The Centre for Conscious Design

Interview with Rick Holifield and Sam Washington

Rick Holifield, Dean of Inclusion and Community Engagement (above top) has served as the Assistant Head of Upper School and Director of Community Life at The Walker School in Marietta, Ga., and, before that, was the Director of Diversity at Pace Academy in Atlanta. He has served on The National Center for Civil and Human Rights Advisory Board and as a member of the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference Planning Committee. He chaired both the Commission on Diversity for the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools and the Atlanta Area Association of Independent School’s Diversity Consortium. Additionally, Holifield is a Certified Mediator for the Georgia Supreme Court. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Theology from the Life Christian University and a master’s degree in Ministry-Christian Counseling from the Jacksonville Theological Seminary. He attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education Principals’ Center, and is now completing his studies as a National Association of Independent Schools Aspiring Heads Fellow.

Sam Washington (above below) is a 1981 Lawrenceville who serves as both an Associate Dean of Admission and the School’s Director of Multicultural Affairs. He is a Second Form boys’ Advisor in Raymond. He has a B.A. from Boston College and was appointed in 1999.

The following is a transcript, edited for clarity, of a Zoom interview conducted on Monday, September 14th.

Elizabeth (E): How do you define racial equity and why is representation and DEI work important, in your opinion?

Rick Holifield (RH): First and foremost, if you’re trying to create the best educational experience for children, then it’s important that you create a diverse space. Studies show that anything that’s more diverse is much stronger and much more efficient and lasting than anything that is homogeneous. And whether that be in the financial sector, academia, or in science – anything that’s more diverse has more opportunity to sustain. Just by virtue of studies, it’s plain to see that it makes sense to have a much more diverse space. 

When you think about the idea or concept of ‘Harkness’:  it doesn’t work unless you put diverse voices and opinions and perspectives around those tables. The idea is a great concept, but without the right input, it doesn’t work.

E: What has Lawrenceville been doing to promote these sorts of conversations? What resources are present for students, for faculty to engage in these conversations? I would also love to hear your perspective on which students actually use these resources. 

Samuel Washington (SW): I’ll start the question and I’ll let Rick finish it because we have two very different perspectives. 

I’ve been here a long time. And for a long time, I helped facilitate all these things as a part-time job. We have all sorts of affinity groups, lunches and dialogues, things that we’ve put together to help facilitate conversations, but that conversation has left out one very large group: the group who the school was historically built for.  I don’t want to generalize too much, but that’s the voice of white students, particularly white males. They’re generally not part of these conversations. 

Two years ago we made a decision to hire a full time Dean of Inclusivity and Community Engagement, and that’s Rick’s role. His job is to take these things to a different level. So I’ll let him go.

RH: For example, as we’re talking about identity, anti-bias, understanding implicit bias, and all these things – we bought organizations to help us facilitate those conversations. 

We brought in an outside organization that we’ve partnered with over the last couple of years called Cultures of Dignity to make sure that we’re having these conversations in spaces outside of the Harkness table. To go even further, we’ve made sure that we’ve engaged the Anti-Defamation league in our classrooms. 

We’re bringing speakers and creating spaces to be able to have those types of conversations in the dorms, as well equipping our faculty to be able to facilitate those in the classroom and not just the classroom. I’ve just done training with our faculty on microaggressions, on having difficult conversations about race. 

These conversations are happening co-curricularly as well. As an example, we just finished training for our student leaders – prefects, student government, student council, diversity council. 

E: How have faculty and staff actually engaged with the DEI training? Have you found them to be effective or ineffective? How do you approach a person who walks away from the training saying “Oh, this is ridiculous, why do we have to do this?” 

RH: It’s a good question. I gotta tell you it’s been quite the opposite. To my pleasant surprise, the majority (both students and faculty) have been saying “some of this stuff is elementary. We want to go deeper: we want more!”

