During a conversation with students a few years ago, Social Studies Chair, Ricky Livoni and Kim Brown, 11th Grade History Teacher, discovered that there were certain aspects of Arizona School for the Arts that made students of color and other marginalized groups of students feel unsafe. Having worked together on projects such as the Black History Museum and Inclusivity Day, Mr. Livoni and Ms. Brown thought it would be advantageous to their coworkers at ASA to host a discussion about equity issues as they related to the school community.
During the discussion last year, 7th Grade Academic Team Leader and 7th-8th Grade Piano teacher, Aiko Mancini, brought a middle school and arts perspective to the discussion, “I honestly don’t remember when I had that ‘aha, this is vital work!’ moment — it’s been a long process of learning about my own positionality and the work I personally need to do to be anti-racist,” Ms. Mancini shared, “[I] felt very strongly that this work needed to be something that the whole staff at ASA needed to be doing, that we needed to be listening to our students and families of color, and that if I wanted this to happen, I needed to step up and get involved.”
From these initial discussions Mr. Livoni, Ms. Brown, and Ms. Mancini proposed a long-term professional development plan to the Senior Leadership Team and after several discussions, it was approved this past summer; the Equity Group was formalized. Many of the short and long-term goals of the Equity Group can be found in the Commitments to Equity that the ASA Board of Directors adopted during the same time frame as the group was founded, but the initial plans included these purpose statements:
- Foster faculty and school community awareness of where we contribute to inequity and fall short in building equity.
- Build a school culture that celebrates students, families, and staff of diverse backgrounds.
- Recognize how existing power structures have shaped the narratives of particular curricula and work to change those narratives to represent non-dominant perspectives.
- Increase demographic diversity in our student and faculty population.
As a group, they decided to avoid the trap of professional development lacking in goals that each had experienced teaching at other places. Ricky Livoni explains, “What we have wanted to do this year and in the future is build achievable goals in our classes, by building background knowledge, identifying areas for growth and consistently looking at data from the faculty to inform where the learning will go. We have also sought out outside consultants to look at our curriculum in order to judge its efficacy.” It can be a little daunting having conversations about equity and anti-racism with one’s co-workers especially if this is not something they have been previously thinking about. But Ms. Mancini says that this type of learning is a collective effort, “One of our staff norms in this work is to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and another is to accept feedback when harm is done.”
But how does all of this equity work for the staff filter down to the student level? The hope is that with the entire staff participating in equity training that all teachers will view their courses through “equity lenses” like Mr. Livoni, “From the assessments, I give to the topics of discussions I choose I always start with Equity and go from there.” Ms. Mancini is trying to look past the European Classical style that has traditionally defined the arts programs at ASA, “I’ve been doing a lot of reading and listening to music educators of color in the last few months. This year, I’m trying to de-center whiteness in the topics we explore in 7th and 8th grade piano, focusing less on the western European classical music tradition and more on music cultures that are generally don’t get a lot of attention in traditional music education. It’s a work in progress and I’m sure I’m making a lot of mistakes, but I’m definitely trying to act on my own learning!” While mistakes are part of striving, they can be uncomfortable; Aiko Mancini is leading by example, being comfortable with being uncomfortable.
In addition to their work with the Equity Group, Mr. Livoni and Ms. Brown started The Coalition. Despite an active Black Student Union and Gay-Straight Alliance, there were several groups of students who felt that their ethnicities and cultures were not being actively represented at ASA. Ms. Brown and Mr. Livoni found faculty advisors and the students took the lead; meeting once a month allows the various groups to lend support to one another. It is also a learning experience for Mr. Livoni, “In Coalition clubs, I learn stuff all of the time. We are working on a project now discussing the origins of names and the Asian Student Union presented some truly incredible information about the history and background of their names. All of these clubs just let me see the students in a different way that is less formal. It has allowed me to not only learn about the students but connect with their unique cultural backgrounds.”
It’s a circle of learning that can only make the Arizona School for the Arts community more cohesive and thereby stronger.