media from Wix
The school calendar year is underway and a large part of it is amplifying and celebrating ‘awareness days’. Schools, colleges and universities will be using awareness day calendars to plan events, assemblies maybe even lessons and sessions to educate and inform. Awareness days are brilliant and necessary; in many ways they are an integral first step in advocating and learning about underrepresented causes, people, events and histories. However, there is a downside too.
Awareness days are the tip of the iceberg
The role of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) can so easily become nothing more than finite awareness days, which make us all feel that we’re doing ‘good’ on a single day or in a single month.
Schools, like all workplaces, are part of an ever-evolving event-based culture. All we need to think of are lessons being described as ‘singing and dancing’ to serve inspection requirements; proactive and reactive assemblies to reiterate reminders, top-level expectations and to ‘cover’ something particular (usually EDI-related) and the annual celebration of Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month, Pride Month, Eid, Hannukah, Ramadan and so on. Of course, awareness is necessary at ‘prime time’ and is enjoyable and extremely useful. They ensure underrepresented voices are seen, heard and belong (although the question 'belong to what?' comes to mind...). They are an opportunity and serve their purpose: to create awareness. They are a starting point for the systemic and structural changes and discussions needed for awareness to lead to impact. The real question is whether the latter happens.
Many schools and companies are appointing EDI Leads. It is all too easy for an EDI Lead to become consumed by the need to amplify awareness days without actually being equipped with the resources and budget necessary to make an actual difference to school and workplace cultures. Instead, resources are ploughed into events, meetings about the events, meetings to plan marketing and engagement for the event…all of which are purposeful, enjoyable, necessary and good work. However, you will notice underrepresented groups becoming more and more disengaged and disillusioned, perhaps even cynical, when resources, time and effort are reserved for events and not for structural and systemic changes that make a sustainable and real-life difference. Of course, these concerns are raised and ‘listened to’, but not before there is yet another event to plan and resource…
The media is a great tool and a great distraction…
Social media has done absolute wonders for equality and diversity. It has nurtured communities, supported underrepresented groups and provided a new level of confidence, awareness and understanding for marginalised and mainstream groups. We know it fuels binaries, but it also fuels compassion and empathy too. However, we also know social media can be an addiction. I often find myself caught up in a guilt-ridden scroll thinking, ‘I haven’t celebrated this, ‘I forgot to amplify that!’ - and that’s just for what the algorithms choose to show me. There is a different algorithm for every single individual, leading to a wide range of whataboutisms, truths and different stories on different feeds - this is true for every student too. They might be wearing the same uniform and studying for the same exams…but the awareness their social media feeds create differs for each and every one of them.
The result? Whataboutisms, feelings of belonging, not belonging, being seen and not being heard. For EDI leads, inboxes are often flooded with messages about what we celebrate and what we don’t celebrate. As I reflect on this, I wonder how much time is consumed by navigating and managing these conversations as opposed to strategically and structurally creating a culture of inclusion and belonging for all, where awareness is part of the fabric as opposed to a set of calendar alerts.
But, awareness days matter, especially for young people
Equally, young people need awareness, they learn and become active in causes, topics and issues they see and learn; this needs to be purposeful and intentional. We learn so much about our students through these events, their creativity is often magnified. Yes, we are all accountable to learn and ‘do the research’ but again, as I reflect on my conversations with young people, are we expecting them to grow up so quickly, bypass ‘awareness’ and become accountable before they even know what to take into account? Anyway, I digress.
To be clear: awareness days have taught me so much, much of which has come from wonderful social media influencers sharing books, articles, resources that I would never come across if awareness days didn’t dominate algorithms when they do. However, where schools and workplaces are concerned:
consider whether awareness days should be the responsibility of the EDI lead or a single individual;
question what your school needs to empower students and staff to feel confident and able to amplify awareness days without so much ‘red tape’ involved;
Consider the route cause of ‘whataboutisms’ and feelings of invisibility in the environment - it goes deeper than the awareness event;
Measure the distribution of your resources: how much time and money is spent on an event, compared to making structural differences (for example, compare the ratio of your gender and ethnicity pay gaps and representation to the ratio of events, time and resources during Black History Month and International Women’s Day…).
There is more to consider and as always, School Should Be is all about discussion…so let’s widen the discussion beyond, quite simply, awareness…!