Trinity Episcopal School is called to inspire young lives by creating outstanding scholars who are grounded in a firm spiritual foundation and an enduring commitment to the richness of diversity.
Last year, Lindsey Peery, the Lower School Chaplain at Trinity Episcopal School, read the writings by Malcolm X for the first time. Peery learned about the readings through a course Trinity sponsored last summer for faculty and staff.
An ordained Presbyterian pastor, Peery describes the experience of learning more about the African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist as transformative, and she said she is grateful that Trinity encourages people to delve more deeply into understanding issues including racism, white supremacism and social injustice.
“It’s a common call to understand the world,” Peery said of the work at Trinity “and to be citizens in the world and to help it be a more equitable and just place for all people.”
An independent K-8 school based in uptown Charlotte, Trinity has focused on broadening the minds and hearts of its students, staff and faculty since it opened its doors in 2000. Embracing diversity is one of the school’s core values (the other two are creating scholars and nurturing spirituality) and is considered a bedrock of the school.
As awareness of and concern about social injustice grows, however, Trinity has been working to ensure its efforts to embrace and nurture diversity and inclusion grow alongside the community, such as by arranging for speakers and coursework and encouraging discussion and personal reflection. In response, faculty and staff say they are taking what they are learning and incorporating it into their daily lives.
“This work is important because that is how we make people feel they belong. We know how to talk to people, know how they want to be represented, what they want to be called,” says Tracy Onze, Head of Middle School. “The work has to be done to have everybody feel like they belong in each community.
Focused on understanding from the beginning
For Trinity, embracing diversity goes beyond celebrating differences; it describes a way of living that touches all aspects of campus life.
Trinity leaders chose uptown Charlotte for their home in part because they wanted their surrounding community to demographically represent Charlotte and they wanted to be near the organizations and people their students would be working with and serving. The school operates with a service learning approach, and each grade level partners with a community organization whose mission and services are related to curricular goals. For example, instead of simply making sandwiches to feed hungry people, the school partners with groups such as Roof Above where students can meet people who don’t have a place to live and better understand the systemic issues leading to homelessness.
In July 2020, Trinity hired Ayeola Elias as the school’s Director of Diversity, Equity and Belonging. Under Elias’ leadership, the school has been expanding opportunities for faculty and staff.
Last fall, for 21 days, faculty, staff, parents, alumni and parents of alumni were invited to spend at least five minutes a day learning how bias, prejudice, privilege, and oppression affect everyday lives of some groups and individuals. Last summer, the school sponsored the course What Does it Mean to Be White, an antiracist training series created by the Rev. Dr. Ben Boswell, senior minister at Myers Park Baptist Church. During the nine-week course participants read, heard, and watched the work of black creatives.
Peery, the Lower School chaplain, said the course made her aware of how much there is that she doesn’t know. She is part of a group writing an anti-bias curriculum for Trinity faculty that is currently being piloted by 10 faculty members. It includes readings, prayer and other activities.
“Reading Malcom X for the first time as a 40-something-year-old White woman was powerful,” she says. “It was a piece of the civil rights movement that had been kept out of my history. There’s now a bigger, broader understanding of what was happening at the time.”
Stephanie Griffin is the Middle School academic dean and a social studies teacher. As a result of taking the What Does it Mean to be White course, Griffin said she has worked to incorporate more comprehensive units around world history. For example, she’s now teaching about decolonization and the impact it has had overtime on nations in Africa. Her students are looking at how these nations were able to become independent, and how they were negatively impacted by the legacy of white colonists.
“I started the journey for personal reasons, and now it’s forced me to think about what it means for our curriculum. What stories does our curriculum tell? What is it omitting,” says Griffin.
“We’re trying to bring to light some of the curriculum that traditionally isn’t told about in textbooks and highlight those diverse perspectives,” she said.
Griffin says students are arriving in the classroom with increasing awareness of racial and social justices and it is important to help students understand what they are seeing in the world.
“I’m trying to equip students with the skills to become advocates for change,” she said. “Our goal as social studies educators is to constantly be sharing different perspectives and helping students make connections between past and present… We need to make sure our curriculum feels relevant to them and the issues they see on a daily basis.”
The hard work continues
Onze, the Head of Middle School, said professional development is valued at Trinity. She said faculty and staff have been encouraged to pursue professional development around diversity since she started at the school in 2003. But she also knows more needs to be done. Onze is working to become a facilitator of the What it Means to Be White course so she can help others interested in learning more.
“The word ‘belonging’ was not always in the work we did,” she said, noting it was two speakers she heard at the school’s Freedom Fete who made this point. Freedom Fete is an annual celebration occurring around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January, dedicated to celebrating the work of those who lead the struggle for social justice.
“This is hard work, and it’s messy work. And it’s necessary work,” she said. “You can’t just check a box and be done. You have to continue on the journey and you have to recognize when parts need to be changed.”
Griffin, Onze’s colleague, agrees.
“I’m grateful to work at a school that is willing to have this dialogue that recognizes we are imperfect humans trying to strive for a more just and egalitarian world,” Griffin said. “I know that I am still a long way from doing this work right and doing this work well, but that being a part of a community that will continue to have this conversation will push me to be a better educator, a better colleague, and a better human.”