Inevitably, you’ll have your red chips – the folks who believe that DEI is just the “liberal agenda.” 

E: Mr. Washington – you mentioned earlier that the voice of white males has largely been absent from these conversations. 

SW: Well, I’ll say it this way: For a long time, we treated DEI as an ‘add-on’, even in the curriculum. You can take this course and we can mandate it, you have to take this course and then check the box…What’s happening now is DEI is being woven into everything. There’s no opting in or opting out. There’s no one box to check off. 

I’m a former math teacher – as a math department, we want you, when you leave Lawrenceville, to be able to function at a minimum mathematical level. Whether you’re here for two years, three years, four years, when you leave Lawrenceville, you will be competent in these areas at a minimum. 

We’ve never had that mandate in terms of diversity and inclusion and equity so that’s what we’re trying to get to now- so that there’s no opting in or out.

E: Are there specific curricular changes you can use as specific examples?

RH: I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge “the elephant in the room,” but we do realize that we’re dealing with two pandemics, right? Those being COVID and the social and racial unrest. In the context of your question, the latter is important when we talk about curriculum. It’s not good enough to say, ‘we’re just going to diversify our curriculum,’ we need to think about the impact of that diversification. 

It’s important to make sure that our curriculum is relevant, that it’s not dehumanizing, that it’s not discriminatory. As an example, a lot of the works in the traditional literary canon have dehumanizing language in them. 

Schools have not considered what that language does to people. More specifically, young learners. And if we have thought about what it does to young learners, we’ve not been called to task on it. When you think about “Black at -” pick LawrencevilleExeter, or I’ll just call it “Black at IG,” we’ve been called to task on the impact that all young people have felt.

To address this, we’ve created a classroom language task force to take a look at the language in the works we’re teaching, how it’s affecting our learners, and if we should even be teaching these works. If we chose to teach them, what’s our rationale for doing so?

SW: As an example of Rick’s point: over two of the last three summers, we assigned summer readings but nobody really vetted the books well enough to know what issues they were going to raise. In the last few years, the books have actually raised issues among Muslim students and their families. We hear back from Muslim parent and students who tell us “these books don’t depict our reality as Muslims.” 

So it’s not just whether you just teach it-  it’s how you prepare to teach it, how you prep the kids for what they’re going to read, and then how you debrief after reading. It’s the work in the classroom, the summer readings, and in the organizations we bring to campus.  

E: I think the most common argument I hear for continuing to teach books that are part of ‘the Canon’ is “if we frame the book and language within its historical context and provide the necessary support structures to help students work through the context, it shouldn’t matter.” What’s your response to that?

SW: The reasons that we teach Huck Finn, for example – there are certain lessons you get out of that book. But you can get the same lesson out of other books without the issues that come with Huck Finn. We don’t have to be stuck in whatever time or place somebody else got stuck in. 

I worked in the admissions office and the question I get most often is “How has Lawrenceville changed over the years?” And I say: a lot of things at Lawrenceville have changed. When I came here in 1977, the school was all male. It was 95% white. No female students, two female faculty members. 

The physical place has changed dramatically; half the buildings weren’t here! One thing that’s held on for dear life, though, is the curriculum. Some of the exact same teachers that I had, 45 years ago, are still here and still teaching the same thing to a totally different group of kids who belong to a different world. And that’s crazy: that everything around us has changed except what we’re teaching and what we’re reading.

RH: To piggyback on that: we started our conversation and we’re thinking about the now. I’m really proud to say that our Dean of Academics said, “it’s not good enough for us to just say: how should we teach these words? I’d like to go back and say: why are we teaching these works?”

Usually your Dean of Academics is the one holding on to the cabin, but this – dare I say, white male – said you know what? We should think about our rationale. Why are we teaching these works? We’re in the midst of that grappling and it’s – to use John Lewis for a moment, “it’s good trouble we’re causing.” This is good trouble. 

