wonderful metaphor to think about how who you are informs your awareness. So … back to that question of, are we willing to see more and coupled with that is are we willing to engage in perhaps changing our orientations, the way we seen the world and how we’ve always done things?”
Gay opened his closing remarks by reminding parents — perhaps letting them know for the first time — that “the landscape has shifted and students are not living in the world that we grew up in.”
“One of the challenges is that often parents are preparing their children for success in the world that the parent grew up in versus the world the child is growing up in,” he said. “We also know that young students are more exposed to diversity ideas, identity background and increasingly have language and questions around what they’re seeing, which are very different to what some adults may think is developmentally appropriate, again going back to their own childhoods.”
Gay urged the adults to continue to educate themselves and think about their own backgrounds and perspectives to understand their own influences and how they “interact with others.”
“When having conversations … we need to model open communication with your children,” Gay said, adding that from conversations he’s had around the world with students, he knows “they are talking amongst themselves about these issues. Whether you’re engaging with them or not, they’re having conversations about inclusion and belonging.”
Gay lauded Scarsdale for the “intentionality and care of really ensuring that all students learn” through a “thoughtful approach to really thinking about the whole child,” in particular with the middle school house system and advisory programs and the bevy of choices for extracurriculars at the high school.
Throughout his discussions and presentations, Gay has never felt the conversation in Scarsdale was forced. People were open to talking about the positives and negatives they see, he said, and Scarsdale shares many of the same challenges as other districts whether it be students forming cliques based on a wide array of the aforementioned differences or lack of tolerance and acceptance framed as jokes.
“Again, these are global issues that we’re seeing and across all schools. And global issues need local solutions,” he said.
Gay said parents who don’t try to understand diversity are doing a disservice to their children.
“For parents it’s not, ‘It’d be great if you do this work,’ it’s, ‘If you don’t engage in this work, this is not in the best interest of your child now and certainly not in the best interest of your child moving forward,’ because they are always going to be interacting with people from different backgrounds. If they can’t interact with, feel comfortable with, communicate with, respect and empathize with people who are not only similar to them but also different, that’s not going to strategically position them for success moving forward,” Gay said.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the murder of Floyd and New York State Education Department mandates to create policies around DEI, Scarsdale had begun working on choosing a DEI consultant after the administrators read Dolly Chugh’s “The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias” in 2019.
“We wanted to do some real systemic work around how to make our learning environments in our school district as inclusive as possible, to honor multiple perspectives and create an authentic sense of belonging,” assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment Dr. Edgar McIntosh said.
The administration looked for a consultant who had international experience and expertise in the area, notably centered around “norming the language we use” throughout the district to ensure everyone feels like they belong.
“One can only have a sense of well-being if there is a sense of belonging,” McIntosh said. “If they feel like they belong to a community then they’re cognitively and emotionally available to learn. What we’re hoping to do, and I think what we’re setting up to do, is give all the educators the tools in which they can create learning spaces and instruction that honors multiple perspectives and creates a sense of belonging in classrooms where students can engage authentically and bring their authentic selves to their learning environments.”
Through building the skills, teaching them to hold multiple perspectives in one’s head and to engage in critical thinking around complex issues, “we are preparing our students to be successful in a global environment,” McIntosh said. “It’s about building these global competencies and also critical thinking skills and the resiliency and empathy to be able to be successful.”
McIntosh and his “educational nerds” created a rubric with what they saw as valuable qualities in a consultant or consulting organizations and whittled a list of 12 down to one. “Dr. Gay had that lens that we thought would be really important,” McIntosh said.
Gay gave his first keynote to the district’s faculty and staff at the opening of the 2021-22 school year via Zoom, and he’s continued to work with administrators, teams of teacher leaders, and meet with focus groups of students at each school campus and with the PTA DEI volunteers to learn more about the district to better inform his work in Scarsdale. The workshop he held for the community was the same one he has been presenting throughout the last two school years.
District administrators have stressed the importance of power skills as being an important part of building global competencies and preparing students for the real world.
“It’s important for people in the community to hear and understand the sense of urgency around the work we’re doing in the district as it relates to their kids,” McIntosh said. “It’s a way of really reflecting the message we’re looking to give to our community, and it’s also an opportunity for them to get a deeper understanding of the work we’re doing while [Dr. Gay is] also going to be giving parents some practical advice about how to support this learning in the household beyond school.”
Next up will be developing a Scarsdale-specific needs assessment survey that will gather “quantitative and qualitative information in order for us to make informed next steps,” according to McIntosh.
“We knew it was important to do some common training, to work with somebody who could help us move forward in that area, but we also want the work we’re doing to be responsive to the actual needs of our community, of our educators, of our families,” he said.
Through his own observations and interactions in Scarsdale, Gay is offering the district “thoughtful and critical feedback,” McIntosh said.
“I do think the key to this is to make sure we are being thoughtful and responsive and that one size does not fit all,” he said. “That’s why it was important for us to work with somebody who could teach our community, but also learn about our community and learn from our community. He has been very responsive in that way. Educators here have been doing this work and he’s come in and acknowledged that work rather than starting with his own blueprint.”
With all members of the community now having had the opportunity to hear Gay speak at least once, Superintendent Dr. Drew Patrick closed the evening with, “I think that’s a really important bridge, and we’ve just started.”