The Centre for Conscious Design

Interview with Hadley Stena Camilus, Associate Dean of Multicultural Student Affairs at Phillips Exeter Academy

Hadley Stena Camilus is the Associate Dean of Multicultural Student Affairs (and Head Girls’ Varsity Basketball Coach) at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He started his career at a non-profit in Worcester as a student development specialist helping first-generation/low-income students navigate high school and access higher education. While working at Clark University, he coordinated institutional efforts to recruit a more racially diverse class. Most recently, he worked at a community college for 11 years where he helped boost enrollment significantly and spearheaded early college awareness programming in local middle schools. He has a podcast called ‘Identity-n-me’ where he has conversations with people about the intersections of identity and life experiences. The most recent episode is ‘Sexuality-n-me’, check it out here.

What do you define to be the concept of racial equity? 

In an educational setting, Equity challenges us to provide people with what they need in order to succeed. This may look different for a group that has been maligned historically. Doing this with race in mind might mean providing a subset of students with programming or services that address a specific need. Affinity housing on campus, for example.

One of the challenges of being in a predominantly white campus community as a student of color (who isn’t accustomed to being in that environment) is feeling a sense of belonging. An affinity house allows students (of a particular group) to live together in a dorm or house. They also have adults in that community who share their identity and devise programming that’s devised to spur their personal development broadly.

At the same time, many schools are reluctant to offer affinity housing for a number of reasons. One of the criticisms is that it widens the gulf between students and exacerbates racial animus. Oddly, the same apprehension isn’t felt when the matter of white fraternity and sorority houses come up. (Many) country clubs are affinity houses that aren’t named. If executed correctly, an affinity house can help students from a particular racial group feel a greater sense of belonging on campus which may ultimately encourage them to branch out.

All the same, Affinity Housing is a great example of equity: providing a group of students with something that addresses a particular need as opposed to insisting that all students receive the same housing options. In college, I benefited tremendously from being in community with other black students (all of whom were friends) in the same suite for a couple of years. I often dined with my friends who were Black. All the while, I managed to make friends of all races.

The need for me to be among other Black students was a matter of comfort. In addition to sharing the same race, we were mostly all first-generation and from working-class families. These similarities meant I didn’t have to deal with people wanting to touch my hair (for example) or frequently ask questions (sometimes inappropriate ones) to satisfy their curiosity.

I had those negative experiences throughout my schooling so it was nice to have some control over how often I had to deal with that.

We’re trying to operate with more of a racial equity lens at Phillips Exeter (PEA) in some ways. We have a long way to go, however. It’s not necessarily for lack of will. The idea of racial equity is a novel concept in academia—at least it is here at PEA. One of the things we’ve been talking about, for example, is the emotional tax that adults pay for advising affinity groups. I’m going to use the affinity group that I advise as an example. The Young Brothers Society is an affinity club that operates as a support group for Black and Latinx boys at the Academy. They meet once a week for an hour in a roundtable format to talk about any number of topics. They often talk about their respective experiences at PEA. As the Advisor for the group, I have to ensure that the leaders manage these conversations appropriately and provide an adequate balance of opportunities for general members to vent, kick back, and learn/discuss current events. Some meetings are emotionally weightier than others. There are boys in the group who are really struggling to survive here because they are feeling the impacts of being underrepresented. As an Advisor, having to devise a curriculum (of sorts) for the club and its leaders while offering support to students who are struggling, and being present for general meetings takes an emotional toll. What has been proposed is the idea of offering some concessions to advisors of affinity clubs, like a course reduction, or even hiring more help so that Advisors don’t experience burn out. A group like YBS is very different than the Fishing Club. As such, it’s important to recognize that in tangible ways.

What are some structures at school, in your experience, that are inequitable? Equitable? Why is this so?

Club advising is a perfect example of this, as I stated above. Every club on campus is important. They provide students with outlets for expression. However, when an aspect of identity comes into play that is salient and historically marginalized on and off-campus, advising a group of this sort takes on a very different task. Now that this has been recognized, we have to find a workable solution because if every Advisor is also a faculty member and they’re being granted a course release, that’s a lot of classes that need to be taught. If it’s extra money being paid to those advisors, coming up with a dollar amount is another challenge. Identifying the gaps is a lot easier than coming up with the remedy. 

