Belonging & Equity: Building Bridges And Embracing Accountability

By Lori Ferguson
In recent years, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives have sprung up on campuses and in boardrooms across the country, indicators of an impassioned populace seeking to redress past wrongs and create a more inclusive environment for the future. Emma Willard School is among those institutions who have committed themselves to this work, appointing Christine Gilmore as the school’s inaugural head of institutional equity and inclusion. 
Christine brings a wealth of experience to the position, including lived experience as a Black woman and more than 25 years of working on DEI initiatives in education. And she has wasted little time in launching a series of initiatives designed to encourage members of Emma Willard’s community to think more inclusively. From conducting a ‘climate survey’ to organizing a series of campus-wide cultural events and overseeing both internal and external working groups, Christine is seizing every opportunity to drive dialogue and cultivate relationships. “My charge is shepherding the work,” she asserts. “Just checking boxes is not going to have an impact. We need to build relationships and hold ourselves accountable—if we’re just talking, we’re not moving forward.”

Seeking Equity Beyond Race
Among the first things that Christine wants to make clear is that DEI should not be a limiting label. “We’re moving away from the DEI term because it’s overused and people immediately associate it with race; in reality, DEI encompasses class, gender, religion, ability, and more,” she explains. “For me, the goal is something more like disrupting inequities and fostering a sense of belonging, encouraging a community that values civic engagement and multiple perspectives, and cultivating a culture of inclusivity that honors and supports identities and intersectionality.”

Christine has moved quickly to wrap her arms around the school’s current environment. Among her first acts since arriving at Emma Willard in July of 2021: overseeing the administration of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) climate survey—the Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism (AIM)—to students, employees, and parents. “One of the advantages of this survey is that it gives us a pretty good idea of what students and teaching faculty feel,” she says. “We can use the results to amplify the voices of students who feel marginalized and also identify metrics that will allow us to justify our strategic initiatives.” One thing that Christine learned immediately—engagement with families needs more attention. “Only seventeen percent of our parents responded,” she observes.

Conversations with various campus constituencies also proved revealing. “We discovered that many students felt pressured to be the ones who educated the community about various cultural events. They felt that if they didn’t do it themselves, it wouldn’t get done. So, our office offered to take the reins on cultural presentations and gently invite interested students and faculty to join in.”

Leading By Example
Christine and colleague Interim Assistant Director of DEI Gemma Halfi have hit the ground running, already staging several events this year to engage Emma’s community on DEI issues. On January 6, they hosted a virtual presentation by Harvard Professor Mahzarin Banaji, PhD, a researcher who explores the parts of the brain that guide behavior and generate unconscious bias. The timing of the lecture—the one-year anniversary of the Capitol insurrection—invited a lively conversation on diversity of thought, observes Director of College Counseling and Emma parent Dr. Ashley L. Bennett. “The discussion demonstrated that we can have great diversity of thought and still find a place to land,” she enthuses.

For Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Christine and Gemma organized a dynamic, day-long program marked by mini-workshops for students and faculty and a virtual, student-led panel discussion with alumnae of color. Vivian Brady-Phillips ’85, now the executive director of the Jersey City Housing Authority, was among those who participated. A member of the school’s Alumnae Association Council and the Alumnae of Color Network, Vivian welcomed the opportunity to give back to her alma mater. “For a long time after graduating I wasn’t involved with the school—I was just too busy,” she explains. When members of the Alumnae of Color Network reached out, however, she decided it was the right time to re-engage. “I appreciated the opportunity to unpack what it meant to be Black at Emma in the mid-eighties, both to help the school understand what that was like and to help current students.

“For hundreds of years, the school has turned out graduates with an extraordinary education and a mission to do good, and it’s my hope that today’s students will leave Emma Willard with their self-confidence intact and expanded and with their dreams supported and nourished,” Vivian continues. “I don’t want DEI initiatives to just be the work of people of color—I want all the adults in the community to be mindful and intentional about creating a welcoming, safe space for young people and to think about how they’re training students to meet the world.”

Promoting a sense of belonging at Emma Willard requires engaging all constituencies, Christine underscores. Internally, her team is collaborating with administrators and two DEI working groups—the Adult Diversity Working Group and the Student Diversity Leadership Group—and externally, they are partnering with the Office of Alumnae Relations, trustees, alumnae, and parents. “We have made it clear that we cannot make progress unless all hands are on deck,” she observes. “Our strategy is to collaborate with the different constituencies to make sure that each have DEI goals that are measurable so that they can hold themselves accountable.”

