Recently, Western Reserve Academy and Head of School Suzanne Walker Buck shared plans to accelerate and emphasize the school's commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. This included the imperative to appoint a new role and executive leader to the school, a position that will oversee and dedicate time and energy to diversity and inclusion at WRA.
On June 10, English Department faculty member Brandi Wheeler P '20, '21 was named Interim Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and her new role starts now. Wheeler will continue to teach her elective classes (African American Fiction and African American Nonfiction), but she will depart from the English Department where she's taught for two years. Her new office will be inside the Student Life Office in Wilson Hall, and she has joined the school's Executive Team.
We sat down to talk with Brandi about the importance of this new role and her vision.
What experience and perspective will you bring to this role?
I have been a member of the WRA Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee since 2018 and was able to step into leadership of this committee during the 2019-2020 school year. Working with this group fueled my passion to see that all students at this school feel they are respected, included, welcomed and celebrated. I am so excited to have the opportunity to focus my energy on helping our school develop into an even more diverse and inclusive environment.
WRA is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion. What will this commitment look like to you? How would you define this role, and how does it take shape programmatically?
I will work with members of our WRA community to make sure that we look at various aspects of how the school functions through a DEI lens. Our student population is incredibly diverse — not just in terms of race — and we want to make sure we respect, appreciate and celebrate that diversity in every aspect of how the school functions. This includes the faculty and staff we hire, the curriculum we use in our classrooms, the types of activities we celebrate, create and participate in throughout the year, the speakers we bring to campus, and even the way we resolve conflicts.
What are ways that WRA can reach out to our BIPOC students?
I think the most important way we can reach out to our students is to listen to them. If we can have open channels of communication and create an environment where students feel safe to share their thoughts, dreams and concerns, then we as educators will be better able to meet their needs and celebrate all aspects of who they are. That is what diversity work is all about.
What challenges do schools face in this area?
While individuals in our community like Dr. Lisabeth Robinson have long been active in the realm of diversity work and social justice, the level of institutional commitment to this work has not always been evident. The DEI Committee is a relatively new group and has been quickly evolving. Until now, we have had great intentions and put in lots of work, but were not as involved in matters of policy and procedure as we wanted to be. I'm so encouraged by our administration's receptivity to letting this group grow and evolve as evidenced by putting me in this role where I will be able to focus my energy on this work that is so very important to me and to our school.
What is an effective strategy for implementing meaningful conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion into our curriculum and outside the classroom?
When approaching matters of diversity, I think one of the most fundamental things we need to do is just be thoughtful. Take moments to explore the stories and perspectives of others, consider the struggles they face, consider how you can advocate not just for yourself but for others, consider how your words can affect those around you. When we are considering each other in these important ways, this is when we start to see progress.
Congratulations to Brandi Wheeler!