High schools turn to community for steps to combat racism

Video of the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer struck the country like a thunderbolt in May, sparking protests around the nation and a fresh recognition of how racism warps life in America.

Institutions across the country are re-evaluating their own processes and cultures for signs of racism so they can make changes. Among them are the two diocesan high schools in the Diocese of Nashville.

Father Ryan High School and Pope John Paul II High School have each hired Derek Young, a nationally recognized consultant on diversity and inclusion, to lead a review of the cultures of the schools and develop an action plan to improve them.

“Racism is an unbelievable problem that we have to own,” said Mike Deely, head of school at Pope John Paul II High School. “I’m not doing enough myself.”

After George Floyd’s death, Deely reached out to members of the JPII community, particularly African-Americans. Among those he talked to was Young, whose has a daughter who is a current student at JPII and a son who graduated from Father Ryan.

Deely asked Young and others for help in crafting a response to the events in Minneapolis. In a letter to the JPII community posted on the school’s Facebook page, Deely said: “All of us, regardless of race, have experienced a profound sense of pain in the last three months, whether it was due to isolation, loss of employment, fear of what the future holds, illness, or death of a loved one. Maybe that shared pain gives us the chance to listen to one another now. …

“I don’t have an answer, and I know I cannot get everyone to agree on the solutions,” he added. “I cannot solve the sins of our history. However, I write this letter to be clear: I will do anything to help our nation and our community heal. I will open my heart to listen and not judge anyone with an opinion opposite of mine. Our faith compels us to take this moment in time to have discussions about racism and justice. Our faith compels us to address every person’s pain. Our faith compels us to be in solidarity when it comes to human rights for our brothers and sisters in Christ. There are no ‘others’ in God’s eyes.”

Father Ryan President Jim McIntyre and Principal Paul Davis posted a similar letter on the school’s website.

“The senseless and preventable deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many others awaken us to our responsibilities as Christians, as educators, as citizens, as human beings,” they wrote. “Just as Christ calls us, Father Ryan is deeply committed to a culture of inclusion, justice and equality for all, with no place for racism in any form.”

“Today, we embrace our legacy of social justice and stand in solidarity with our global neighbors in calling for true reconciliation and meaningful change,” they added. “We offer our most heartfelt prayers to all the victims of prejudicial violence and racial bias. We recommit to educating our students and our community to encourage a peaceful and unrelenting resolve to challenge systemic injustices in our world.”

While many in both communities posted comments on social media thanking the school leaders for their letters, others were dissatisfied with the response, described instances of discrimination they experienced or witnessed as students at the schools, and called for concrete action.

“At first there’s a natural defensiveness,” Deely said. But he said he understood that some alumni felt his letter was merely an expression of “thoughts and prayers” and the school needed to take specific steps to address the problems.

He contacted many of the alumni who posted comments about his letter to talk about the issue. “We really made an effort to reach out,” he said. “We have alumni willing to work long term on this.”

Deely arranged for Young to meet with JPII’s student leaders and some of its African-American students in the week after Floyd’s death, he said. “I decided we need to keep doing this.”

Meanwhile, Father Ryan’s leadership was reaching a similar conclusion. In a second letter to the Father Ryan community, McIntyre and Davis wrote: “Our community recognizes that we need to look at our school and ourselves to make sure we demonstrate an inclusive environment for Black students and other students of color. The Father Ryan community, in collaboration with the Diocese of Nashville and its leadership, is committed to doing the work necessary to make this initiative a reality.”

In the letter, McIntyre and Davis announced that the school was partnering with Young to develop “a process for our work that begins with listening to representatives of our community.”

“Our goal is to create effective and lasting solutions – ones that emerge from an informed and thoughtful process, ones that will help prevent racism on our campus,” they added.

At JPII, Young has already been meeting with groups of students, parents, alumni, teachers and staff, to discuss “what’s working at the school and what’s not,” Deely said.

“It’s like a moral audit,” Deely said. 

“Derek told me, ‘If I find something that’s a problem, I’m going to call you on it,’” Deely said. “That’s why you want to use Derek, because he’ll challenge you to do the right thing.”

“He’s really teaching us to listen,” Deely said of Young, who attended Catholic schools growing up in St. Louis and has sent his own children to Catholic schools in Nashville.

Father Ryan has created a page on its website – www.fatherryan.org/about-us/inclusion – outlining the process Young will lead. It begins with an online survey that members of the school community have been invited to fill out to provide insights, experiences and feedback. The survey will be open through July 31.

The survey will be followed by a series of in-person focus group meetings of students, parents, alumni, teachers, staff and others that will take place through the summer and fall semester.

In the second step of the process, according to the school website, “In cooperation with the Catholic Schools Office of the Diocese of Nashville, Father Ryan’s leadership will assemble a group of people from the school’s constituencies. This group will review and recommend specific action steps that the school can implement to achieve the goal of a more inclusive environment, with a greater feeling of belonging for Black students and other students of color.”

The third step, beginning in the spring of 2021, will be adopting and implementing the action steps identified. “These steps will be monitored by the school leadership, with progress reported on a regular basis to the Catholic Schools Office of the Diocese of Nashville and the Board of Trustees of Father Ryan High School,” according to the Inclusion page on the school’s website.

At JPII, the focus groups Young has organized have “brought a lot of different people together,” Deely said.

“Our Black alumni have come in to take a lot of the lead” in the process, Deely said. 

“We learned we really have to let our current students have a voice in this,” he said. “They can teach us about what’s going on now because things can change over time.”

Like at Father Ryan, Young, throughout the school year, will facilitate the process of developing action steps for JPII arising from the focus group discussions and implementing them.

“I’m very optimistic,” Deely said.