E: How do you respond to students who feel the burden of representation in classrooms? If a student comes to you and says “I am struggling in this class because I’m the only person of this identity in this classroom,” How do you support them? How do you work through that experience with that individual?

RH: First and foremost, thoughtfully and carefully. Right? There’s no one stock answer for every student or every social identifier. First and foremost, you want to hear the student out and see if there’s anything that you need to do to take action immediately. 

In the case where a child is discriminated against, or if there was harm caused, that might take a different result than if a child just feels like sharing their feelings. 

If harm has been caused, then there needs to be accountability. Sometimes you gotta have a tough conversation with a faculty member. And I think we’re at a place now where we’re recognizing a greater need for accountability. And we’ve taken measures to do that.

SW: This is one of the challenges: 10% of the students here are Black and when you have a school where the average class size is 10-11 students, mathematically, this presents a challenge. If 10% of the students are Black, 1 out of 10 kids in every class is probably going to be Black. 

But the problem is not the numbers, it’s how that Black student gets treated. 

When we talk about the things that need to change, too much of the pressure has been put on the kids to lead the way and it’s not their job. They’re here to learn like the other eight, 700 kids here. And too often, these kids carry the burden of learning and teaching and leading the way and following, and it’s too much. That’s what you get paid to do as a faculty member.

“Don’t look at me when that word comes up. Don’t look at me for answers in a classroom because I’m that one Black kid or because we’re using the N word, I’m not the one who needs to answer for that.”

E: Do you feel that there should be a pivot towards dissecting whiteness and whiteness within the framework of the school and the legacy of the school?

RH: Absolutely. For a long time, white people have not had to 1. Identify themselves as a race and 2. because of that, it causes you to not appreciate and recognize when someone is different than you. 

All of that comes with privilege, and I will say that there needs to be a dissecting of maleness as well. Unless you can dissect these different social identities, these ‘isms,’ this mindset will always be pervasive. So I think you do start with whiteness because that’s the greater majority. Although I believe that our white student population is no longer the greatest majority. 

Unless I’m mistaken, Sam, I would say less than 50%, 50% of our students are white?

SW: 46.

RH: -however that 46% still operates as the homogeneous population because the school was built for them. So we absolutely need to dissect whiteness and the privileges that come with it.

SW: To reframe it – when kids walk across the stage when they leave Lawrenceville after 3-4 years, one of the hopes is that very kid that walks across the stage with a Lawrenceville diploma in their hands, will be able to answer these three questions:

Where am I? Who am I? Who are we?

And if I’m white, then I’m white. Whiteness is not invisible. I’m white, I’m male, I’m privileged, I’m this, and whatever. But you also need to understand what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes. After you understand those two things, then you need to answer question number 3: Who are we and what does that make us? 

If this is who I am, and I have a sense of who you are, what does that make us collectively? And to get there, all the things we’ve discussed already, the curriculum inclusion, etc. all those things come together. 

If we can get every kid to be able to answer those three questions, we’ve done our jobs.

E: When we say we should dissect whiteness within the curriculum, is that antithetical to the work done diversifying the curriculum?

RH: I’m a history teacher; I’ve taught African American studies and I’ve always said that African American studies is not Black history. It’s American history taught through an Afrocentric lens. Unless you can dissect whiteness, then you don’t recognize that what you’re teaching is through a white lens. Thus the need for African American studies classes, right? Or gender studies or anything else. White has always been the default, it’s always been the standard. So if you want diversity work, you’ve got to dissect whiteness. So, it’s not opposing DEI work at all.

E: I see. So you’re framing it as another chapter within ‘the Canon’ of DEI, as opposed to the default setting. 

RH: You just said it succinctly.

SW: Can I just add something to that? So I get this question all the time: Some form of “what percentage of your students are students of color?”

And I never answer that question directly. I don’t like the idea of white and nonwhite, or you have white and then you have everything else. When people ask me ‘what percentage of your students are students of color?’ I just say, what color are you talking about?

