A Letter to the Community from the Office of Equity and Justice

Dear Duke School Community, 

I am using Lisa’s weekly parent communication slot to send a message from the Office of Equity and Justice.

Three years ago a team of Duke School parents, faculty, staff, and board members created FIRE, Duke School’s Strategic Plan, focused on Future orientation, Innovative approaches and students, Results that are impactful, and Equity and justice. Within the equity and justice focus, three strategies were outlined (see the box below). In August of 2019, Duke School's leadership announced my appointment as the new director of equity and justice, whose responsibility is to guide the implementation of these strategies and to embed an equity and social justice lens into all the work we do.

  • Strategy 1: Duke School recognizes that some barriers to becoming more diverse, equitable and just may be systemic, unconscious, or cultural and thus difficult for members of the Duke School community to recognize and change. Duke School will work to identify and change those systemic barriers. 

  • Strategy 2: For Duke School to create an equitable and just culture, employees, board members and parents should have a deep understanding of systemic racism. Hence, Duke School will require that all members of the board and all employees attend racial and equity training and will offer training to all parents who wish to participate.

  • Strategy 3: For Duke School to be truly just and equitable, it must meet the needs of a wider socioeconomic spectrum. Hence, Duke School will commit to extending its socioeconomic reach through expanded summer programming and working with teachers who teach a wide socioeconomic range of students. The school will determine how or if it can meet the needs of a wide range of socioeconomically diverse students in its core academic year program.

Recently, we have found ourselves in a global pandemic that has amplified social, political, and economic disparities around us. Nearly four months ago, the murder of 46-year-old George Floyd by a white police officer in the middle of a Minneapolis street sparked outrage across the country and the world. Daily protests emerged, first in Minneapolis and then quickly in all fifty states and in over fifty countries around the world. There are estimates that upwards of 15 million people took part in protests in the U.S. during the month of June alone. Summer 2020 saw calls to break the cycles of white supremacy in all forms and areas of society, calls for institutions and individuals to look at themselves deeply and honestly, and calls to change many of our laws, policies, and practices that reinforce the conditions of injustice. 

We find ourselves in a time of transformation. 

While Duke School educators have been in the process of reimagining school for this fall, we also find ourselves in a moment of opportunity that calls us to reimagine how we talk, teach, and learn about race and racism as well. In July, I led an optional four-week class called the Race and Racism Study and Reflection Program for faculty and staff. This allowed us to dive deeper into the work outlined in FIRE’s equity and justice strategy 2. Ten faculty and staff participated (on top of engaging in distance learning progressional development that all faculty completed!). We looked at the labor exploitation and cultivation of wealth that is at the foundation of this nation, racism as a visceral experience, racism across borders, and race in the context of education. Participants examined their own experiences of race, privilege, and marginalization, and considered how they would bring their reflections into their curriculum and pedagogy this fall. Included in this letter are some of the faculty and staff participants’ reflections on their experience of the program.

My work draws on years of work of those before me—faculty, staff, parents, and students—who implemented initial reform measures through changes in the things we do, think, and say. I am proud to say that at Duke School we have a faculty which is committed to bringing our values of diversity, equity, and social justice into the classroom. Our educators do this in big and small ways. Over the course of the current school year, I will have an opportunity to share with you in monthly communications about some of the ways we are thinking about our equity and justice values, practices, and initiatives, and to highlight some of the excellent work of our faculty, staff, and students in this regard.

These efforts have gained new urgency and relevance. Living social justice is a daily practice, one that calls us to listen both to others and to ourselves. I invite every one of us to do this with one another in community this year—even through distance—and as we do so, to center the needs of our children—young people who will one day lead us and our world.


Emily Chávez

Director of Equity and Justice

“The most important topics we discussed, in my opinion, were the opinions of black women when it comes to how they feel they are perceived in everyday life - as well as being truthful to any child (no matter their ethnicity) about the history of race relations and how it still affects lives today.

The positive note to take from the program is that we can always learn more, even BIPOC. I also feel that there are more people who know less about race and racism than those who are already educated on the topics and the many variables that connect them. I believe that as many ethnic groups as possible should be open to safe, honest conversations about the current state of our nation and its future.”

~ Philip Daniels, Third Grade Level Support Staff

“I feel the impacts of our study group in large and small ways. 

One small way is that I am more intentional about singling out works by authors and characters of color to highlight in library lessons. For example, in recording videos about how to use library catalog, a presumably race neutral topic, I picked From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks. Four kids put it on hold right away!

I’m especially in tune to middle grade and YA books that, in an age appropriate way, dig into complex ideas of power and race, structural racism, race and body, intergenerational wealth, legacy of slavery, and more. There’s much more being published for students and I appreciate more greatly how important it is to make these books available for all students.

Emily clearly articulated the idea that white supremacy thrives when not seen. Books are one tool that help uncover this for students in a powerful, meaningful way.”

~ Lisa Simmons, Middle School Media Specialist

“I really appreciated having space to dig into the content Emily provided with colleagues. Working with such smart people creates an incredibly vibrant work environment, but we don’t always have space to get personal about our experiences with race and racism. I liked how Emily took academic readings about race and asked us to connect with them on a personal level. Doing this kind of deep thinking and personal reflection, and having practice talking about issues of race and racism in a multi-racial space with colleagues, makes me feel more comfortable and equipped to talk about relevant issues with students.”

~ Rachel Wertheimer, Middle School Counselor

“During these poignant racial justice conversations, I learned an incredible amount about both history and current events. It was powerful to process our thoughts and reactions together in a supportive group setting. By doing so, I was able to consider new perspectives. I especially appreciated learning more about implicit bias so that I can examine the ways that they show up in my own thinking and work to interrupt this poisonous cultural conditioning.”

~ Mary Beth Hes, Third Grade Teacher

“While I'm unable to pinpoint any particular reading or video as being more meaningful or salient than another, it is quite clear to me in reflection, that all of them, combined with our frank, open, and respectful conversations, have impacted me both as a person in our society, and as a teacher of young children. While I certainly don't want to overestimate the largeness of my place in my students’ lives, I do know that the choices I make as their teacher have an impact, and on some level convey importance to them—including the books I read and the characters in them, the emotions and behaviors I acknowledge, the tone, environment, and sense of community that I foster—they are all so very important and meaningful. I know that our study group has increased my awareness and attention to the incredible importance of creating a just, equitable, and truly caring environment for all.

My learning continues…”

~ Maureen Dwyer, Preschool Teacher

“The Race & Racism work felt so important this summer. It always does, and in the midst of a pandemic and the killings of so many Black folks, I was especially thankful for the opportunity to push my thinking, personally and professionally. Emily selected a variety of academic readings, and they challenged me in new ways. She pushed us to connect the material to our own personal experiences, and at times that caused discomfort —the kind of discomfort that is necessary for growth and action. I learned a lot about the history of racism and slavery in other parts of the world and critical race theory. More generally, the material and discussion provided a window into perspectives other than my own as a white woman. As I reexamine my curriculum for this year, the ideas of decentering whiteness, moving beyond allyship, and decolonizing the curriculum are ones that have stayed with me.” 

~ Annie Gentithes, Fifth Grade Social Studies & Project Teacher

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