By Guest Contributor Frank Ligtvoet
In my research for a piece in the Huffington Post on independent schools and the lack of diversity I came across Avenues. The World School in New York, a newly founded school in Chelsea. The school’s expression of diversity was so far away from my take on the subject, that I – after some hesitation to get so direct – couldn’t resist to write and make some serious fun about it. Avenues is in essence not very different from many other independent schools in the US, alas. But in comparison to the serious efforts made by some of their New York competitors like Calhoun, Brooklyn Friends and Dalton to break away from their ‘exclusive’ traditions, to become more inclusive and less upper class white, Avenue stands out. Being the new kid on the block it could have learned from its peers.
The Times devoted earlier this year an article on the new New York based, for-profit independent K-12 school with its somewhat bloated, urban-chic name Avenues. The World School. It has the title: ‘Is This the Best Education Money Can Buy?’. For my black kids, Joshua and Rosa, the answer to that question is absolutely not. And it might not be for white kids either.
I invite you to have a look at the ‘Leadership: Our People’ page of Avenues’ official site. What you will see are 17 portraits of ‘Our People’ with above nice descriptions of who they are and what they have accomplished in their lives. Impressive men and women, yes, and all middle aged, and then – disturbing: all white. Very white. Almost the whiteness of the definition of white when Italians and Spaniards were still regarded non-white, an Anglo-Saxon and German kind of white, an old-fashioned kind of white. (See Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People.)
Of course, it is fine to be white. I myself am white with a Germanic name. But it is not fine to be collectively white, not in a city that is as diverse as New York, not in a country that is less and less run or dominated by whiteness, not in a country that consciously makes efforts to be more inclusive, that strives to ‘a more perfect union’, and particularly not in a educational institution, in a school that is a world school in a non-white world. To be fair: the New York campus has three non-white leaders and one is the Director of Admissions, not an unimportant position.
Of course there is, like all other independent schools in the US, a whole section on Diversity on the website. You can read there that the Avenues’ budget allows 10% of the student body to be social-economically diverse. Hope for a higher percentage will be found in donations from parents and alumni, in – again – old-fashioned charity that is. There is no goal, the goal is for what the money eventually allows.
The real Avenues diversity is, however, projected in the future when according to the grandiose plans campuses elsewhere on the globe will be established: ‘The broader Avenues learning community, eventually comprising campuses in many of the world’s leading cultures, will be exceedingly rich in cultural diversity among both students and staff. The thousands of students and faculty from China, India, Europe, Africa, Latin America and North America who will be an integral part of the Avenues culture will represent unprecedented cultural diversity.’
Avenues’ diversity is not the diversity in the definition of most other (independent) schools: it is not about sharing the privileges that we white people amassed over the course of history, it is not striving for equity and equality, it is upper-class, multi-culturalism, powered by jets between the campuses, campuses which will be each max 10% diverse as well. (From a global diversity perspective is the expression ‘the world’s leading cultures’ also a bit awkward, to say the least.)
To go back to the whiteness of the Avenue’s leadership: what does all this whiteness say to my kids, who are adopted and happen to be black? There are no black people good enough to have those important jobs? There are not even people who are not black and not white, like Asian or Latino or Arab people who are good enough to fill those positions? How can the leadership create diversity if they are not even able to diversify their own administrative body? The world of the New York world school is white. We, 7 year old Rosa and 9 year old Joshua, and their brothers and sisters of color, don’t count in that world, our heritage doesn’t count, the ‘unpaid work’ of our forefathers and –mothers doesn’t count. We can attend – of course – if we have the money, but what we are and who we are and where we are from doesn’t count in the Avenues world. And imagine the unthinkable: if my kids would attend and finish that school, what would be their idea about themselves? That they had to submit to almost complete whiteness to become the people they are?
I am sure that as an ethical service to the people who will send their kids to Avenues, the curriculum will be very, very worldly and very, very diverse, but it is not the flexible ideology that counts in the real world, it is the real and hard facts that surround us, the faces we see and the social hierarchy they represent.
The loss will not only be for the kids of color, but also for the white kids: they will experience that whiteness not rules the world any more once they leave the white, multi cultural bubble at graduation. And one can wonder if an education at Avenues under the ‘Our-white-people-leadership’ will be so effective after all, in a steadily more and more diverse world.
Frank Ligtvoet is the Founder of Adoptive Families with Children of African Heritage and their Friends, NY and published about adoption and diversity in a.o. Adoption Today, the Huffington Post and the New York Times. He tweets as @frank_ligtvoet.