“By Faith and Courage”: Unmasking Anti-Black Racism at My Alma Mater

I vividly remember sitting in my office with two Black female colleagues, laughing and enjoying each other’s company during a brief break from the work day. A couple of times, I happened to glance to my right and found my former manager, the Director of Admissions and Enrollment, staring at us through her floor-to-ceiling glass wall. Our offices were just a few feet apart, and completely exposed. To avoid awkward interactions, I had learned to keep my gaze forward while working in my own glass office affectionately referred to as the “fishbowl.” But that day, I felt the heat of her stare on the right side of my cheek, and we locked eyes each time I happened to turn my head. A few minutes into my conversation with my friends, my manager rushed over to my office, opened the door, and slithered in just to stare at us. Literally, she just stared. This uncomfortable interruption brought our conversation to a stop because my office was no longer a safe space, shattered without even a knock. She was uncomfortable with the sight of Black women enjoying each other's company. I found myself wondering, did she feel threatened or offended that she was not included? Did she have a right to be? Her behavior served as a representation of the many ways in which white supremacy shows up at moments when you least expect it - this insidious and entitled sense of a “right to comfort” as outlined by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun in Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups. Her desire to be seen continued throughout my employment, threatening and tacitly but strongly questioning the validity of my work and even my existence as a valued team member. It is one of the reasons I no longer recommend The Hewitt School as a safe community for any Black girl or woman.

I returned to The Hewitt School, my alma mater, to work in admissions from 2015-2018. I often reflect on how I was treated as an employee because I had a considerably more positive experience as a student. As an employee, I felt tokenized and erased from all impactful conversations by my former manager. As an alum of Prep for Prep, I take my career development extremely seriously, and when I sought guidance and development from my manager, she never took an interest in supporting my professional growth. I grew extremely affected by this void because as a student, I was poured into and had advocates who amplified my voice. I also felt as though I was simply wasting time because I was not growing, and as time passed I gradually recognized all the microaggressions that were regularly inflicted on me. I remember feeling physically sick and having a different kind of ‘Sunday scaries’ as early as Friday evening. When I attempted to address my concerns with the Head of School (HOS), I was ignored or made to feel insignificant. They both relied on the popular angry Black woman trope that lends itself to the historically challenging (work) relationship between Black and white women. Hewitt almost broke my spirit, and I have been resisting the natural urge to write about my experience because I needed to find my voice again since my sudden resignation in August 2018. By then, I had been traumatized, and I found it difficult to interact with white women in professional and social settings for some time after leaving. However, I live vicariously through Zora Neale Hurston’s words, “If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.” So, I am sharing my story with you today because of three reasons: 1) This is my truth, 2) I am an educational consultant who, admittedly, struggles with being a supporter of independent schools, and, 3) As a consultant, it is important for my clients to understand that I will never misrepresent a school community for the sake of a dollar. My experience as a Black woman who has battled being heard underscores why I want to be an advocate for families who deserve the unique benefits of an independent school education.

I returned to my alma mater the same summer the current Head of School began her tenure. She approached me a couple of times to proclaim, very enthusiastically, her excitement about my return. She also mentioned her plan to meet one-on-one with all employees for input and to solicit feedback. My anticipated meeting never took place, neither did a meeting she proposed with a Latina alumna who had also returned to work at the school. Each of our respective appointments were rescheduled on multiple occasions and, were ultimately, cancelled. This experience set the tone for my interactions with my manager and Head of School for the next three years. I always felt like I had to be on my guard, without the trust and support I needed from the school leadership.

