Nearly One Year After @blackatlovett, Lovett Continues to Pursue “Systemic Change”

Georgia Norton

“We’re aligning who we are with who we say we are.”

On May 25 2020, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was recently convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. On June 4, 2020, an Instagram account with the handle @BlackAtLovett appeared. Over the next two months, the account received 4,417 followers, attention from The New York Times, and 248 anonymous submissions chronicling the negative experiences of Black students and alumni at Lovett. 

While protests for Black Lives Matter and mass social media rallying had already begun in the Atlanta area, it wasn’t until Black At Lovett that the national outcry went hyper-local, starkly revealing that Lovett wasn’t immune to these historical race dynamics. 

Reading the experiences reported on the Instagram page, reactions were mixed. Many were “shocked,” some by the fact of racism in their community, others by the fact that they hadn’t known this, and more by the magnitude and medium of the submissions. People were “disappointed,” some by Lovett, some by Buckhead, and some by the parents who they felt hadn’t adequately prepared their children for the realities of the modern world. Some were in “disbelief,” others “outraged.” 

Of course, the multifaceted nature of these reactions only demonstrated the complexity of the issue that's long been simplified. Among all the narratives, the backlash, the information and emotion, and the back and forth, the issue of belonging was laid bare--an issue that is difficult to fully understand and even more so to fix. 

In different ways over the years, the board had visited the topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion. In the winter of 2019, there was a strategic retreat, and a “new plan” was underway according to Malon Courts, board of trustees member and co-chair of Lovett’s new committee for DEI. 

Courts, who is white, said the issue of “[diversity, equity and inclusion] had been identified prior to the events of last summer,” but “to be fair, the unfortunate events of last summer have double underlined what needed to be done at [Lovett],” even if they did not first reveal them.

To begin this doubling down in the wake of @BlackAtLovett, Lovett began the DEI committee, which board co-chair Brian Boutté, who is African-American, defines as “a response to a complex issue with a simple request--” answering the question of “how do we make sure everyone at the Lovett school is respected and then prepared for the outside world, how do we build systems so everyone feels valued.”

Lovett also hired Robert Greene from Cedar and Burwell, a strategic consulting company which, according to their website, seeks to help clients “merge diversity and inclusion skills with organizational development theory… to create and sustain inclusive and equitable cultures and organizations, and drive relentlessly toward excellence.” With his guidance, the school also began to overhaul their faculty education.

That summer, Courts and Boutté “probably had 25 to 35 separate conversations with people,” from “the Black parents group” to “Black at Lovett,” hosted several different calls with affinity groups, and met as one big group. 

“When we started,” Courts said, “people [seemed] afraid [of speaking up], but the further we got in, we would see people become more engaged. We could see some progress.” He added, “Just the fact that you and I are having this conversation now is progress.”

As students, alumni, faculty and staff began to open up, however, opinions were mixed and often blunt. The main message, according to Head of School Meredyth Cole, is that “people want to see actionable change.” Cole, who only assumed her position at Lovett in 2018, has had “hundreds of conversations” since the events of this past summer, many of which have struck her deeply. 

She’s conversed with board members, community parents, alumni and consultants, but she believes there’s been special value in her conversations with Lovett students. At one point, Lovett held a panel with 12 Lovett students; Cole spoke to the importance of bringing students into the decision-making process, reiterating that she “so appreciate[s] the students’ candor and authenticity...” 

“I was speaking with middle schoolers and overheard them say how relieved they were that when George Floyd was killed we weren’t in school,” she remembered. “That stuck with me… because I wanted to be a place where when something traumatic happened, students would want to be here.” Speaking forthrightly, she admitted that “Yeah, it’s been painful. It’s really opened up the difference between intent and impact.” 

Some conversations have been more constructive than others, she explained, but said she feels the massive feedback is an asset: “people care deeply, they’re critical friends.” Cole did express some frustration at the public, anonymous nature of the social media posts, saying that it’s “not the place to have a conversation” or “restore relationships,” and it “certainly puts a leader and teams into a reactive mode, which is good and bad.” She stressed also that “it doesn’t tell a whole story.” Yet, she is--in a sense--grateful for the overwhelming circumstances.

