In Context II by Melinda Tsapatsaris

Differences must be immediately experienced to be treasured and understood. A school which avoids differences, directly or obliquely, places education outside the context of living.
— Gus Trowbridge, the founder of Manhattan Country School.

Okay. Please read that quote one more time.

Thanks. [1]

Mr. Trowbridge’s quote, taken from a beautiful obituary honoring his life in The New York Times, was sent to me by a Westland teacher this summer. (Yes, friends and colleagues alike send me obituaries during my holidays.)

Reading Mr. Trowbridge’s words, I immediately am left with an essential question as Westland’s new head of school: How do we experience, treasure, and understand differences at Westland?

This school year—and every subsequent one—our Westland community will actively seek to answer this essential question to develop the most impactful ways to increase diversity, improve our sense of equity and inclusivity, and to place a Westland education in the context of real life. For the sake of this piece—and our ongoing work together—let’s first make sure we’re using language that is shared. Here are some key definitions offered by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS):

  • Diversity refers to the range of human characteristics we use to mark our individual and group identities.

  • Equity is a condition that balances two dimensions: fairness and inclusion.

  • Inclusivity encompasses it all—it’s about taking every individual’s experience and identity into account and creating conditions where all feel safe, accepted, empowered, supported and affirmed.

  • Multiculturalism invites us to honor and celebrate differences, understand the impact of differences in society, and utilize differences within our community.

A framework utilized by Visions Inc., a multicultural consulting company with whom Westland partners, approaches the work and seeks to improve equity and inclusion by structuring initiatives and change on the four levels where oppression itself occurs: the personal level, the interpersonal level, the institutional level, and the cultural level.

I am beginning to spearhead, in collaboration with colleagues, the Board of Trustees, and key parent leaders, our good, hard work to come, by organizing initiatives within these four levels.


At the personal level, it is my responsibility as an individual (educator, parent, citizen) to check myself—my attitudes, values, beliefs, feelings, and opinions. In my work, and really in my life’s journey, this personal level work is constant, conscious, ongoing, imperfect, and oftentimes internal.

Several months ago I was part of a workshop where the facilitator invited us to open our phones and list out the last 10 people we had most recently texted, barring family. We then had to note and chart social identifiers of these ten folks: race, ethnicity, religion, education, class, sexual orientation, gender, socio-economic/class status, and age. It was eye opening to analyze and debrief our results.

My 10 “phone-people,” though racially diverse, screamed “coastal elite,” frankly. I remember initially thinking, “Gosh, there are a lot of home-owning, creative-intellectual types with master’s degrees.” This activity invited me to begin to acknowledge the bubble I have created for myself in L.A. and to think about what responsibilities I have to “get proximate” across differences as one of my heroes, Bryan Stevenson encourages. Since that activity, I continue to grapple with how important it is for me to be a part of communities that allow me to build relationships across differences so that I can both celebrate and acknowledge the impact of those differences.

This kind of reflection is the stuff of the personal level. It’s the work where I unpack the ways in which I caught racism, classism, heterosexism, and so on. It’s where as a white woman, I’m consistently unpacking how my white privilege is playing out. This reflection cuts to my core and isn’t always comfortable, which is the whole point.

At Westland self-inquiry and reflection are already a part of the ethos here. Through faculty meetings, parent education events, and even informal conversations, we adult learners in the community can invite each other into this type of ongoing, necessary self-reflection in order to understand differences more deeply. And to understand ourselves more deeply.


At the interpersonal level, I consider the relationships in my life (personal and professional) and reflect upon how I communicate and treat others. At this level we’ll encourage each other to consider the ways in which we communicate across differences. Before my arrival as head of school, members of the Westland community were introduced to and began to practice Visions’s Multicultural Guidelines. And last June when I had the opportunity to co-facilitate several faculty meetings with Scott, the teachers and I reviewed and reflected upon these Multicultural Guidelines:

  • It’s okay to disagree. It’s not okay to blame or shame self or others

  • Be aware of intent and impact

  • Practice self-focus

  • Practice “both/and” thinking

  • Honor confidentiality

  • Notice process and content

  • Try on—lean into discomfort and take risks

  • Approach with a beginner’s mind

I once heard a Westland Board member compare talking about diversity and inclusion to travelers at a train station. He said, “There’s all these different levels of awareness and comfort. It’s like there are different trains, and we all get on one at different times. The trains are traveling at different speeds. And maybe some people are getting off their trains. Some people aren’t even getting on a train. And those on the trains—well, it can be hard to hear each other, hard to understand what they said.” While I can sometimes go off the rails in extending metaphors (Sorry!), I’d like to try. Thinking about multiculturalism at the interpersonal level and specifically committing to a common language, we can utilize that common language to help us navigate our journeys. If the conductor, the travelers, and the station maps, are all using shared language—our journeys will be all the more peaceful and powerful. At the interpersonal level, we will feel more connected, understood, and respected.

We’ll have the opportunity to dig in more to these guidelines together at September 28th’s General Meeting. Board Chair Gilian Calof and I will present the Strategic Plan and will take a deep dive into the rich diversity-related initiatives that live in Westland’s strategic plan, which brings us to the next level of change-oriented work.


The institutional level addresses the policies, practices, rules, procedures, and systems of a place. Schools can expect to be messy. When working with children, there are going to be misses—sometimes challenging ones. I know that many schools, including Westland, continue to heal from challenging and painful events that occur, whether intentional or unintentional. By having systems in place that allow a safety net that initiates a pre-existing process, follow-up can be even more timely, communication can be clear, and support can be as immediate as possible. It’s the institutional level where schools create what’s called bias incident reports; equitable, innovative hiring practices; gender inclusivity plans, and parent affinity group programs. It’s at the institutional level where schools shift from a financial aid model to a flexible tuition model, like we’ve proudly accomplished. Westland is poised to build off of previous work as well as excitedly begin new institutional-level initiatives:

  • Westland’s strategic plan, which will officially be unveiled at the September 28th General Meeting, includes two initiatives related to diversity, equity, and inclusivity. These specific goals will guide our ongoing work together.

  • The Diversity Leadership Team is a multi-year task force comprised of trustees, parents, teachers, and administrators. This group’s purpose is to help steer the strategic initiatives the school is embarking upon. Examples of their good work this year will include leading parent education programming as well as considering and documenting strategic hiring practices.

  • The Social Justice and Anti Bias Committee is comprised of a core group of teachers who are leading the curricular-related work for teachers, developing a developmentally appropriate scope and sequence categorized by four lenses: identity, diversity, justice, and action.


The fourth and final level, and perhaps the most enigmatic, is the Cultural Level, which refers to Westland’s “water” if you will—the unwritten rules, the stories we tell, our collective worldview as a community, our norms, what we define as beautiful or “right.” A fish doesn’t know it’s swimming in the water, the water just is. That’s the cultural level.

It’s important for us as a community to check our traditions and understand the intent and spirit behind them—and to explore some of the unintended consequences of our ways of being as a community. One example of this cultural level work is to ask ourselves, for example, “What are all the ways class and socioeconomic status show up at Westland?” We can engage in interesting, hard, and reflective dialogues. And while these types of conversations don’t always lead to massive change, they do invite conscious-raising. Being aware of the cultural level can invite schools to be more intentional about why they do what they do.

This cultural level section is the briefest one in my piece, because frankly, I’m acutely aware of the fact that I’m new to Westland. I want to be particularly sensitive to the work on this level, because it’s the cultural level that makes each school its own brand of unique. I want to live in and live into the culture of Westland before fully digging in to these types of nuanced conversations.

As I wrap up this piece, I’ve been thinking a lot about Tom Little’s research and travels to dozens of progressive schools across the country, which he documented in Loving Learning. Mr. Little gave us a gift in this book: a definition of progressive education. It is threefold:

  1. Progressive educators pay attention to the whole child

  2. They prepare young people to be active citizens

  3. Progressive educators demonstrate an ardent commitment to social justice

Right now is an exciting time for our school as we reinvigorate our ardent commitment to social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusivity in the context of our history as a progressive school, founded on these ideals. I am excited to lean into the work and face differences directly with you—so that our children’s education is a real world and as relevant as ever. And so that we, parents and educators alike, can guide them all along the way.

[1] Pulling a bit of a David Foster Wallace here—I hope that wasn’t too annoying. I just really think that quote deserves be read twice. There’s a lot of “there, there.”