Because they’re all students of color, just very different colors. What percentage of students are students of color? Well, what color do you want to know about? What are you asking me? 

E: Mr. Holifield you mentioned, that this is a place built for white students. Can you expand on that a bit more? Within the curriculum, that’s understandable. Is there something about the campus that is specifically built for like a certain population? And within that, I’m wondering how you see affinity groups or spaces.

RH: Yeah. Those are great questions. So when I say these places were built for white people, that’s a fragmented statement. The truth is that it was built for white privileged people, wealthy white males. If you look at the history of schools, then you’ll know that the school was founded in 1810 and it was founded as an all boys school. Independent schools in themselves were all created after 1958. We know what happened in 1958. They were created as a response to integration and Brown vs. Board of Education. Either way, these schools were created for those who were not like myself and not like Sam. In the context of affinity spaces: if the schools were created for a certain likeness, then that means that anyone who comes into that likeness is constantly, constantly looking through a window. 

When you create affinity spaces, you’re creating ‘mirror time’ for those who the school was not created for. By mirror time, I mean opportunities for folks to see reflections of themselves. Our job as administrators is to make sure that we create spaces for those ‘reflections’ and affinity spaces are ways of doing that. Not just in affinity spaces but in classrooms, the curriculum, and the teachers so that students don’t feel like they’re just guests in someone else’s home, but that this is their home too.

SW: I don’t know if you’re familiar with this book – the fable about the elephant and the giraffe. The short version of it is: There’s a home that was built for a giraffe, an elephant gets invited into the home, and the Giraffe asks the elephant, “What do you think of my home?”

(This home is a metaphor for these schools which were built for wealthy, white, Christian males. Eventually the Giraffes expanded who they invited into the home, but they didn’t expand the physical home. (I happened to be one of the early elephants that was invited into a home that was built for a giraffe.))

Well, first of all, the elephant couldn’t fit through the door. The doors were nice and tall, but they weren’t very wide. So the elephant had to suck in his stomach to get into the house. But when he gets in, he bumps into a lamp, knocks the lamp over, tries to go up to see the second floor, but gets stuck on the spiral staircase because this was a home that was built for giraffes.

The elephant says: I don’t want to offend you or anything, but I don’t fit in here. And the giraffe could not understand why the elephant didn’t fit in. 

At the end of the story, the Giraffe tells the elephant: maybe you’ll fit in if you lost some weight. 

The schools have been telling elephants for the longest time: just lose some weight, suck it in, suck it up and you’ll be just fine. For far too long, the elephants that were invited to these schools – whether they were females, or Black students, or students on financial aid – they were always asked to suck it in to fit in. Our job as Lawrenceville is to stop asking elephants to suck it up, but to actually reconstruct the home, make additions to the home so that the elephants fit in without having to take the hinges off the door just to get in so everyone can come as they are. 

Lawrenceville was a school for one type of animal over the last 50, 60 years. It’s now diversified into a lot of different things for a lot of different people, but how much have we actually changed the home?

E: How do the elite images of these schools become complicated when you introduce these questions and policies? How does that become complicated when you start talking about donors and endowment and administrators and trustees who don’t want to pass or look at progressive policies? 

SW: I would change the word elite. I don’t call us elite. I call us highly selective. 

RH: I’m going to use the word elite and I’m going to tell you why. I like ‘elite.’

We just have to reframe some of this stuff – because if you use elite, and you think about whiteness, and that’s all you’re looking at as elite, then yes, that’s a problem. But there are other things that are elite as well, and it comes back to the value proposition: What do we place value on what is considered elite? And so for me, I’m not challenging whether you want to consider yourself elite – I want to be a part of the elite – but we need to change what we value it as. And we’ve come full circle to the beginning of this conversation. It’s important that we recognize that these spaces weren’t built for certain types of people.