“Members of our community are deeply burdened,” she explained. “There are some really painful stories--I can’t argue with truth,” and without this reckoning, she wonders if these issues would have ever come to light. Malon Courts expressed this same sentiment, stating that “It would be hard to argue that Lovett would have made as much progress without those events.”

“We have to make the best of it, it’s the only option,” Cole continued, “usually where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” While it’s been extremely painful for Cole to understand the experience of so many at the institution she believes in, she explained that “all you can do is roll your sleeves up, get to work, and try to block out the rest.” She added, “I don’t think we’re an anomaly, but we have the gift of responsiveness.”

Brian Boutté has likewise been at the center of many conversations. Having served on the Board of Trustees, sent two children through Lovett, and now become co-chair of the DEI committee, he is deeply involved. Specifically, after the Black at Lovett Instagram surfaced, Mr. Boutté said he heard a mix of parent responses. He said there were lots of parents who were “unaware,” many who thought along the lines of “man, I wish that I’d known.” Boutté added that these responses were “not all racialized.” 

When these posts came out Boutté felt personally disappointed not only by the school but “by some of the other Black parents, to be honest with you, that they didn’t prepare their kids for what’s possible.” 

He explained that “when you’re a majority kid and you walk into a place, and 88% of the people look like you, 77% of the people have the same resources you have, it’s just natural. But for some of these kids whose parents are my age or younger, [the parents] knew what this was and somehow thought ‘if I put my kids at Lovett, or Westminster, or Pace, they’re going to be okay because it’s a private school.’ My disappointment with those parents is that you had to know there’s a possibility.”

Boutté cited an example, remembering how he told his son while he was at Lovett that “‘somebody might use the N-word at school,’” and somebody did. Boutté felt it was important for his kids to “know that that might happen.” 

Boutté was also disappointed at the nature of the Black at Lovett submissions. “If it’s that bad,” he said, “Why didn’t you say?” He continued, “If they’re destroying your child...don’t you have an obligation to say ‘Look, this isn’t working, my kid isn’t happy here’?” 

Listening to other parents speak, Boutté sensed that “there might’ve been a little bit of guilt that they didn’t get it, that they’d been missing those kinds of signals,” and that added layers to their responses. His final disappointment was for some submissions about events 15 or more years ago--to these, he asks “Why didn’t you say something sooner?”

However, he was very clear to share his disappointment with Lovett as well. “We should have known, right?” Boutté began, “and some of those kids [who submitted to Black at Lovett] actually told teachers and told administration and nothing happened. So shame on us--Lovett--for not acknowledging when there’s pain, when people are hurting.” He continued, “Now if it’s racialized pain, you have even more responsibility [as a school,] because [white] parents spend the same money as [minority] students’ parents do just to have an experience that’s hurtful to one group.”

Boutté pointed out the lack of clarity on policies as one of the problems. “Even to this day, I don’t think we’ve ever clearly stated that we have a policy where we don’t tolerate racism, and that should be clear,” he said. Boutté feels Lovett “should be clear that we don’t tolerate discrimination of any kind, whether that’s racial, or in terms of gender expression, etcetera.” He believes that perhaps the reason this has never been clearly stated is that “we have members in our community who believe that saying something is admitting we have a problem. For some, it’s not stating a policy because of a fear that we’re admitting some type of guilt.”

“So yeah,” he summarized, “disappointed that the school didn’t get it, disappointed for not acting quicker, not making a declarative statement, and disappointed in parents that, ‘did you not know that there’s a pretty good chance in downtown, Buckhead Atlanta that there might be a kid that might say something offensive?” To illustrate his disbelief, he even laughed.

Chelsea Mason, a Lovett senior, was “never surprised” when the Instagram came to light, and the disappointment she did feel wasn’t new. Chelsea transferred to Lovett in seventh grade from the Children’s School, which she described as “pretty diverse,” and she’s been significantly affected by her experience here. At the Children’s School, Chelsea would be one of 8 or 10 Black children in her classes as opposed to one of few or the only one in her classes at Lovett. As a new student, she didn’t think much of the white majority, but she said that “within a month or two probably, you become very quickly aware of race and how people deal with that at Lovett.”