I was excited to begin my first year at Hewitt as an employee. New to admissions, I was also eager to apply my previous work experience (Insurance and HR) to a career in education and develop a new skill set throughout the process. While Hewitt’s middle school admission numbers were stable, its Upper School yield (the number of accepted families that enrolled) and attrition (the number of returning families) were both alarming. This discovery helped me comprehend the severity and cause of Hewitt’s lackluster reputation. As I juxtaposed that reality with my manager’s inability to build interest in Hewitt, I began to see how her lack of innovation and motivation, the sine qua non purpose of admissions, contributed to the school’s deficiencies. On the morning of the Upper School admission reply deadline, the Head of School sauntered into my office to ask me whether we would hit our goals. In full transparency, I said “no,” providing her with additional insight into the process and an explanation of my response. She suggested I write a post-mortem, recommending that I submit the document first to my manager, who would then forward it to her. Before leaving my office, she paused to emphasize how much she was looking forward to reading it. So, I took this task seriously and enthusiastically wrote the report - I even sought advice from colleagues in the math department who agreed to double-check my numbers. At the request of the HOS, I nervously shared with my manager the nearly 20-page report-- filled with data, graphs, and other relevant information about the current season that could have informed our strategy for the following fall. To my disappointment, my manager never shared the report with the HOS. Moreover, each time I attempted to bring it up with her, she evaded the conversation, replying disingenuously “Yeah, it was great. We should talk about it,” with no real intention of following up with me. While my instincts told me to share this report with the HOS directly, I remembered that she was a big proponent of school hierarchy. She would have interpreted this email as unprofessional, as though I had gone over my manager’s head. I learned this lesson the hard way, as the Head of School perpetually cc’d my manager whenever I did happen to email her about something I thought was worth sharing. This behavior confused me until I finally caught on and felt like I had been intentionally thwarted - cut off and chastised.

Very early on, another challenge presented itself - I suddenly became an unofficial counselor for upper school Black and brown students who sought me out as one of the only visible Black staff members to whom they had access. This happens to many administrators of color in independent schools, and it feels overwhelming. I connected with white students as well. The girls appreciated my “tough love,” often soliciting feedback/guidance. I often had to ask them to leave--otherwise I would have never been able to get any of my work done. My glass office was in a very visible, central location off the main lobby, so almost everyone had to pass me to get to the classroom floors. Was I on display? The girls would often crowd my office, sitting wherever they could find a space - I loved it, but I didn’t know how to support everyone. It also became mentally and emotionally taxing because I found their stories and experiences to be triggering. It seemed like the school culture was worsening since my time as a student there. I expressed my concerns, was given a nod, and later asked to become an advisor for the 9th grade. I declined.

In my second year, I came back from summer break re-energized and with a clearer vision of things I needed to do to make both middle and upper school admissions successful. The goal was to expand the upper school. So I kept my head down thinking of creative ways to recruit families, connect with feeder schools, and spearhead innovative events. By the end of the admissions season, I had garnered the highest enrollment in the school’s history. I asked for my role to be increased from 10 to 12 months to use the summer months to plan for the fall, a raise, and a title adjustment. During this same conversation, I asked to be promoted from Assistant to Associate Director of MS and US Admissions. My manager’s response to me was that I “stumbled into” my role and “needed to put in work.” To be clear, lower school was her wheelhouse, so it was dramatically evident that my request threatened her. I repeated that I was not interested in a title that reflected K-12 admissions and, suddenly, her tone changed. She told me I was “so deserving” and that she would speak to the HOS about it, but she wasn’t too sure. The tension in the room was palpable. I felt disrespected, especially because Black women do not stumble into much of anything. I also went through a formal interview process for the role. I know my former manager would never say something like this to a white woman. She undermined and negated the hard work that I put into my education, prior work experience and achieving a noticeable feat in increasing enrollment. I followed up about a week or so later to ask for an update and she responded indicating that it was not in the budget - maybe next year.