You mention an emotional tax that adults have on them. To pivot a little: more people are voicing their experiences with the “emotional labor” that is being performed by BIPOC individuals. With that, many are calling for monetary compensation to supplement that labor. Parallels are being drawn between such monetary compensation as a form of reparations for the emotional labor of sharing experience. What is your opinion on providing monetary compensation, in regards to when we explore lived experiences and opinions of individuals, especially BIPOC ones? Is it a devaluation of a person’s time and lived experience if we do not offer such compensation, especially surrounding work in “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”?

 This is a tough question to answer. I don’t want my answer to be the definitive response to a question of this sort. I see immense value in talking to people for no cost about our lived experiences. In many ways, I see that as an instrumental part of our life journey—sharing our own experiences and listening to the experiences of others. In the work setting, however, I see the need to recognize the additional labor that people of marginalized identities take on that often doesn’t lead to a promotion. At my last school, for example, I was often guiding first-generation students of color through the admissions funnel. This requires more than just conventional outreach. I often found myself ‘translating’ letters our school sent to students because they didn’t understand what we were trying to communicate. These weren’t students for whom English was a second language either. They just didn’t have the vocabulary to grasp what was being communicated. I often found myself walking students from office to office helping them complete the enrollment process because they needed that level of support. None of that work resulted in a promotion or special recognition. This isn’t a singular experience. The extra work is often just looked at as doing the job, but we know that it’s above and beyond because that level of support isn’t sought by every student we encounter. Some people, like me, are willing to keep doing the extra work because, well, who else is going to do it? Whereas, others have taken the position that they need to be compensated because they’re tired of giving extra effort without receiving anything tangible for it. This includes helping colleagues become more culturally competent and dealing with the emotional labor that comes with that. 

What existing structures need to change to combat racial inequity? What existing structures are working well to combat racial inequity?

All structures need to change. We literally have to hit reset in order to achieve racial equity. That’s a difficult proposition because change isn’t something we simply embrace. I don’t think any structure is working to this end. Actually, it’s better to say that I haven’t experienced a setting that has successfully combated racial inequity.

What has your personal experience been like with these structures? 

My college experience was largely absent of racial equity programming or initiatives. Racial equity wasn’t even in the institutional lexicon back then. I learned about African Americans mostly when I took courses that focused on race. The story of African Americans wasn’t woven into all of our history classes. And if it was mentioned in a non-race centered course, it was for a brief moment. I was involved in the Black Student Union for all four years and I coordinated a lot of programming in my leadership roles. My peers and I did a lot of this work, which really revolved around racial identity development theory, without guidance from adults on the campus. I don’t think it even occurred to anyone that we needed that guidance in order to ensure the delivery of adequate support for the students we were serving. As a result, I’m sure we missed a lot of blind spots in our programming.

Central to a lot of these issues was a woeful lack of diversity within the faculty ranks and the residential life team. A lot of these “misses” start with underrepresentation. A multitude of issues flow from that because ultimately people can only see what their life experiences have allowed them to see.

Can you speak to your personal experience of ‘covering’ and/or ‘passing’ (code-switching) in an environment like PEA? We’ve had some prior conversations about how speech and dress change in different environments, what side of the assembly hall/dining hall people sit on, etc. How does this translate to faculty/staff interactions? 

Generally, I don’t find myself having to code-switch at PEA. This is mostly because I work in an office with people who “get it.” I could be myself without feeling judged or ostracized for the most part. If anything, I have a harder time navigating a culture that doesn’t necessarily embrace cross-ideological exchanges. I’m one who believes affinity spaces and cross-cultural groups hold the same level of importance. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Students need to feel safe. They need to create communities of comfort. We also need to have a community of students who are working to understand each other and figure out how to coexist amicably… If I worked in a different office, I think I’d have to do more code-switching or guarding my thoughts.

Which existing disparities do you see being driven further?