While she soon came to feel that her skin color singled her out, it was not something she went into “eyes wide open” as Boutté felt his family had. At Westminster, she does remember someone pushing her brother into a locker when she was around eleven, and though she doesn't recall the details, she remembers it being race-related. Even still, racial issues were in her periphery, not in her everyday thoughts.

“Maybe it was because I was 11 and was thinking about other things, just tuning it out when we had family conversations, or maybe my parents purposely didn't talk about it, but I very much didn't know that that would be a problem at Lovett.” She “always knew racism was a thing,” but before Lovett she’d “never experienced it personally or thought of race as a reason people would be treated differently.” Now, she says “there is always that awareness.”

When Chelsea came to Lovett, she said she “just wanted to fit in, everybody does, so I became super aware. Sometimes it’s just hard for me not to think about things like that.” Chelsea is always conscious when she’s the only Black person in a room, in a class, in the grocery store, and her friends are predominantly white. “I probably think about it, like, 500 times a day,” she said. 

Despite incessant thoughts, she “[tries] hard not to bring it up because the responses you get are not great.” She finds that often, “people tend to brush it off.” She recalls one of many incidents where a peer said the N-word freshman year. “At first I didn’t know what to say, I was like ‘did I hear that correctly?’” When she mentioned it later, a friend suggested it was no big deal and they “didn’t mean it that way.” 

At Lovett, Chelsea says she has seen some make “overtly racist statements,” and they tend to be “very offhand.” When Chelsea brings these up to her Lovett friends--who are mostly white--she tends to be met with dismissive remarks. “It’s really hard to hear ‘Oh that’s not what they meant,’ because if you say something, well then that’s how that comes across,” she said. “If you said it, I don’t understand how you can’t mean it.”

Because of this tendency to be brushed off or diminished, she’s stopped bringing it up. The double-edged sword is that if she does mention an event in hindsight, people are often upset with her for “not telling them earlier.” ‘Is that a joke?!” she said, expressing her frustration.

She feels most Lovett students aren’t “exposed to a lot of people different from them, so I don’t think people understand how things could affect other people.” To this, Lovett has a responsibility she feels it doesn’t meet to teach kids about the outside world. “It’s okay if you’re going to pull people from similar places or have a similar crowd,” Chelsea said, “but you have to teach them about people outside of them. At Lovett, people’s beliefs aren’t challenged.”

DEI consultant Robert Greene believes, as Chelsea does, that there’s an obligation as an educational community “to provide both windows and mirrors for every Lion, whether we do it through the people we enroll, the guests we bring or the curriculum and program we engage.” 

Chelsea gave many more examples of her white peers not perceiving racist comments or actions with the same gravity she does, and she emphasized how she feels this disconnect in people’s perception of racism’s significance is at the root of most issues. “It’s nobody else understanding that makes me feel like I’m going crazy.” Greene empathized with Chelsea, saying that he’s had similar experiences in his career. “That's why representation is critical and opportunities to gather in affinity are critical,” he said.

But Chelsea’s frustration doesn’t only lie with students. Chelsea has been uncomfortable about racial statements a teacher was making in class, and after bringing this up with administrators, they suggested she speak personally with the teacher and explain to them why she was uncomfortable--a deeply traumatizing and counter-productive request that she felt shifted Lovett’s responsibility onto Chelsea. She’s been singled out in classes to speak for the entire Black community. She’s had people apologize for or confess to racist thoughts or actions to her, asking her to forgive them as if she had some extraordinary powers. 

Overall, she’s been overwhelmed with people who, in their ignorance or misunderstanding of race relations, have further hurt her. To those who don’t see race as a priority, she says “racism is a thing. Just because you don't experience it doesn't mean it doesn't affect you, and when you don't acknowledge it, you hurt people.”

Sloane Vassar, another Lovett senior and a member of Lovett’s Black Affinity group, the Student Diversity and Leadership Club (SDLC), and Essence, Lovett’s group for women of color, hasn’t had quite the same experience Chelsea has had. “A lot of my friends are Black or people of color,” she said, explaining that part of the reason she was attracted to those sorts of friendships is because “there's an unspoken understanding of certain issues and topics, and I can speak freely about them.” 