Involving The Community
Director of College Counseling Dr. Ashley Bennett has jumped into the effort with both feet. “In speaking with students, I’ve learned that our department hasn’t always been a strong resource for students of color, so we’re working to change that. We want to offer equitable and robust college counseling for all.” Ashley also joined the adult diversity working group, helping to draft the group’s mission statement and volunteering for the admissions, curriculum, and training task forces. “We’re looking at building a more inclusive curriculum, expanding our recruitment efforts to seek students from a wider variety of backgrounds, and establishing restorative practices that allow our community to heal from negative lived experiences in the past and in the present,” she enthuses. “We’re setting students up to navigate the world and disrupt inequity when they encounter it. Our students aren’t quiet or passive—they speak up with intelligence and action-oriented ideas.”
Student Diversity Leadership Group (SDLG) member Sarah K. ’22 is a case in point. A senior from South Korea, she admits she hasn’t always felt comfortable voicing her opinions on sensitive subjects such as race, gender, ethnicity, and religion. But happily, through involvement with SDLG, her confidence has grown. Sarah joined the group as a core member and committed to tackling issues of class, gender, and international student support on campus. “We’ve been doing a lot of gender inclusivity work, things like making adults aware of how they may unintentionally harm people who don’t identify as women.” Last year, Sarah also attended the virtual meeting for the National Association of Independent Schools Student Diversity Leadership Conference. It was, she says, an incredibly positive experience. “I gained a lot of new perspectives on diversity topics and made friends with students from across the United States.” Since returning, she has joined other members of SDLG to lobby administrators for changes at school, including opening all-gender restrooms for individuals who identify as non-binary. She has also begun to discuss diversity issues with others in hopes of broadening their awareness. “Ms. Gilmore and Ms. Halfi talk a lot about healing rather than correction and emphasize that it’s better to educate people than to shame them,” she notes.
Changes like these delight Ashley. “Students are at their best when they feel safe, heard, valued, and loved,” she observes. “It’s important to me as a Black woman to feel seen and heard, so it’s doubly important for our students.” 

Vivian agrees. “DEI is in everything—the classroom, the dorm rooms, the application process. It’s not a one and done, it’s always there, so I think we must continue to ask ourselves, ‘Who’s not at the table?’ or ‘Who’s at the table and not talking?’ It’s imperative that we have a space for dialogue. Getting behind the eyes of someone who looks different can be incredibly instructive.”

But cultivating a diverse community is only the first step, cautions Gilmore. “Then we must work on making sure the curriculum in each class is accessible to every student,” she argues. “This involves making sure each student feels safe enough in the classroom environment to show up as their authentic selves.” Because evidence shows that when students find that level of comfort, she asserts, “the sky is the limit.”

The key to realizing these goals rests in relationships, Christine asserts. “As we begin to discover and honor our power, we begin to recognize and honor the power in others … and when we supplement this with genuine dialogue to build relationships … transformation and magic begin.

“I believe that EVERY member of the community is intimately and intricately responsible for accomplishing the school’s mission and goals,” she continues. “It is our individual and collective duty to hold ourselves accountable to doing the work necessary to raise our own frequency to vibrate to a higher realm, while creating and cultivating a safe space around us to inspire everyone we have the honor of engaging with to do the same.”

Nor does that need for engagement end at the school’s border. Community engagement and service-learning programming also fall under the umbrella of the Office of DEI, Christine notes. “Our philosophy about community engagement is one that elevates solidarity as opposed to charity. This means that while we are finding ways to build relationships with the local community and working to address immediate needs, it is equally important for us to simultaneously examine the larger systemic issues of inequity and injustice within a framework of an historical, environmental, socioeconomic, and sociopolitical context.” Spotlighting the importance of belonging and equity at Emma is important, but students must also translate those values to their interactions with the external, local community, she argues.

“As our community stands in the gap between where we are and where we want to be, we must understand the assignment,” Christine concludes. “We must make the demand of ourselves and every member of our community to tap into our growth mindset to evolve. As Frederick Douglass said, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and never will.’” 

OUR COMMITMENT TO DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION: Emma Willard School was founded in 1814 as a school for girls in a time when girls did not have ready access to secondary education. Today, more than 200 years later, Emma Willard School strives every day to broaden and deepen that initial spark of access, inclusivity, and justice. As our world has grown more connected, so has Emma. Our community now includes students from 38 countries with a myriad of ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. This social and cultural richness provides a platform for curiosity and additional opportunities for emotional and intellectual growth. The diversity, equity, and inclusion values we foster and practice at our school are expressed here: At Emma Willard School, we commit ourselves to building a community that values and celebrates differences, encourages dialogue, fosters mutual respect, and highlights our shared purpose and ideals. We are dedicated to the empowerment of all of our students, and we are guided by a deep understanding that a diverse, inclusive environment and academic excellence are inextricably linked.

Originally printed in the Spring issue of Signature magazine

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