Director of Student Wellbeing
I am writing to share with you that Mario Johonson, currently Director of Student Life, Equity, Access, and Inclusion, will be moving full-time into a newly created position--Director of Student Wellbeing--effective July 1, 2021.
This new position marks a major milestone in the evolution of diversity, equity, and inclusion work at New Roads. As was noted in the 1995 article in the Los Angeles Times, New Roads was from its inception intended to “be a model of what independent schools can be, cutting across lines of class and race.” New Roads has remained true to that vision, having invested over 100 million dollars to offer an authentically diverse student body an intellectually and socially rich educational experience. However, we now know that is not enough to fulfill our mission. Since New Roads has always been unashamedly idealistic, it assumed in the past that just being an authentically diverse community would allow us to transcend our unconscious conditioning about social identifiers--ability, age, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status/class, and learning differences--that informed our daily lived experience inside and outside of New Roads. Therefore, New Roads did not choose to intentionally institutionalize its diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
For the last several years, Mario Johonson, a former philosophy teacher who has been at New Roads from its earliest years, has been developing an institutional approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion that reflects New Roads core values--love, respect, compassion, and kindness--and our fundamental assumptions about learning, rooted in neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology. Mario’s effort has been institution-wide, and already he has worked with our Board of Trustees, administration, faculty and staff. As with all else at New Roads, we experimented, succeeded, and had the courage to risk making mistakes, which are essential to the learning process, as we sought to operationalize this initiative institutionally and to build the infrastructure to support it. This work is hard and has challenged us—a true sign of growth.
Through this process, we learned that we must intentionally employ the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion to examine our culture and climate in order to sustain and cultivate a learning community that promotes a foundation for individual and collective wellbeing and liberates each student’s full human potential. Failing to address prejudice in all its forms threatens the physiological, emotional, and mental wellbeing of all of our young people and the wellbeing of our country. The current trial over George Floyd’s death and the recent deaths of Asian American Pacific Islanders remind us of the tragic truth of this assertion. This is another public health crisis. As Isabel Wilkerson comments in Caste, “Societal inequity is killing people.”
Starting with the principle that institutional diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-oppression efforts are foundational to promoting individual and collective wellbeing, the K-12 Director of Student Wellbeing (DSW) will serve as the chief advisor to the Head of School on student wellbeing, climate, culture, traditions, and practices in order to preserve and cultivate an integrative habitat, inside and outside of the classroom, where all young people can thrive. The DSW will propose, initiate, lead, implement, and assess long- and short-term strategic institutional initiatives that build the capacity of New Roads to fulfill its commitment to developing a foundation for wellbeing among its authentically diverse student body and optimal conditions for preparing for college, career, civic engagement, and personal fulfillment. The DSW will pay particular attention to disrupting and mitigating the implicit bias and oppression that negatively impact underrepresented students’ physical, social, emotional, intellectual, and academic wellbeing through providing action steps to the New Roads community that are informed by research on learning, neuroscience, interpersonal neurobiology, systems thinking, racial stages of development, and stages of childhood development. The DSW will teach our community that through our words and actions we all contribute to a culture and climate that promotes health as well as human evolution critical to our collective survival and flourishing or malignant illness for all of us. To this end, the DSW will articulate the institutional approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion, both inside and outside of the classroom, that is most efficacious and in line with New Roads’ mission, core values, commitments, and educational approach.
As an initial step, Mario will be sharing our institutional plan to focus on cultural competence and culturally responsive teaching. To this end, all of our administration, faculty, and staff will be reading Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students so that we can in an efficacious manner, grounded in research, build our capacity to advance our institutional level of cultural competence in service of our students and our mission. We will be appointing Diversity Practitioners from the faculty and staff who will receive formal training to support him in carrying out New Roads’ plan.
With embodied knowledge of New Roads’ mission, history, culture, and ethos, his open heart, and his brilliant philosophical mind, I am confident that Mario is the person to lead the school in ensuring that all of our young people experience an ever more authentically embracing culture in which they can liberate their full potential and can develop as socially conscious independent thinkers who “disrupt systems that produce inequality and build a more just future.”