Since the Black and minority experience at Lovett was already an open conversation Sloane often had, the Black At Lovett posts didn’t surprise her either, but she felt a sense of gratification when they came out. “I felt like ‘finally,’ it was about time. It kind of gave people a glance into the Black experience, showed them that Lovett isn’t exempt from these larger issues just because it’s a private school.” John Srouji, another senior and member of SDLC, likewise was glad to see these students and alumni “get a voice.” 

While Sloane valued that these issues were getting attention on Black At Lovett, she was also “glad we weren’t in school” when it all went down, believing that, were students and teachers in person together, there would have been “a lot of tension.” 

Since the Black at Lovett posts, Chelsea doesn’t feel much has changed. She believes it’s just as hard to have a conversation now as it once was, and she personally hasn’t seen much shift at Lovett. “I emailed [Lovett] about having a race awareness program like their drug awareness program over the summer, in August, and they responded that it was a great idea but just left it there,” she said. She understands that Lovett is working behind the scenes, but says that she’s “never seen any difference” in the time she’s been here. Chelsea is one of the many who Ms. Cole described as wanting to see “actionable change.”

John Srouji, who is white, does feel that he’s seen some sort of cultural change. In his Lovett coursework, John says that he has often had conversations about inclusion, race, and inequity this year. He’s not sure if this is because of the nature of his current course load (AP World History and Global Nonviolence, for example) or a reaction to Black At Lovett, but believes his classes have had many relevant conversations.

John even cited an assignment in his summer Leadership in Sports class, which took place around the time Black At Lovett surfaced, in which he and the rest of his entirely white class had to go through the account and discuss the submissions. “I think that was a really great assignment,” he said, “because it forced people to look at it.” While he was aware of inequities at Lovett, he says “a bunch of people said they had no idea at all that anyone had a bad time at Lovett, which I found crazy… it was so interesting.”

Sloane Vassar likewise believes she’s seen a shift. “It might be because of my involvement in certain groups and my leadership positions,” she said, “but I have noticed at least an attempt, especially among deans and administrators, to improve the Black experience at Lovett.” 

She cited the recent results of Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd and the email Mr. Moak sent out to the upper school the following day with resources, the prepared reflection space in the chapel, and the open invitations to speak freely with Lovett counselors to help digest the event. “Lovett,” she said, “especially with that event, has really tried to be empathetic towards how hard of a time that can be for Black students, and I really appreciate that.” Sloane did say that she feels she “didn't see any of that effort before the events of last summer,” but she “can tell they're genuinely trying to be a part of bettering the racial climate at Lovett.”

John feels Black At Lovett has been a catalyst of sorts for conversation about broader issues of inclusion, citing conversations he’s had in SDLC about anti-Asian sentiment and the work the Spectrum Club has been doing for LGBTQ+ opportunities this year. “They’ve been doing a really great job,” he said.

Systemically, however, John feels as Chelsea does--if any real changes have continued to be made, he hasn’t been made aware of it. “At the beginning of the year I know they held a bunch of open meetings for anyone in the community which were really great, but I’ve heard a lot less about that stuff lately.” He worries if maybe an issue lies in communication--”the people who’ve been affected deserve to know when changes are made, they shouldn't have to go ask.”

Ms. Cole, the DEI committee, and the rest of the administration are very aware of the tangible, experiential shifts that need to happen within the Lovett community. However, they are equally aware of the time that it takes to shift a culture--both in a school, and in a larger nation and community. The magnitude and complexity of these issues do not escape them, though they too sometimes indulge wishful thinking; as Malon Courts dismally laughed, everybody wishes they could “snap their fingers and have an instruction manual,” but “it doesn’t work that way.”

Instead, Lovett has been tasked with outlining goals, finding data, establishing steps, defining obstacles, and making holistic plans to create “sustainable change.” For this, consultant Robert Greene has been a key figure. 

Greene, who has worked with numerous institutions, ranging from businesses to high schools to higher education, says the way his work begins always depends on the institution. While he gets a mixture of reactive and proactive requests for aid, he says “we’re good firefighters, but we’re even better architects.” For that reason, on every project no matter the original impetus, Greene works to establish a clear definition of what long-term success will look like. 

