The Williamson County Schools Board of Education had its first session with Fostering Healthy Solutions on Monday, where board members engaged in several personal reflective exercises and heard about next steps towards pursuing their diversity and inclusion goals for the district.
WCS entered into a six-month contract with Fostering Healthy Solutions, a local private diversity and inclusion firm, in February. Founders Dr. Anita Foster and Shan Foster, a mother-son duo, have now begun their work to “gather data as it relates to diversity and inclusivity in the district, assess that data and make recommendations to the district on the development of a cultural strategy plan to move us forward," according to the WCS website.
At the beginning of their session with the board, Anita Foster acknowledged that “this is a difficult conversation” but said “we have to avoid avoiding the conversation.” She said when a person embraces change, they can benefit from that change, and she gave a few tips for the district and the community of stakeholders on how to better engage in these conversations around diversity and inclusion.
First, she recommended people delay their responses and reframe their distorted thoughts to be more considerate of others.
“My mom used to always say, ‘What comes up shouldn’t always come out,’ and that’s exactly how we approach a difficult conversation,” she said. “Think before we actually speak so that what comes out is not offensive to others.”
Second, she encouraged people to know their triggers and be prepared to, instead of immediately react, take a moment and ask if they can pause and come back to the conversation.
“I always use the 24-hour rule. If I’m uncertain about it, I need to sleep on it and see if I wake up with the same thought that I had before I went to bed,” she said. “It delays the response a lot, and it allows that conversation to become a lot more natural.”
Finally, she challenged people to reposition their emotions and consider others’ perspectives.
Dr. Foster also clarified that diversity is not just about race but also includes gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, perspective, experiences and more.
Shan Foster asked the board to share some of their personal values; respect, doing the work, integrity, honesty and clarity in communication were all mentioned. He shared that values shape how people “show up in the world” and are the foundation of diversity, equity and inclusion. However, unfortunately, it’s easy not to uphold those values.
“We live in a world that is very contradictory, where we tell our children to stand up for what’s right, but as adults, we’re often pressed, pressured to conform to societal norms,” he said. “Conformity may sometimes be at odds with living authentically. … Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is to live out those values that we started tonight’s conversation talking about, but I believe that’s our charge as leaders.”
Foster previously worked with YWCA, a Nashville-based organization geared towards eliminating racism and empowering women. He shared that sexual assault and abuse against women and children persist in America — even in schools — because of a “culture that allows these things to happen.” When people “turn a blind eye” to that culture, such as laughing at an inappropriate joke or making remarks like “what happens in our home stays in our home,” that culture is perpetuated.
“[It was] Lieutenant [David] Morrison who said, ‘The standard you walk past is the standard you accept,’” he said. “In some ways, we have to hold ourselves accountable for not allowing ourselves to walk past and turn a blind eye to the culture that allows the violence that ever happened in the first place.”
Foster shared seven steps to resetting an organization’s culture: reflect, revisit, reconnect, recommit, reallocate, re-evaluate and reaffirm.
Beginning with reflection, he walked the school board members through several personal reflective exercises. For example, he asked each member to write down five groups it is part of, ranking them from least to most diverse, and determining group identities missing from those groups. The members’ answers were not shared publicly; this was a personal exercise.
He shared that, often, when an organization has to fill a position, it will pull from its existing networks, but if those networks are not diverse, then the team won’t be diverse either.
“This is something we don’t do often,” he said. “We don’t stop to consider where we’re spending our time, who we’re connected to and, most importantly, who we’re disconnected from. But just by doing this exercise, maybe we’re able to stop and consider maybe there’s opportunity … to get to know someone new, to expose myself to other groups.”
Foster also asked the board members where they would like to see WCS in five years. While these answers were again kept private, Superintendent Jason Golden shared his answer, “that all students [should] experience a supportive environment here at Williamson County Schools.”
The Fosters will continue to have similar conversations as this with other school leaders, including principals, assistant principals and teacher representatives. Beginning in April, the firm will also begin reviewing the district’s policies and procedures, and Golden mentioned that it will help come up with a list of “trigger words that will result in discipline.”
Additionally, beginning in April 10, the firm will hold nine “listen and learn” sessions with WCS stakeholders, including parents, where those stakeholders will have the opportunity to hear from the Fosters and share their own perspectives and experiences.
The Fosters will collect data through their various meetings and, in the end, help the district develop a strategic plan for furthering diversity and inclusion.