Renata Williams of Mercersburg Academy: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society
Acknowledge that we haven’t “arrived” and that there is more work to be done. – If we don’t first acknowledge where we are then we can’t embark on the journey.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Renata Williams.
Renata Williams is the Inaugural Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Mercersburg Academy, a private coed college-preparatory boarding and day school for grades 9–12. In this newly developed position, she works with and supports underrepresented students and groups on campus through programming, advising, and workshops. Renata is instrumental in helping to determine was DEI currently means at the school, and considering what it looks like for the school moving forward.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
First, thanks for the opportunity to share a bit about me and the work as I know it! This is a big question right out of the gate. I grew up in a single parent household, raised by my mother, Ms. Beverly Robinson, with my two siblings, my older sister Deshaya and my younger brother Jordan. My older sister and I spent a couple of summers with my Dad, Stan, and step-mother, Pat, and our other two siblings, my younger sister, Jade and younger brother, Terry.
However, most summers I spent in Monticello, New York, at my maternal grandmother’s house. My maternal grandmother lived about 5 miles from my paternal grandparents, who lived directly next door to my great grandmother. Often you hear the adage “it takes a village” and Monticello, New York was certainly my village.
The majority of my primary and secondary schooling took place in the Saratoga Springs City School District, which during my childhood, at least, wasn’t an extremely diverse district. I got a very good public education and amazing athletic experience there. I ran track and field and my coaches, Art and Linda Kranick, were (and still are) an integral part of my village as well.
I worked a lot as a kid — I had three summer jobs and I learned a lot about life from each one. My mom’s rule was that during the academic year I was only allowed to maintain one job. She didn’t have many rules but I know now that she was reminding me to be a kid. I had a great childhood and you have reminded me to pause, reflect and reminisce! Thanks for that reminder.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I can think of several books that impacted me and my work and how I operate in life but one that stood out was The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruis, which. I read the book as part of my graduate counseling program at Manhattan College. The four agreements are:
1. Be impeccable with your words.
2. Don’t take anything personally.
3. Don’t make assumptions.
4. Always do your best.
This book has resonated with me so deeply because it is simple yet so practical. I have been able to recall this book and these “agreements” not only professionally but personally as well.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
I have two: Be open to learning, always. I can’t remember where I first heard, that but it has certainly stuck with me. I like to think that I am a student of life. I am a self-professed lifelong learner and super unapologetic about that. While I have expertise in an area or two, I expect to impart something and learn something in every environment I encounter. I conduct workshops and trainings and I always gain something from the experience — I’m humble enough to understand that while I know a lot, I don’t know everything. There is always room for learning and growth.
When I was searching for a church home, my grandma Williams gave me this advice: “You have to be able to pick the meat from the bones.” I’ve realized how widely applicable those sage words of wisdom truly are. We have to be able to sort through the mess a bit to get to the good stuff. It takes patience and fortitude.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is so many things. Leadership is knowing when to step up and when to step back. Leadership is also identifying, acknowledging and growing the strengths of others. In leadership you have to be willing and able to make hard and sometimes unpopular decisions that are for the betterment of the whole.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. In the summer of 2020, the United States faced a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on what made the events of 2020 different from racial reckonings in the past?
I’ll be direct: I think we got to this boiling point because folks are focused on the wrong things. Often we are so intent on being right that we forget to listen to another point of view or perspective. We forget civility, compassion, empathy, dignity, and loving our neighbor. Conversations around diversity, equity (rather than equality), and inclusion have been misinterpreted. Diversity is about the composition of the room — the identities that exist; equity is about giving folks what they need specifically; and inclusion is about not only inviting people to table or party but also incorporating the feedback. I often ask “ how have you prepared for folks’ presence beyond arrival?”
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
Generally, my work around diversity and inclusion has been varied. It depends on the space where I am working. I have been met with curiosity in some spaces, skepticism in others, and partnership in many others still. My goal is always to challenge folks to “level-up,” so to speak. Even after having been engaged in the work for many years there is always something I can learn — be that from my audience, peers, or colleagues. The reality is that I am usually asked to be in a space because I bring a distinct set of skills and experiences. Even if not everything that I say resonates with my audience. I hope to at least plant a seed. If you know a little about plants you know that you don’t always see the fruit/flower right away. Sometimes you plant a seed and you have to let it germinate, be patient and take time. I find that to be especially true with work around diversity and inclusion. I’ve learned to be a bit more patient in waiting for long-term results..
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
As I was preparing responses for this interview, this statement came up in conversation so clearly, “Diverse teams have the power to transform.” I think of it as an evolution toward transformation, but nonetheless, we are looking to be the best versions of ourselves on any given day and that is precisely why diverse executive teams matter.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Step 1. Acknowledge that we haven’t “arrived” and that there is more work to be done.
– If we don’t first acknowledge where we are then we can’t embark on the journey.
Step 2. Identify work that needs to be done both in the short-term and long- term.
– Take time to understand the cultural context.
Step 3. Create a plan of action.
– Too often, we get mired down in the idea that our actions need to be grandiose and then we forget that the small measurable steps add up!
– Create a mechanism to assess the work ahead. Where did we hit the mark and where do we have room to grow?
Step 4. Ensure we are practicing what we preach. Put simply: Do our actions match our words?
– Does the “temperature check” add up?
– Is our work genuinely aligned with the mission and goals of the organization so that it has a deep sustainable impact?
– Have we moved beyond the cookie cutter approach?
Step 5. Get to work!
– Not much explanation needed here — just START!
We are going through a rough period now. What makes you optimistic about the future of the US? Can you please explain?
Another big question. However, I think the answer lies in whether we can name the problem or not. To which issue(s) are you referring? I’ve heard work around diversity, equity and inclusion described in this way, which makes sense in an education context. When you think about research and researchers if you ask them if the research is ever “done,” the answer most often will be no. To that end, I believe that we will always have work to do, but I do believe that with intentional and concerted efforts, we can reach a place where we are closer to leveling the playing field.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I have been very fortunate. I have worked with and met a lot of folks that have been entrenched in the work for quite some time. I have had the opportunity to learn from or listen to a few giants in the work, so to speak. That said, Jane Elliot is someone I’d love to meet for an uninterrupted session.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Renata Williams of Mercersburg Academy: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.