“While everything depends on the existing leadership, structures in place, etc.,” he said, “some common elements… across most engagements include developing some sense of the current state, developing greater clarity about specific goals/outcomes/future state, identifying the delta between the two, and crafting a strategy to address those gaps.”

Lovett’s goals, according to a report released on August 15, 2020 by the DEI committee, fall into four categories: student experience, employee & family cultural competence, institutional policy & practice, and pedagogy.

As for student experience, Lovett believes the key lies in “reorganizing and refining our leadership and policy structures to define success in terms of what students actually experience and not according to stated values and or intentionality.” Family and faculty competency lies in intentional education. Institutional policy and practice require leadership and accountability protocols. Pedagogy restates the importance of uniting Lovett as one school with a single cohesive mission, not three separate schools. Overall, the challenge seems to be switching from “intention” to “impact,” as Ms. Cole mentioned.

In addition to outlining strategies to achieve these goals, the report states that they aim for “equity, which… ensures that our mission-fulfillment for every Lovett student is much more likely than not and a result of intentional design rather than good fortune.” The preface to the report states: “where we have fallen short of driving equity in outcomes, we are not only intensely sorry but also know and understand we have to redesign and redouble our efforts.”

In defining the school’s goals, the reports says that “Lovett should be known as a community where Black students feel heard, affirmed and respected, by employees, peers and families alike,” hoping that Lovett will “also be known as a leader in the Atlanta area independent school community in its commitment to and skill in integrating DEI as a core component of excellence in 21st-century education for ALL students.”

All of this, however, can sound extremely abstract to an outsider, so I tried to dig into some of the specifics of what this actually means for Lovett with Robert Greene.

Greene offered specifics about first steps, gathering both quantitative and qualitative data. This includes examining funnel data, how many inquiries Lovett gets and from whom, and how many inquiries become interviews and applications. It includes employee recruitment and retention data, the speed of curriculum turn-over, the processes of evaluating the courses that get proposed, and how many zip codes are represented in the community. “You can measure all of these things,” said Greene, and “there’s a famous saying… that you are what you measure.” Hence, he stresses the importance of gaining all-encompassing metrics.

In order to understand said metrics, he must first create definitions, frameworks to work against. One of these is “how we define the ‘portrait’ of a Lovett graduate,” or “what should feel common about the skills, habits, perspectives, experiences, etc.” a student receives. Greene stresses that “Lovett is too big and too complex to think we can initiate and sustain significant adjustments to curriculum or program or policy without systematizing the approach.” He continued, “We can't leave our progress to the optional or independent engagement of passionate and or interested individuals. We need an all-school approach.”

With this data, goals and strategies were developed. Some of the protocols suggested in the August 15th document include exploring the implementation of exit interviews when families decide to leave Lovett, optional book clubs for families, initiating “a robust engagement of Black history, lives, and culture, independent of enslavement and or oppression,” and annually examining curriculum against DEI standards.

In terms of creating a more diverse faculty, Ms. Cole has opened pipelines with Morehouse and Spelman universities and introduced Lovett so that as staff and faculty positions open up each year, more candidates of color will be familiar with Lovett and more likely to pursue those interview and hiring opportunities.

Within this 16-page document, however, there is an admittedly high amount of “redefining” and “refining,” “exploring the option of” and “considering,” and relatively little about what these “redefinitions” and “refinements” might include. But, it is important to remember that this outline was only the first step of what Greene, Cole, Courts and Boutté stress is a multi-year, continuous process. And so, one must trust that developing these specifics remains an active part of this work.

Greene believes Lovett is lucky in that it has an almost centuries-old history of success and a large community of supporters, but he is also aware that “with that history, it’s often harder to evolve because there are some fond institutional memories and practices that were more relevant for yesteryear than today.”

He cautions that “change processes are never easy, especially for older organizations and communities” and that “we often see people fearing or even experiencing some perceived or actual loss in the near-term without understanding the temporary dislocation of comfort will produce a stronger foundation upon which to build a more relevant, effective and sustainable future.”

Greene says the most common obstacles he tends to see across his work are “fear of change--not even the content of change, but change itself--and lack of trust that the change(s) proposed are actually achievable and will leave people whole and restored.” Lovett boards are aware of this factor, but they remain committed to their mission.