I’m going to use another example and it has nothing to do with white. Let’s talk about HBCUs or historically Black colleges or universities. One could argue that there are certain HBCUs within the HBCU family that will be considered elite. Maybe it’s Howard, Morehouse, Tuskegee…

I want to reframe that narrative to: if we’re going to be elite, let’s be elite because we are these things right now. We’re elite because we’re creating scholars who are culpable, culturally competent, and have cultural dexterity and they’ve been trained to lead diverse communities. To say, let’s reimagine what elite looks like

SW: I guess it depends on who it is and what they’re hearing when they hear elitism. I just say we’re highly selective. We want the best of the best – whether you’re from this class, that one, and that one goes with the price tag. And that is our biggest – that’s one of our biggest challenges, that at $70,000 a year, this is not just purely a meritocracy. When you attach that price tag, you’ve excluded a whole lot of people who deserve to be here.

E: So you mentioned the price tag –  what other structures are inequitable in your opinion? Where do you most clearly see disparities, whether that be through a racial lens, a socioeconomic one, etc?

SW: We’re constantly working on leveling the playing field so that where you come from, what you come from, and who you come from, other than your perspective, doesn’t matter on how you perform here. 

One of the first things we did in this effort was, we created this program called Rising Scholars. We worked with Exeter and Andover to create this summer bridge program. We select certain students that aren’t coming from the upper crust, who haven’t been ‘Lawrenceville-breed’, and who don’t know how to navigate this world. We bring about 30 of these kids in each summer at Lawrenceville’s expense to give them a sort of a pre-orientation orientation that says “this is what you’re going to face, these are some of the challenges,” to make sure that they get off to a fast start.

And this happened to me: I’ve watched too many kids come here and flounder in the beginning because they were juggling a whole lot of balls. They were juggling all sorts of things that some of their classmates weren’t dealing with. They were dealing with culture and race and socioeconomic status shock while also being asked to figure out the Pythagorean theorem. While their classmates were only dealing with how to figure the Pythagorean theorem.

We try to make sure everybody has the things they need. If you get a certain amount of financial aid you get a laptop, someone else gets this, etc. We want to make sure that you have all the tools that you need. You bring the things that we can provide and we’ll provide all the rest for you. Any student on significant financial aid will pay for at least one international trip during the time you’re here.

When I was here as a student, things weren’t in place. For example, I was invited to six flags, but I couldn’t get on the rides. I was happy that I was invited, but it’d be nice if I could get on the rides. And I was watching all my classmates, and I was just happy to be there but it would have been nice if I could get on those rides? 

Additionally, my least fond memory of being at this school: I hated coming back from spring break. I hated it because when you got back from spring break people would start asking “Hey, Rick, where’d you go for spring break?” 

“Well, I went home to spend time with my family because I missed them.”

They were sitting there, dying for me to ask, where did you go? And I never would because I wasn’t interested and I didn’t really care to hear about their wonderful trip. But I don’t want our kids here feeling like that – like they’re excluded from some of those conversations and experiences. To say, we’re trying to create a place where no kid has to sit on the outside looking in.

Fun facts: 

E: Does Lawrenceville have certain classrooms that are done in a Harkness format? 

SW: All but math and for that, we use these modular Harkness tables that can be moved into groups of three or four.

E: Most Harkness tables are oval shaped, which I find very interesting because it implies that there’s a head of a table. I think Harkness tables should be round.

SW: I’ll give you a little history. Do you know who Lou Phillips is? Here’s a little Phillip Exeter history for you. Lou was the headmaster at Exeter when Harkness tables were brought into the classrooms. So Exeter always claims to be the, “we started Harkness” and sure, in some way, because it came to Exeter or a couple of years before it came to Lawrenceville, but what they leave out when they mention that, is that Lou Phillips is a Lawrenceville alum. 

That’s not a biased opinion at all. 

Additional resources:

Building a House for Diversity.

What is Harkness?

Such, Such are the Joys.


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