Most industries have a similar problem of underrepresentation. Phillips Exeter is no exception to that. All of these issues start there. When you don’t have a variety of experiences at the table, it’s impossible to really fuse them into whatever action is being taken. For instance, my position is only 4 years old at the Academy. For several years, the Office of Multicultural Affairs had two full-time employees and an intern. That team was trying to serve the needs of an entire campus. Ideally, a Multicultural Affairs office should be helping academic departments (re)assess practices and programming. That wasn’t happening at PEA because the office was (and continues to be) woefully understaffed. It’s often the case at secondary schools and colleges that Multicultural Affairs is looked at as a resource for students of color—and maybe for the adults as well. PEA seems to have been operating with that model for a long time. In recent years, I think more people are recognizing the opportunities that come with having a larger team of professionals who can broaden the work that is done by the office. An optimal office should be able to touch all corners of campus. It’s not just a matter of keeping students and adults afloat. It’s also about building bridges and raising awareness.

Can you provide some more thoughts on your experience in dorms and if you have had to mediate difficult conversations between roommates/dormmates, either regarding race or socioeconomic class, etc? 

I had a student come to me once who casually mentioned that he received tickets to a major college football game out of state. He invited a couple of friends, one of whom had far lesser means to come with him. He was willing to pay for the flight and other related expenses. During the exchange, it occurred to me that he hadn’t considered how his friend might feel about this charity. It really was a harmless invitation and an attempt to do something kind for a friend, but he didn’t consider that this friend might feel worse about needing this support. It wasn’t the first time that he extended himself in this way to the friend. We had a conversation about it, which opened his eyes. He was merely looking at it as an attempted act of kindness instead of a reminder that his friend had lesser means.

 In a separate encounter, I had a conversation with a white male who was very animated about ongoing tension on campus around race. During the exchange, he wondered aloud, “where’s all the racism because I don’t see it?” I pointed to the teaching of American History as an example of how racism is felt, or perpetuated, on campus. He didn’t understand so I asked him to name five African American heroes not named Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, or Sojourner Truth. One of the African Americans he offered in his response was Jim Crow. At the very least, he helped me realize that some people think Jim Crow was an actual person.

Do you feel that we should be exploring whiteness more in educational curriculums (in addition to broader representation in faculty and curriculum) instead of treating BIPOC histories as something ‘new and novel and emergent’? If we ‘hold a mirror’ up, so to speak, to predominantly white administrations, faculty, and student bodies and ask them to further unpack their white identities instead of relying on BIPOC individuals to continue having conversations about what is ‘allowed’?

 I think whiteness needs to be explored more, and the role white people can play in (at least) creating an atmosphere that embraces a growth mindset as it pertains to cultural competence. In my role as Associate Dean of Multicultural Affairs, I have continually sought to develop relationships with white students, particularly males, who don’t come from diverse communities because we are better off as a community if they don’t assume an oppositional posture. I’m in the process of working with others to develop a support group for white males where they can explore whiteness and racial identity broadly. Currently, I find that we devote most (if not all) of our energy to students of color when it comes to race when I think the work should be broader in scope.

Do you feel that the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) has provided ‘safe spaces’ for students to have difficult conversations and/or to bond?

OMA has provided a safe space for some students. It’s hard to offer that to all students because our physical space is small, and high school students have a tendency to opt-out of a particular venue if they feel any sense of exclusion (even though it may not actually be the case). I think we could do a better job of encouraging difficult conversations. It’s just hard to do that when students are struggling to exist on campus. 

Is it alienating for some? What can OMA do (is it OMA’s responsibility?) to get more students to its doors?

The responsibility for creating this atmosphere precedes us. Critical mass is a major part of the equation. Students have to see themselves represented broadly in the student body, faculty, and staff. They have to feel ‘at home’ in their dorm. They have to feel like their teachers “get it.” If the latter pieces aren’t present, there’s only so much OMA can do to foster a cordial community. We also need a larger physical space. 

Should we aim to create work/school environments where everyone is comfortable enough that covering/passing/code-switching is never an issue? Why? How can we question ‘assimilating identities’ within the legacy and tradition of PEA as an institution founded on and embedded within a pedagogical system that it totes as keystone? Can we achieve identity equity in environments that call for passing/covering?

Absolutely. Lol. This is a mental health matter. Having to do gymnastics in order to exist and MAYBE thrive in a community isn’t comforting. The goal should be to figure out how we can all be our authentic selves in a community and uphold that. I think that comes from the top. One of the ways in which we’re creating that atmosphere at PEA is by relaxing the dress code. I love that I can go to work with a comfortable pair of sneakers on and a rugby without feeling judged. It’s small, but significant. This helps us as we attempt to evolve in different ways.