The team at Next Ed Research embarked on a 9 month journey to uncover what a truly equitable and inclusive school program looks like in a time of non binary gender identification. Our client, Sisu Academy, a tuition-free all girls boarding school is making strides to understand how to create inclusion in a program that is labeled as “all girls”. We began asking ourselves, What is the spectrum of identifying as female? What does this mean? How can we create a safe environment where students can thrive? This conversation is crucial to self awareness, self inquiry and self knowledge and at a program such as Sisu Academy, this is a central component of student success.
From our research and speaking with the community advocates, it’s clear that the intention is crucial. Inclusion is a purposeful practice that can feel chaotic. We are now embracing the discomfort in the chaos because it fuels growth, understanding, and builds bridges. In working with students who come from traditionally marginalized populations it’s impossible for one to know it all. One needs to assume nothing first, then listen to understand.
During the journey we met with trans activist Rowan Hepps Kenney (They, Them, Their). They have given us a lot of vital information to our project and will be teaching Sisu Academy students about inclusion and the LGBTQ community in a 2 hour class this November. We have also met with activist Kathie Moehlig (She, Her, Hers) founder of the Trans Family Support Services who told us the journey would not be easy, but there are many steps we can take to be more inclusive such as reaching out to LGBTQ centers and showing our support. From her we learned our inclusion policy would not happen overnight, but we are taking steps in the right direction. Lastly we met with Bek Serna (He, Him, His) the Gender Advocacy Project Coordinator for the North County LGBTQ Resource Center. His story helped us learn about what our students may be going through and how we can help them with any questions or concerns they may have.
What was uncovered are various resources. We discovered a guide titled “Schools in Transition” by the HRC which details how to support transgender students in K-12 schools. The guide is beneficial in showing Sisu Academy how to address issues specific to transgender youth such as chosen names; pronouns; confidentiality; and harrasment or bullying. It has also shown us how important it is to have a guide that answers all the questions Sisu Academy’s staff and students may have while attending their school. Our Trans Truth is a research intervention, education and policy initiative. It has informed our decision to educate our students in health and mental health risks that LGBTQ youth face.
We still have a lot of learning to do, but we’ve decided on three important changes for our program.
1. Use of Pronouns in all staff Email Signatures
2. Language around marketing material and website
Gender neutral language is important to our cause and we have decided to scrub our website and marketing materials of all gendered language. We realize this may take some time, but it is important for those visiting our site that they know they are visiting a safe space that supports them. When a student comes to our site they may notice how we use gender neutral terms such as they and them and feel comforted by these facts. We want to refer students from all backgrounds to Sisu Academy and this is a big step in making sure they get those students.
3. Equity and Inclusion Policy
“Next Ed Research is dedicated to unbiased educational research while providing an inclusive and informative experience to all students, staff, readers, and volunteers. We believe that our non-profit should engage with the individual needs and abilities of each individual we interact with in order to ensure the emotional and physical growth of all students. We encourage conversations around identity, equity, equality and privilege in order to combat discrimination in any form, including, but not limited to: biological sex, perceived race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic affiliation, physical and mental health, age, economic status, or national origin. It is our hope to have a diverse representation within our non-profit so we will be able to effectively foster all talent and promote a community of emboldened leaders.”
We’ve recommended to Sisu, in addition to the three action steps above, full competency development for staff and students around equity and inclusion with a special emphasis on inclusion around sexual identification. This not only meets a Health and Wellness competency of the program but provides the most current thinking and conversation around talking about sex in an era of non binary identification.
Information and education is important so we can’t stop talking about how our perceptions change and use language that accurately depicts those changes. This is why we’ve invited school inclusion experts we’ve met along the way to present to our students and staff. In the coming weeks we will have Rowan Hepps Keeney present to Sisu Academy students and Max Disposti will present to Sisu Academy staff and teachers. Rowan Hepps Kenney is a performer, educator, and activist with extensive experience is a trans advocate and public speaker. Rowan has worked with a diverse array of communities on this topic from a high school nurses’ association, religious groups, immigration law firms, and has worked with college and high school administrators, as well as students across the country. They have also been published as a primary author and interviewed discussing their expertise on LGBT issues in renowned publications such as: Seventeen Magazine, them.us, MTV, GLAAD, News Week, Columbia Spectator, and others.
In embarking on this project, we’re proud of the work we’ve done while also navigating the chaos of it all. Building bridges and inclusion doesn’t happen overnight, in a week or a month even. It’s taken us 9 months to build bridges so we can listen and understand. As we make recommendations for Sisu Academy, the transformation of how we operate and speak and communicate happens first with Next Ed Research so we can feel confident and comfortable living those same experiences and changes we recommend to our clients.
Written By – Becky LeBret – Executive Director & Jonathan Jimenez – Research Associate