Authentic Diversity: The Fuel of Academic Rigor
The implementation of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education was resisted by many. For African-Americans, Brown v. Board signified an opportunity to have access to a quality education; some people fought this decision, in part, because they assumed an inverse correlation between academic rigor and integration. Over the last 25 years, New Roads’ experience and contemporary research have proven this notion wrong; in fact, students at schools that lack diversity can fall into groupthink and false beliefs about reality. New Roads has discovered that real academic rigor occurs in an environment in which authentic diversity is leveraged, every student because of their diversity
brings an essential part in the pursuit of "truth." Defined by New Roads, academic rigor is seeking creatively and critically to understand the interconnected nature of reality - the interdependence of the diversity of human talents, knowledge, the human condition, and our collective destiny. In this framework, academic rigor demands the authentic perspectives of diverse people moving beyond attention-grabbing, algorithmic views to holistic, nuanced understandings. This is the foundation for liberating creativity and effectively adapting to and ethically improving upon our environment for the common good. This can’t be done without ethnically, racially, and socioeconomically diverse children living and learning together. It is time to finally embrace Brown. Read more
Dear New Roads Family,
It is unbelievable how we held our young people and community in the Big Embrace during these unprecedented times. Amidst the Pandemic and our soul-searching national reckoning with institutional and structural racism, somehow we still managed to support our young people in experiencing joy and delighting in learning within a connected, compassionate, and collaborative learning community.
Reality of Institutional and Structural Racism
On May 31st, I shared some of my familial and personal history regarding the impact of institutional and structural racism. When I related aspects of my story in a Town Hall to our Upper School students, a faculty member commented that I “cracked open” in front of our community. Her comment stayed with me as I realized how painful, raw, and vulnerable it felt to recount this part of my life to all of you. However, I felt compelled to let you know that even as an African-American man who has achieved many of the traditional markers of success in American society, I am still subject to the potentially deadly and dehumanizing institutional and structural racism--built into our society--when I exit the gates of New Roads. My mother still calls me, especially now, to make sure that I am okay. Her fear for my life is omnipresent as she knows that in America I am, to many, just another big, “potentially dangerous,” black man, not the Head of New Roads School who loves hugging people.
New Roads’ Big Embrace
What soothed me as I offered my story was the Big Embrace I received from our students, faculty, staff, and families. As I knew in my heart, you all lovingly held space for me and let me know that my pain was your pain; my struggle was your struggle; my life matters to you. Although we as a community still have our own ongoing work to do as we move towards becoming an anti-racist institution, we have gone further down that road than any school or community I have experienced in my decades long career. It is in our founding DNA to strive to fulfill the promise of America--a community founded on the inherent dignity and worth of each individual as well as the embrace of the full spectrum of human diversity.
In this setting, African-Americans and other people of color can thrive, not just survive, and can liberate their full human potential. I was reminded of this by the speech of one of our African-American seniors. He wrote about his experience at three previous schools before arriving at New Roads. Of these environments, he wrote,
I was supposed to play a sport and do just enough in academics to not fail. This made me and my friends feel like the best we could do was live down to those standards….I wanted to excel and satisfy my hunger to learn, but the problem was I didn’t feel like it was my place to do so….
He, however, learned another lesson at New Roads:
I was encouraged to be a Leader and not just a gear in the machine... I learned a lot about my place in this world. I have come to realize that I belong anywhere I wish to belong...Seeing People of color who learned out loud, and were praised by the community for it changed my perspective on what I could do and be…. I know now that there are no limitations preset on any of us.
He again reminded me why I am so proud to be a Jag.
New Roads Beacon of Hope
I believe New Roads can serve as a beacon for what the “Great American Social Experiment” can be. But heeding this call will necessitate our going further consciously and intentionally along this road towards becoming an anti-racist insitution. Our Board, Administration, Faculty and Staff have in one voice agreed to advance our commitment in word and deed as individuals and as an institution to acknowledge, challenge, disrupt, and dismantle the beliefs, behaviors, cultural representations, and institutional practices that perpetuate institutional and structural racism. I am now asking our families to join this effort that many of our students have already undertaken.
Strategic Focus for Road Ahead
Our journey on this road will be difficult and, at times, painful yet transformative. But I know this community has the heart, head, and courage to meet this moment.
Our strategic approach to this personal and institutional work will focus on three areas, starting with our own examination of ourselves and New Roads:
We will look at how our American socialization process embeds beliefs, attitudes, biases, and racial stereotypes that unconsciously, to a great degree, perpetuate institutional and structural racism;
We will deepen our understanding of how institutional and structural racism function;
We will plan how we can as an institution and individuals strategically do our part to move forward the Legacy of Dr. King by acknowledging, challenging, disrupting, and dismantling institutional and structural racism. To this end, we will form an Anti-Racism Steering Committee, Chaired by Mario Johonson, Director of Student Life, Equity, Access, and Inclusion; and Christen Hebrard, Board Member.
To begin our work on #1, our Board, Faculty, Staff, and Administration are all reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo over the summer. We will also be offering a parent book group to discuss White Fragility, led by Mario Johonson, Christen Hebrard, Candice Rosales, Director of Development; and me over the summer. More information will be forthcoming.
As we embark on this journey together, we will have to hold fast to our core values--love, respect, empathy, and compassion--and remember that we must honor people for showing up and doing the work, which is an ongoing process, not an event.
I have unwavering faith that we have the courage to walk this path together, my New Roads family.
With love and hope,