Moral Courage, Inclusivity, and Necessary Discomfort: AISNE Annual Diversity Conference

By Rachael Jennings

Irshad Manji stood in front of the crowded conference hall, and she said, “My role as an educator is not to make you feel safe. It is to make you feel safe in your discomfort.”

She went on, those words projected behind her on the screen, to say, “Moral courage is doing the right thing in the face of your fears. It is being willing to say, ‘help me understand how that works?’ It is being willing to look outside of yourself and inside your own mind.”

On November 1, over 300 educators rallied together to discuss and immerse themselves in programming around diversity and inclusion. Dublin School’s Bill Horton, Learning Specialist; Bernarda DelVillar, Spanish Instructor; Jenny Foreman, Arts Department Chair; Rachael Jennings, English Department Chair; Marguerite Ladd, Academic Coordinator; and Sophia Rabb, English Instructor attended and engaged in workshops with other school leaders on topics that ranged from “The Impact of Transgender and Gender Non-Binary Students on School Culture” to “Decentering Whiteness” to “Promoting Cognitive Empathy in a Polarized Society” to “Are There Two Americas?”

Manji, the morning’s keynote speaker, highlighted principles that were central to all workshops: first, that diversity becomes inclusion when we engage rather than assume; second, to engage with dignity, we must avoid making statements—we must ask questions; and third, our students must learn to develop their moral courage for the sake of cross-cultural conversations.

Jennings especially liked her phrasing: “We want our students to be ‘gutsy global citizens.’ I liked Manji’s frame for that. She elucidated that we want students who are gutsy enough to ask hard questions and humble enough to know, in her words, that ‘what our students learn from others has the power to change their lives.’ What a dynamic—what vulnerability and courage is required. We talk about truth and courage at Dublin: these make up the fiber of our culture. What’s particularly lovely about the goal of educating ‘gutsy global citizens’ is the link between moral courage and hard truth, between hard truth and moral action.”

One of the keynote speaker’s greatest observations resonated particularly well with Ladd. She says,“It is not enough diversity to stand there and say ‘we are diverse’ in the this group because we represent different races/genders/demographics (pick your criteria). The actual act—or in the words of the keynote the 'effort' of diversity—is in the inclusion. Actively seeking the uncomfortable zone and including it, actively seeking out conversations that are going to illuminate your own implicit bias and cause you to question yourself and your own views in a humble and not threatening way.”

With presenters like Irshad Manji, internationally acclaimed author, World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, and Professor at New York University; Donald Tibbs, co-author of “Hip Hop and the Law” and many other essays on race and law, recipient of the Sheila D. Skipper Award for outstanding work in his PhD. in Law & Social Sciences, and Drexel University Law School professor; Moira Kelly, Executive Director and President of Explo and Associate Producer for the Commission on Presidential Debates; and Alexandra Scott, former Head of School who, after her transition, served as the Director of Development at The National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C., we attendees had an incredible opportunity to hear from diverse thinkers with profound, rooted experience in their fields.

As all presenters illustrated, diversity is a reality. In our pluralistic world, diversity is not an initiative or a goal or an abstract. It is a given. It is our reality, our multitudinous experiences.

Here’s what is not a given: inclusion.

“How you make diversity something that's honored and effectively embraced,” Foreman echoed, “That part—that's the work.”

“In the [Are There Two Americas?] workshop, the presenter traced the history of institutional racism and racial bias in the law,” Foreman explained. “His take-away was that usually it is easy to make a mess and takes a long, long time to clean it up. He showed the span of time that the deep mess of racism has been created and then, comparatively, the time that we've been trying to fix the mess and/or be post-mess. It's unrealistic to think we would be past this; it's going to take much longer, and it’s going to take much more work.”

“We looked at things like the Emancipation Proclamation and the national anthem and the racism that pervades these,” Foreman elaborated. “Like if you look at the lyrics, Francis Scott Key was a slaveowner who wanted slaves to return to Africa rather than be free American citizens. Black men were offered the option to join and train with the British, and the third verse [of the national anthem] basically talks about killing all of the slaves and being triumphant. There's a racist component, and we don't sing it, but if you learn about the historical context, you might understand why we would protest this.

There are landmark moments in history where, as a black man, [he, the presenter] could imagine a different understanding of a situation that a white man wouldn't necessarily have. He mapped out how black Americans experiences of reality can be vastly different than white Americans.”

Horton, who attended the aforementioned session as well as Decentering Whiteness, commented, “Decentering Whiteness was led by a woman who was working on the issue for twenty years or so. She had a list of things that are characteristic of whiteness or white culture, from work habits to individual characteristics. There were some that become justifying sentence-starters like ‘that's the way it's always been’ or ‘that's morally right.’ It is the responsibility of whites to deal with racism from whites. Instead of having white culture at the center of society, we should have a multicultural core and white culture becomes one of the subcultures encircling that core.”

Foreman posits that to achieve progress in inclusion efforts, we need to focus on “having a conversation in our daily lives rather than a tokenistic thing to do. It should not be something you consider when you are doing certain work. It should be embedded in how you do your work.” Her fellow attendees agree.

To echo Irshad Manji, “[Our] role as educator[s] is not to make [our students] feel safe. It is to make [our students] feel safe in [their] discomfort.”

The best kind of work takes just that: work. In addition, it takes moral courage and the willingness to explore our discomfort as educators and students, alike. It’s, as Manji states, more than just about “speaking truth to the power out there; it’s about speaking the truth inside: the truth to ourselves.”


Dublin School

Dublin School, Schoolhouse Rd, Dublin, NH, 03444, United States