Mr. Courts and Mr. Boutté both agreed that, conceptually, the easiest way to build a more identity-conscious system is by implementing policies; Mr. Boutté gave the example of policies that ensure all Lovett staff and faculty have an equitable chance of being recognized for their work, as well as policies ensuring equal treatment of individuals regardless of gender expression, socio-economic level, faith belief, or any other minority identity. 

While these policies are easy to put in place, Mr. Boutté said “the hard part is changing how people behave because of what they believe.” Boutté stressed the concern of cognitive dissonance--when people’s actions don’t align with their beliefs. “It’s hard to know when you’ve got somebody's beliefs,” he said. “I can only judge you by your actions, so we have to have policies around action, not thought. It’s difficult because we judge ourselves based on our intentions, but we judge other folks on what they do.” 

He cited an example of a student showing up to school with a confederate belt buckle.  “I can’t know what you meant, but if you show up to school with a confederate belt buckle, regardless of what you said, your actions say this is important to you if you show up to school with it.” This cognitive dissonance exists at Lovett, and it’s the same concept that Chelsea has experienced so much frustration with regarding her friends and the difficulty of parsing somebody’s action and meaning.

In order to change a culture and change beliefs--especially the deep-seated, hidden ones that few even recognize in themselves--it takes a multi-pronged approach, and it takes time. “Nobody wants to see anything like [the events of last summer] happen again,” said Courts. At Lovett, he says “we want to maintain a sense of urgency even when it's quiet, and we don't want to lose momentum.”

Sloane Vassar echoed this fear, worrying that once she leaves, “each grade won't have people who care as much as I do about bettering the experience, then the energy will fizzle out.” John Srouji said the same, worrying that “all this stuff will be forgotten about next year.” He hopes that Lovett will “realize that we’re really in the same place we were last year--the awareness has changed, but as a student body, we haven't seen much”--and that the school will continue to dedicate itself to its potential. Sloane hopes that “future Black students will put in the work to see the outcomes they want.”

However, Courts doesn’t think that momentum will be a challenge. “We have a lot of incredibly dedicated people working on the DEI committee, a lot of people who really care, and now we have a permanent position [for the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,]” he said. He believes in Lovett’s ability to evolve.

According to Ms. Cole, “what’s different is that we're looking to make systemic change.” She emphasized that this is “not a checklist to mark off--what is changing is going to be lasting… we’re aligning who we are with who we say we are.” She understands that, while some policies and statements can be implemented instantly, this type of deep-rooted, soulful work doesn’t yield instant results. She also understands community frustration with this.

Cole believes in the Lovett mission to educate the whole child, give them a sense of community, and set them up for a lifetime of success, and so she sees the changes being made not as a transformation of Lovett but rather as helping the school to become what it was always meant to be. She stressed the importance of extracting and leaning heavily on Lovett’s values throughout this process--including Lovett’s faith identity.

She says she would like to move Lovett back in the direction of the Episcopal values it was founded on, believing this would serve not to marginalize students of alternate beliefs but ground the school in moral code. She cited Lovett’s past, being originally dismissed by the Episcopal Church for deciding not to entertain Martin Luther King III’s application and the option of early integration back in the 1960s.

By realigning with that original Episcopal mission that urged Lovett to act for equality not too long ago, she believes it would help Lovett to become more tolerant of and empowering for all students--not only Black and racial minority students, but those of different socio-economic backgrounds, sexual or gender orientations, faith expressions, and any other marginal or majority identity.

“I am so proud of this institution,” Cole said. “I’m not a believer in perfectionism, but rather the work that needs to be done--we are a growing living thing, and we [as an institution] need to model the self-reflection and growth mindset we want for our students.” She says that many look to the head of school “to be the voice of Lovett,” but she stresses that “we all reflect Lovett, and we all have a responsibility to all that Lovett is.”

With a multifaceted, growing, and adapting plan of action, this has the potential to be the beginning of a profound and necessary change for the entire Lovett community. Many have not only hope but faith that this is the case. “I don’t think about it from a racism experience or Black experience,” said Courts. “This is about everyone.”

The Lovett School is an independent, coeducational day school where children from Kindergarten through Grade 12 find the courage to explore and the drive to discover.

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