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Derrick Gay Teaches Parker How to Lead

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On September 20, goosebumps rose on the bare arms of students still enjoying the last bit of summer heat as air conditioning blasted through the auditorium. Freshmen and sophomores filed through the doors one by one and in clumps, confused as to why they were not gathering at the cat boxes or assembling in the small cafe for grade room. As students slowly assumed their seats, exchanging glances across the aisles, Assistant Principal Ruth Jurgensen took the stage next to Dr. Derrick Gay.

Gay graduated from Chicago’s Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, followed by diplomas from Oberlin College, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and Columbia University. A specialist in the realms of education, art, and philanthropy, and dedicated to issues of diversity, inclusion, and global citizenship, Gay has spent considerable time collaborating with schools and teaching students around the world how to become leaders.  He asks for more than “diversity”–he asks for communities to embrace empathy, cultivate inclusion, and espouse cultural competency.

In the workshop, titled “Will YOU Be Ready for Success in the 21st Century?,” Gay discussed globalization as a main topic, focusing upon the shifting demographics in the United States. He highlighted the need to collaborate and communicate when you encounter differences in perspective, and led students on an “interactive journey to enrich their cultural competency.”

Gay addressed misconceptions of race, language, and “minorities” through interactive quizzes. He began by presenting students with a question, and asked the students to raise their hand according to the answer they thought was correct. Questions started off elementary, but as they slowly grew in difficulty, students began excitedly jumping up in their seats, and patting themselves on the back when they answered correctly. “I think Dr. Gay did a really nice job engaging his audience,” sophomore Jenna Ehrhart said, “because the topic was something that could have been presented in a lecture-type way, but I thought he made it much more interesting and exciting by making his workshop very interactive.”

This conversation quickly streamlined into a discussion of individual identity. Gay asked the students to ponder the question, “Who are you?”

Students then wrote 15-characteristics of their identity on small, white index cards. Each individual then turned to their partner to share those characteristics. In most cases, an individual’s partner was someone that person felt very comfortable with, but just as students thought the activity was coming to an end, Gay told students to switch partners and discuss the same question with someone in a different grade. The dynamics changed dramatically.

Gay then asked, “How was sharing influenced by your understanding of your partner’s identity?” He helped 9th and 10th graders to understand this phenomenon by explaining the power dynamics of identity. According to Gay, there are parts of us that we are proud of, but that we internalize because those parts are not valued by our society.  This brought him to the topic of inclusivity.

Gay defines “inclusivity” as each individual’s sense of belonging within the collective, and their capacity to incorporate cultural competency and diversity into their everyday life.

Gay expands his own cultural competency and globalization through extensive language study and travel. He is fluent in English, Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese, and has studied Latin, Korean, and German.

He has created a name for himself using distinctive pedagogies to effectively communicate with students, faculty, staff, parents, and administrators. Gay has partnered with many schools, working to facilitate parent meetings and workshops, oversee inclusivity activities, manage administrative teams through critical preparation, and presenting workshops to students of all ages.

In part by means of Gay’s active presence, Parker has continued its commitment to developing a school that celebrates diversity, equity, and inclusion. Gay is a living example of Parker’s trying to extending this philosophy into everyday practice at school. In the past year, he has met separately with the administration, faculty, board of trustees, and parents, conducting workshops, lectures, and discussions.

In each of his workshops, Gay asks participants to illustrate Parker’s growth in cultural competency and diversity. Parker, a prestigious private school in Chicago, provides students with not only an exceptional education, but a faculty and administration that is consistently placing an emphasis on inclusion.

In comparing the diversity, equity, and inclusion wherewithal among the faculty to that among the student body, however, DEI Coordinator Leslie Holland Pryor finds students in a way better off. “Students are more tuned in,” Holland Pryor said. “Faculty have more fear because it means they’re going to have to change. Students are in a headspace of changing, shifting and involving. It is incumbent for faculty to continue their own evolution and growth.”

While Parker has made strides in creating a more inclusive community, a number of students still do not feel like their voices are equally valued. “We can do better,” Holland Pryor said. “What we’re doing right is talking and reflecting–however, we’ve made mistakes. When mistakes are felt by one constituency, it trickles down until the entire community is impacted. We have to talk about these injuries.”

In past years, diversity has been challenging to maintain, and for that reason, as Holland Pryor sees it, we have reached out to Gay. “Dr. Gay has so much experience with this kind of work,” Holland Pryor said. “He has worked extensively with the independent school animal really well.

In order to adequately implement diversity, equity, and inclusion into our school, we must recognize the difference between diversity and inclusion, Gay suggests. Although our administration has worked hard to achieve a more “diverse” community, many members do not yet feel comfortably integrated, or truly included. “First, we have to be aware,” Holland Pryor said. “Students must be cognizant of the climate in the environment, and not all are. Some people do not believe this applies to them. The bigger challenge is to involve the people that don’t believe they should be involved.  Everybody’s involved.  Has to be. Or else nothing will change. We have to have skin in the game.”

The student news site of Francis W. Parker School
So you want to be an Includer?