Tyrone Jean is bringing his DEI work from Duke University to expand the campus culture at Providence Day School.
Offering a virtual Open House for grades TK-12 this Sunday, November 14, at 2 p.m.; more info at www.providenceday.org/admissions.
In his ideal world, Tyrone Jean’s job as Director of Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Providence Day School wouldn’t exist. In his vision, equity, inclusion, and belonging would be embedded in everything people do and in all decisions they make.
But that’s not the world we live in, so Jean is doing the work that he refers to as a calling.
“Equity, inclusion and belonging work is deeply spiritual,” he said. “It’s really about serving others; it’s about healing others.”
What brought him here
Jean started at Providence Day in July, arriving after a long career doing similar work at the college level, most recently at Elon University. The son of Haitian and Salvadoran parents, he grew up in Hyattsville, Maryland, a community where he was surrounded by various languages, races and ethnicities.
Shortly after getting his degree in African American Studies from the University of Virginia, Jean went to Virginia Tech, where he earned a master’s degree and deepened his passion for diversity and equity work.
At Duke University, he worked in Residence Life, doing DEI work at a time when the university population was pretty evenly split between students of color and white students.
At Elon, Jean was the Assistant Dean and Director of Students for the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Diversity Education. The move to Providence Day is Jean’s first time working with students in a K-12 environment, but he already sees the impact he can have.
Jean is optimistic about the opportunity to be on the teaching end of a student’s development, rather than helping them unlearn what they thought they knew about equity, inclusion and belonging. It will just require adjusting the messaging for how you speak to an 11th grader versus a first grader about these things.
“When you’re interacting with kids at a younger age, their ways of knowing are still being developed, and you have an opportunity to influence that at a much earlier age, so that by the time they get to college or adult age, they are thinking in a more critical way,” he said. “They’re asking different types of questions; they’re making different types of connections.”
For Jean, the move to Providence Day was a natural step for someone who spent years counseling and teaching young adults but wanted to teach younger students and have more of an influence on their lives and the lives of anyone who comes in contact with the students.
“In the school setting, we have an opportunity to focus on the curriculum,” he said. “And I think that was a major difference from the college setting. I think a lot of my engagement with students at the collegiate level was them coming into my office needing help or support and resources, but not from a curriculum standpoint, where in K-12, it’s all of the above.”
He added: “I’m not here trying to convince everybody to major in Women and Gender Studies or African American Studies. But wouldn’t it be cool if they wanted to pursue a major in the medical field or finance and have African American studies as a minor or double major and have that particular lens or focus so that if they are a white doctor, they also know how to treat their Black patients?”
Equity, inclusion and belonging?
Prior to Jean’s arrival at Providence Day, the school made a decision to change the director’s title to Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging from the more common Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Providence Day has had an office devoted to this arena, under various names, since 2001. (Read the schools summary report on its more recent history with equity and inclusion work.)
“In my last few years at Providence Day, there’s definitely been a much more accurate and thoughtful kind of representation of racial issues,” said PD alumnus Kolby Oglesby ’21. “I think Providence Day is doing a really good job of displaying diverse experiences.”
Once Jean arrived, he strongly supported the change in title to EIB
The difference, he said, is in how you make groups, often marginalized groups, feel once they are at the table. Are they welcomed?
“For a long time, the focus was solely on diversity, and it was just about getting people in the door,” he said. “But once you get people in the door, if [they] don’t feel a particular way, [they’re] not going to stay in that door. Hence, the emergence of belonging. …So, I don’t think that you need to replace DEI with EIB or vice versa. I think there’s room to expand the work.”
Practically, that means opening up spaces for marginalized students — and faculty and staff — to connect through affinity groups with others who look like them. Providence Day currently has affinity groups for people to gather across identities, whether those identities are religious, racial, sexual orientation and more.
“As an independent school, we’re not just working with students, we’re working with their families and all that their families bring,” Jean said. “Once the diversity is present on campus, we need to make sure that they feel connected, represented, seen, that they feel they are part of the curriculum, they feel a sense of belonging.”
Earlier this year, Providence Day held two socials — one for Black families and one for Hispanic and Latino families. Jean remembers hearing Black Providence Day staff members remark about not having seen so many Black families gather on the campus in more than 20 years. The gatherings allowed the families to connect with one another and dispel any thoughts that their family could be “the only one.”
Dr. Glyn Cowlishaw, Head of School at Providence Day, said Jean “brings significant experience in the field of equity, inclusion and belonging.”
“(He) possesses a deep philosophical understanding that this is a shared responsibility within a school community,” Cowlishaw said. “He has already made significant impact within the PD community during his brief time here, and we look forward to further advances in this arena under his leadership.”
Despite the ongoing pandemic and the United States’ racial reckoning, something Jean wants to emphasize finding and living out joy — joy that’s not diluted for the consumption of others, Jean specifies. Joy that feels authentic for each person and each community, whether that looks like congregating or laughing loudly.
“I think the goal right now is to find joy,” he said. “And to define joy and then live out joy is the ultimate goal of EIB. And I don’t think that joy is exclusive to the people who have been oppressed; I think that joy includes people who have historically, maybe not today, but historically have been on the oppressor’s side.”
With such a wide age range of students, teaching true U.S. history — and centering joy while doing it — can be complicate, but Jean believes it’s necessary.
“Part of the process is that you can tell the same story from a different perspective to highlight the joy,” he said. “When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in jail, he would talk about how he felt being in jail, but even in that moment of being in prison, he had hope. He had a vision for what’s to come. He had a purpose. There is joy in that.