Editor’s Notebook: The Hard Work of Diversity

Jeff TophamLeafing through an old scrapbook the other day, I came across a Courier-Journal article from November, 1982. “Kentucky Country Day pursues a new look,” the headline stated; the article that followed described the school’s efforts to recruit more “minority and middle class students.”

I found this article striking because it’s a snapshot of the moment when KCD, along with many other independent schools across the country, began to push back against the perception that it was there to serve only white, upper-income families.

That push was hardly unique to KCD. For the last 30 years, we—along with many other independent schools—have worked to diversify our student population and create a more thoughtful, welcoming, and inclusive school culture.

By any objective measure, that work has paid off. This fall, the Admissions Office reported that 33 percent of our families self-identified as families of color. If you think back to that 1982 Courier-Journal article, that’s a remarkable success story.

Those numbers only tell part of the story, though. Getting diverse students in the door is one thing; truly meeting their needs in a meaningful way is something else. A truly diverse community requires both dialogue and mutual respect. It means allowing students to affirm their own backgrounds and identities rather than expecting them to simply fit into the status quo. It’s an ongoing learning process that can be challenging and occasionally contentious. It can actually be hard work sometimes. Like many kinds of hard work, however, it’s well worth doing.
There are pragmatic arguments to make, of course. Learning to negotiate a diverse school environment is essential preparation for success in both college and career. Diversity can spur the development of critical thinking by helping students learn to view issues or problems from multiple points of view.

I think that the most important thing that diversity can offer our students is the realization that not everyone is like them; that there are people whose lived experience is different than their own. This is an invaluable opportunity for students to step outside their own lives and recognize that their culture, background, and experience is only one of many possible ways of living. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that this is one of the most enriching experiences people can enjoy. I also believe it’s the starting point for one of the most valuable skills of all: empathy.

Institutions that are committed to the hard work of diversity can occasionally find the process challenging. Members of our community can and will disagree, sometimes strenuously, but as long as there’s trust and mutual respect, we can all pull together to move the institution forward. We may be gay or straight, Christian or Muslim or Jew, black or white or brown. At the end of the day, we are all Bearcats.