Approaching my final year at Hewitt, I really wanted a clear growth plan. I was confident in my work and the transferable skills I brought to the job, but I wanted more direct admissions-related training. I tried to put myself out there by asking for more exposure because my manager never elevated me or really anyone on the team for that matter. In speaking with many admissions colleagues, many directors ask the person who is responsible for a specific division to present at board meetings. Instead, she told me "It was too formal, so it wasn't necessary." She was committed to keeping me stagnant. Teaching me and elevating my voice were never options. When I asked to see the board presentations just for my own knowledge, she avoided showing them to me. I had to ask at least five times and, even then, when she did provide a copy, she printed it out and did not email it to me. Everything was always a big secret with her. The presentations that faculty/staff saw during staff meetings was the first time the admissions team saw them as well. Had she shared them with us, we would have been able to correct some of the graphs she included that faculty members from the math department always managed to tell me were incorrect mathematically. Her lack of transparency frequently left me feeling stifled. For the first two years, I never had 1:1s (or team meetings) with my manager. How does an institution like Hewitt proclaim its commitment to equity but have no formal review processes in place? Where were checks and balances to prevent things like this from happening and ensure the development of faculty/staff members of color?

My manager often ignored my ideas and emails. She delayed professional development requests to the point where an admissions conference was already at capacity or I had missed the early bird pricing because of her lack of follow-up that I could not circumvent due to professional development approval protocol at Hewitt. This felt much more than a desire to be in control and more like deliberate neglect of me as a Black woman and not wanting me to do well or learn more. The only conference she did register for promptly was an annual gathering sponsored by a regional consortium. This conference is known to be a gross display of how predominately white the admissions field is and most admissions officers are too busy going on a hike or getting a massage to attend the necessary workshops. Anything I tried to do to inform my work was hindered--she even denied approval on the end of year admissions survey that I revised and requested permission to send. Surveys are a crucial source of information because families who declined your acceptance share reasons on why they chose another school. She did, however, make sure that the lower school survey was sent. She also became extremely anxious around events. We would painstakingly discuss event details and logistics in advance, but at the events she would become frenzied and cause mass confusion as if we had not effectively planned ahead of time. My last year, during upper school revisit day, she completely hijacked the parent discussion with the Head of School. The HOS was upset, failing to realize that the event didn't go as planned because of my manager’s hubris and compulsive need to be seen. I felt sabotaged and, again, ignored.

My manager’s blatant lack of concern for an equitable and inclusive process became apparent in a few scenarios. In a joint communications and admissions meeting, I asked for the website to be translated into different languages. My manager said it wasn't necessary because we had only one student entering the 5th grade whose primary language was Mandarin. "Oh, it’s fine!" she gestured lightly, brushing off my concern. Her flippancy was exhausting. I have seen her ignore and mishandle families applying for financial aid, and refuse to follow through with maintaining relationships with organizations like A Better Chance, which she would repeatedly say she spoke to with an update but failed to actually follow up. I would receive a phone call from the contact asking for just that—an update! She did not care. The only energy she exerted for Black and brown students receiving financial aid was when she was trying to hit her kindergarten enrollment numbers. It is no secret that Black and brown students exist in spaces like Hewitt that were not initially designed for us, so advocacy is key and what helps these programs thrive. Many families in fact depend on these programs. I asked to discuss the possibility of one day interviewing a family with a trans child - nobody cared. When this happens, the admissions department will be unprepared. I was extremely disillusioned by Hewitt because of interactions with my manager and Head of School and hated having to sell a school that employed people who were not interested in advocacy.

At the end of my second year, I met with my manager and Head of School to discuss my growth/career path for my third year. I originally requested only to meet with the Head of School, but then she invited my manager. The meeting started off with the Head of School shifting my seating so that I was no longer sitting in between the two of them but instead across. Research shows that sitting across from someone creates an oppositional feeling. She positioned us saying I should sit across from them so that I didn’t have to look back and forth - it made no sense and felt very intimidating - two against one. I made a mental note, but carried on presenting an unbothered affect. The Head of School questioned me about my strengths, which I was able to discuss at ease, and asked what I needed so that I could feel that I was growing professionally. My answer to this was “hard skills and understanding how predictions/class sizes were determined” In response, my manager stated that there was ”no science to the role'' and I just “had to figure it out.” Which was it? Despite making it abundantly clear that my manager was not teaching me any tangible skill set, I was and had been gaslighted, sidestepped, and used as a scapegoat for their failure as managers by mentioning my attitude, but more specifically questioning my mental health. During that meeting, my manager cosigned the Head of School’s suggestion for me to consult with a former HR Manager, for resources to "speak with someone" if necessary. Collectively, they called me the angry Black woman without having to say it at all. There were a million rebuttals presented in response instead of reflecting on why my “anger” was warranted.

