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Looking Back at the First Year of the ARDEI Committee

1 December 2021

The Anti-Racism, Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee of the UWC International Board started with a spark: “It was one message on the alumni Facebook group in the wake of George Floyd’s murder that lit the fire,” Tamaisha recalled. From there, a grassroots movement was activated. Conversations around race at UWC lit up various alumni, student and staff messaging boards, a community UWC Unlocked Talk was organised to provide a face-to-face space for these conversations, and the issue of racism was brought to the top of the agenda of the June 2020 UWC International Board Meeting. It was at this meeting that the beginnings of the ARDEI Committee were formalised with a think tank that would later become the UWC Anti-Racism, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee that we know today.

The ARDEI Committee aims to be a voice for the concerns of UWC community members when it comes to issues related to anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion. It is there to support UWC entities, including UWC schools and colleges, UWC national committees and UWC short courses to appropriately respond to and act on these issues. In this interview, Maria Ines Kavamura (UWC alumna, UWC International Board Member and Co-Chair of the ARDEI Committee), Rod Jemison (Head of UWC ISAK Japan, Vice-Chair of the UWC International Council and Co-Chair of the ARDEI Committee) and Tamaisha Eytle (UWC alumna and member of the ARDEI Committee) reflect on the first year of the ARDEI Committee’s operations, since the committee was formalised with its 14 members in February 2021. 

The way I see it”, started Rod, “this is a recommitment to what we initially started at UWC. Intentional diversity has always been at the heart of what we do. The killing of George Floyd made us reflect, recalculate, reassess: to get back to the core of why we’re here and what this movement is all about. There are no educational institutions that prioritise diversity the way we do. But we need to do better in terms of making sure that every group represented on UWC campuses feels safe and included in the same way.

Ines agreed: “I recently read ‘Schools Against Frontiers’, a book on the history of the UWC movement. It was fascinating to see how the questions we asked ourselves then are the same as the questions we are asking ourselves now. So, we’re not reinventing the wheel, we’re confirming what UWC was created for.”

For Tamaisha, the fact that the core UWC values have already laid the foundation for the work the committee aims to do means that they are going into this work with a very different mindset than that of many other organisations: “A lot of organisations go into this kind of work with fear, we’re going in with trust. We trust that things will change for the better, because we all want them to and the values we are foregrounding have been there since the founding of UWC.

This trust in the willingness of the community to help make the work of the ARDEI Committee a success was confirmed very quickly: “It was an eye-opening moment to see the sheer number of community members who applied to join the committee in such a short space of time. Some had already been involved with UWC in various ways since graduating, but many had not. From among these applicants we were able to select 14 individuals who brought the diversity of backgrounds, expertise and skill sets that this work needed.

Of course, working with such a large and diverse group is not always straightforward, as Ines continued: “Even just working out how to meet across 13 timezones was a challenge. Then there were the different fields and perspectives that the group brought to the table. And there was the huge amount of work we all wanted to get done! So we started by establishing a list of priority areas that then formed the basis of work for 4 working groups within the committee: establishing the core values for the group; communication; resource curation; and scoping out the different campus environments. These working groups meet regularly and then feed back to the wider group at our fortnightly meetings.

When asked whether there was any discussion around which areas of ARDEI to prioritise first - whether that’s LGBQTIA+ support, race relations or any other aspect of the expansive and important issues that come under the ARDEI umbrella - Tamaisha made an important point: “This was a huge evolution in my understanding too, but it’s not about having a checklist of issues we need to tackle. It’s about people’s experiences as a whole. It’s about intersectionality. The underlying theme for our work in every area is looking at which voices are not being sufficiently heard, and creating safe spaces to make sure that those voices are heard in future.

The fact that much of the work of the ARDEI Committee will be focused on bringing about cultural shifts was another important theme for our conversation. It is also one of the key areas that makes it challenging for the group to quantify their impact and to communicate that impact to the wider UWC community. As Rod shared: “One of the things I underestimated coming into this was the lack of immediate gratification. How do we show the progress we’ve made when most of it cannot be identified through data? Much of our progress will be defined by the experiences and feelings of UWC community members, how do you quantify that? First, we need to put time and effort into creating a solid base that runs through our group and across the entire UWC movement with a common understanding that becoming a truly anti-racist, diverse, equitable and inclusive organisation means daily work for each and every one of us - not just for those of us who cannot step away from issues like racism when we choose to. It’s emotional work, but results can only arise once this groundwork has been done.

That being said, there have already been some notable shifts that the group has observed and helped bring about over the last year: “For example,” started Ines “it’s great that every school is now creating its own group to work on ARDEI issues. It’s a huge achievement and we look forward to working with these contacts at every school over the next year, to share resources with them and support them in their work. This year has also been very important in order to build up that contact and trust between our group’s members and the Heads and Chairs of each of the schools. It has opened up far more avenues for dialogue in this area and has also hopefully resulted in our group being seen as a line they can reach out to when they want advice, support or inspiration.” 

Looking ahead at the work the committee aims to do in 2022, and what success would look like to them, Ines, Tamaisha and Rod agreed that their ultimate aim was for ARDEI work at UWC not to start and end with the Committee. Instead, ARDEI should become central to the work of each UWC entity, and the ARDEI Committee should be seen as more of a support system to help those entities in their work. “What I want”, shared Rod, “is for everyone to be doing this work in a natural, authentic way without it seeming like an additional burden or without even needing to think about it. That’s how we will know that our work has been effective.

The group also shared that they were looking forward to starting to share the resources they have developed in terms of trainings with the schools. They also shared their hopes to work more closely with UWC national committees in future: “Our first priority right now is to focus on the experience of students. That’s how people come into our community, so it is vital that they all feel safe, valued and respected. These students will then grow into a generation that can champion the ARDEI values as alumni. For now, we feel we can be most impactful in working directly with the schools in this regard (also because there are 18 of them, and almost 160 national committees!). As you can imagine, our list is long, but we look forward to working with national committees more closely in future and taking advantage of the NC members within our committee for that.

On this point, Rod also added that it was important for the work of the ARDEI Committee to be seen from a UWC movement-wide perspective, rather than from the perspective of UWC’s different entities: “We keep reminding ourselves that we’re trying to move the entire community forward, rather than me falling into the trap as a Head to focus solely on the schools’ perspective, or for Ines as an alum and parent to focus too heavily on those perspectives. If you’re not careful, this kind of work can be limited in terms of its impact. We try to always keep the larger picture and the larger mission in mind. We’re not thinking in siloes, we’re thinking about the movement.

The final key theme we touched on during our conversation was the untapped potential among UWC’s alumni community that the ARDEI Committee has unlocked once more. As Tamaisha started, “It showed us for the first time in a while that there are so many alumni out there that want to be engaged with the hard questions involved in further building this movement into what we want it to be. The objective perspective these individuals bring to the group, as community members who have not been involved in UWC governance in the past, has been truly transformative for our group in helping us to reimagine the status quo. I believe that it can be transformative for other areas of UWC governance too.

Rod continued in this vein, reflecting once more on the origins of the ARDEI Committee: “These individuals came together because they saw a cause and purpose. They didn’t wait to be called upon nor did they sit around complaining. They acted and their response meant that our committee was formalised in an authentic way. And isn’t that what UWC is all about? Seeing an issue, and acting on it. I think that ought to be celebrated when we reflect on this first year of the ARDEI Committee.”