Diversity at Collegiate

“Collegiate School is a community of learners committed to seeking and welcoming students, faculty and staff who represent the multicultural community and world in which we live. We believe that the education we offer in our school is greatly enhanced when many traditions, backgrounds and perspectives are given expression in school activities. We aspire to create an inclusive environment which promotes engaged citizenship and encourages compassionate leadership.”

-Collegiate Board Diversity Statement

How do you think diversity plays into the Collegiate community?

It doesn’t really.” -Lauren Byrd (’16).

In my thirteen years at Collegiate, the student body has seemed to over time become more diverse in race, background, and socio-economic status. Now more than ever, it looks as though Collegiate is getting more diverse. In the Lower School, 22% of the student body are students of color, in the Middle School 15.5%, and in the Upper School 14% of the student body are students of color. These numbers seem small, but compared to previous years they’re slowly growing. With the community seeming to get more colorful every year, it raises the question: What is it like to be a student of color at Collegiate?

I asked three African-American seniors about their experiences here. While they have interesting insights, it’s obvious that they are just three voices out of many, and their experiences are solely their own. Lauren Byrd (‘16), Alex Parham (‘16), and EJ Patterson (‘16) all gave me their own personal stories, but know that their statements don’t represent the entire Collegiate community. The topic of diversity is vast and complex, and ranges from many different ideas, so for our purposes, diversity is referring primarily to racial diversity.

“When I think of diversity at Collegiate I guess the main thing I think about is, trying to get people of color, African Americans, Indians, minorities, races into the school here. One thing I have noticed is that Collegiate has become a lot more diverse, and I have seen a lot more black kids in the grades below me” said Parham, who has been at Collegiate for six years, when asked what diversity and Collegiate meant to him. The school has definitely been trying to incorporate more racial diversity into our student body, and it seems that in the lower grades, this is the case especially. When asked if this was a good thing, Patterson, who has been here for four years, said, “More diversity for anything is good, … because it’s a school so you bring different perspectives and you expose people to different groups of people.”

When asked about diversity, Lauren Byrd, who has been at Collegiate for thirteen years, said, “There’s not enough talking about it. Does that make any sense? We have Mosaic [the student diversity and inclusion group] but that’s all. We don’t talk about it, the importance of race.” In the past, Collegiate has tried to incorporate talks about diversity and race into the community, mainly in the form of assemblies. I myself can remember many assemblies where a guest speaker would come in, or sometimes just a teacher would get on stage, and we would learn about different cultures and races. The most recent that comes to mind was in March of 2015, when the Moton School and Museum came and talked to us about civil rights. Hopefully the students and faculty took something valuable away from this, but I remember that rather than talking about the information from the assembly, most students talked about was the way the two on stage presented themselves. Recently Ken Burns visited our school, and while his goal was to inform students of his life and his documentaries, he brought up interesting points about race, saying, “I don’t go looking for this subtheme in American life, but it is there.” And students took this away from his speech, as I heard it discussed in multiple classes. So who should we be bringing in to speak? Keeping this in mind, it feels as though these assemblies and meetings are helpful, but aren’t giving us the push that some of us could use to further bridge the gap between our differing cultures.

So in a predominantly white community, is being a person of color challenging or hard at times?

“I got called a ‘brownie’ in seventh grade, and it made me feel really uncomfortable because I thought we were friends. I just remember being really really mad” said Byrd, a “lifer.” She also stated that she didn’t think people in the Collegiate community are racist, but rather they don’t understand what they’re saying. “I just think that a lot of people can be closed-minded. I mean yes, they can be racist, but it’s because they’re closed-minded. There isn’t an excuse, but because there’s only a small number of us the problem doesn’t get fixed. I just feel that they think they can say stuff to us because they don’t understand what they’re saying.” Parham said something along the same lines, “There was a situation that happened to me in eighth grade where some kids were making racist comments, and a couple of them were suspended for it. They come around a lot, but they aren’t severe at all. When I first came to Collegiate, though, the jokes were much more severe, and not really jokes. In seventh grade this kid wrote ‘Go pick cotton’ on my calculator, and one or two kids in my class would call me a n*****, but I think they just didn’t understand that you can’t say things like that.” Patterson, who came to Collegiate as a freshman, said this on the subject, “Nothing blatant really. Nothing that’s made me hate coming here. It’s just the way it is.”

Collegiate isn’t a perfect place, but then again no school is. However, Collegiate is clearly trying to push for diversity and grow as a community. When asked about if he thought Collegiate was, in fact, getting better, Parham said, “Definitely yes. When I was here originally I was the only black guy in my grade, and I’d say below us there were maybe a couple. Looking at the grades below me now though, there’s so many more kids there, boys and girls. I do see Collegiate trying to improve, in the lower school in the middle school, they’re definitely trying.” Recently in the school theater’s performance of Pippin, Destana Herring (‘17) and Mackenzie Meadows (‘16), both African-American, had the two leading roles. In clubs and student councils as well, African-American students are becoming more involved. But is Collegiate ready? It seems as though while it isn’t a bulletproof concept at the moment, the community is gradually becoming more comfortable and closer with one another. When asked about what he thought of the future of Collegiate, Patterson said, “I definitely see Collegiate being a lot more diverse overall in the future.” Byrd as well said, over time, she thinks the community can come together, “I think it’ll be better as years come, but it’s gonna’ take a while. It’ll be more diverse, and hopefully people will be more understanding. And how important it is for this ‘close community’ that we are.”

With these positive thoughts about Collegiate’s future in mind, I asked Ms. Liz Bowling, the Upper School’s Divisional Diversity Representative and Mosaic Co-Sponsor (with Ms. Erica Coffey), what she thought on the past, current, and future status of Collegiate in terms of diversity, “Since my first year of teaching at Collegiate in 1997, I have seen first-hand how far we have come as a community in a relatively short amount of time, especially in the Upper School… I think that Collegiate is making great strides to promote diversity and inclusion of all kinds, and to prepare our community for the increased number of students of color moving up through the classes. … We try and augment the curricular initiatives already in place by hosting Mosaic Clubs in all three divisions, sending students to diversity leadership conferences in the MS and US throughout the school year and in the summer, sponsoring Diversity and Inclusion groups for parents and faculty, and bringing in outside speakers.”

While the community knows about some of these things, the problem could be that not enough students are getting involved with them. It goes back to what Byrd said: we have proactive measures, but it’s not enough. So maybe that push that we need, to make them enough, is for more students to become directly involved. Lastly, in terms of the future and how we can help create it, Bowling said this, “We must push ourselves to get to know others within our community better, and venture more purposefully into the Richmond and global communities to do the same. I challenge our student and faculty bodies to increase their Allyship. Don’t sit idly by when you hear a comment made that is offensive; address it, even if you think the person was ‘making a joke’.”

All photos by Matt Colletti.

About the author

Matthew Colletti's personal hero is George Washington Carver.