The final straw for me was when my manager came to my office to share that a current kindergarten teacher who had done some part-time admissions work for the office, was likely going to be joining the team full-time. Her exact words were, “We need to keep” this teacher. Her joining the team would not impact my middle and upper school admissions efforts, but I grew more frustrated with my manager when this new team member was awarded the title of Associate Director of Lower School Admissions. On the night of a new parent welcome event, she was also given a name tag that read “Associate Director of Admissions” before the promotion even took effect. The team had barely been briefed on her official role change. Imagine my walking into an event to see her name tag with a higher title for which I had to literally prove myself worthy. Ironically, that same year I was given my promotion, but by then it felt slimy and backhanded. I recall sitting down to discuss my promotion with her where she suggested a salary and ultimately came back with a lower number. It was evident she hadn’t discussed it with the HOS or CFO before discussing it with me, so that felt like another slap in the face. The emotion I was feeling was not a figment of my imagination or irrational, because my new team member recognized her privilege, pulling me aside at least twice very apologetic about how everything had happened.

There was a constant theme of erasure that occurred during my employment at Hewitt. The leadership touts DEI work as a priority but continues to create conditions that maintain certain groups as the perpetual majority. Many of my white colleagues saw how my manager treated me and would come to my office, close the door, and whisper about it. Perhaps, they felt it was a way to stand in solidarity with me. But, their public silence hurt more. I did not need that then and will not accept it now. That same silence is what has hurt every Black woman after me because silence is the willingness to remain complicit. It is collusion. This choice to neither say or do anything publicly is what kept me from joining happy hour invitations - we didn't need to force a false sense of camaraderie that is typical of white women in the workplace when it comes to Black women. I wanted to say, “Did you know had you utilized your power, your white supremacy, that you likely would never have been fired because that is the privilege your whiteness affords you? You would not be labeled “angry” or “aggressive,” and life would have continued as normal.” As a Black woman, I was penalized because I confidently asked for more, but nothing more than I had worked for and deserved. But I’ve realized that my questions revealed my manager’s inadequacies and, therefore, the Head of School’s inability to acknowledge her shortcomings while my manager served as a member of the senior leadership team. Because I did not smile on demand and expose my life details to my manager, doing my job was not good enough. Black women cannot be quiet people or even not self-promoting in professional settings. I was expected to constantly smile, make small talk when there was no need for it. I was tired of feeling forced to go out of my way to show I was not angry or that I wasn't “having a bad day” and so I just stopped caring. I focused on self-care and continued to do my job well, but I spoke to people who got it. By the end, it was already assumed that I had an attitude and I was overlooked and ignored. . . so, I chose to leave.

Imagine how differently Hewitt could have been positioned in the independent school world had they not been so comfortable upholding the privileges of whiteness and relishing in being so mediocre. How different things would be if the current leadership listened to Black and brown students and employees? How proud we all would have been for Hewitt to finally lead the pack in something, something so important! In the past few weeks, the school has released an anti-racism plan posted on their website - a plan that I do not confidently believe in because I’ve seen the same behaviors of silencing, censure, and gaslighting in action against students and alums who have tried to engage with the school. My heart cringes at the thought of who will be chosen to serve on this task force and committee that has contributed to anti-Blackness and been harmful to Black and brown bodies. The current Head of School will be leading that effort and Hewitt through its centennial with a new mission statement: “To inspire girls and young women to become game changers and ethical leaders who forge an equitable, sustainable, and joyous future.” Who is modeling this for them? I truly believe that Black Lives Matter has turned into a marketing scheme for schools like Hewitt. The leadership team has not done enough personal self-reflection or active anti-racist work necessary to confront the school’s institutionalized racism. Dear Hewitt Leadership Team, have your egos or belief systems been shattered yet? It’s way overdue.

2,566 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All