“The heart of equity work is that we’re all at the table together doing this work. That is the heart of it,” said Catherine Ross Cook, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) coordinator for District 233.
After 12 years in the classroom at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, Cook stepped into the newly created position at the start of the school year. The winner of the Golden Apple Award for teaching excellence will continue to teach one English class.
Cook calls her new job “a dream position." She intends to take her passions from her years in the classroom and work with H-F colleagues blending them into the DEI position. She expects to extend her reach with parents that she developed over 10 years as the Step Team coach.
“I want to make sure that everyone understands that we all play a major role in this work, and many of us are doing the work inherently and don’t even realize it,” she said. Outreach to the community will be essential and is recognized by the District 233 school board through its strategic plan.
“We have to be so cautious that people think DEI is one size fits all. I’ve got to believe one size fits no one,” Cook stressed. “What does that mean for our community? What does it mean for our students? And in doing so, part of my charge is to really champion our parents, our students and our teachers so that voices are heard; giving everyone an opportunity to really speak on what their experiences have been in equity in our district.
“Where can we highlight and grow in the areas that we do well and where can we find those areas that are obscured to us, those areas of oppression or those barriers that may exist, that may or may not be as obvious to us.”
Some of that work already has begun through a leadership team at the high school that’s been working for a year “to establish our infrastructure of our equity vision and how we will move,” Cook said. Her next step will be to reach into the community “to work with parents and bring them up to speed on the language of equity orientation, the goal of educational equity and how our parents, our community partnerships, our students – everyone plays a role in that.”
The philosophy behind a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program has been around for quite a while. Cook says it’s been prominent in business, and some school districts developed DEI programs years ago. Most people just say DEI, but Cook said she wants to make certain that participants see that “each facet is very intimate and has its own nuances.”
H-F is recognized for its diverse student population, Cook said, but she wants discussion to go deeper than race and socio/economic diversity.
“Don’t place DEI work in only race relations,” she said. “That’s not only where it exists. That’s an aspect of diversity for sure, but we don’t want to minimize the concept of identity and cultural identity to solely race."
“Some (students) will carry areas of privilege, but others will carry areas of marginality, pain or trauma. So, we really want to have a plurality that diversity means different and there are many, many aspects to that,” she explained. “We have to find what’s been obscured and where marginalities and oppression exists for some, and how can we continue to celebrate diversity, but expand that celebration and representation.”
Cook sees her work as an “opportunity to really reimagine the education space. In doing so we have to center ourselves on working to identify the barriers that exist for different groups of students who have historically been marginalized. I think it’s sometimes hard because we’re all well-meaning. We go into education because we love children.”
She intends to be cautious so that the work isn’t about trends, but rather serious work toward improving what happens at H-F: “That it’s going to be a practice if you will, or a paradigm that we continue to engage and make sustainable.
“The question is who have we been responding to and are there those who’ve been deemed valuable or worthy for us to respond to. Can we look at our policies and our practices and even our interactions and start to determine where we need to engage in a more culturally responsive manner.
“When I consider equity it’s this notion that …we want to center ourselves on determining how to give everyone what they need and so that they can truly be successful to...their pathways.”
“When I consider inclusion, it’s looking at how to empower all the voices in the space.”
Cook said DEI “is almost like several trains are moving on parallel tracks to get to the same thing.” Her efforts this year will be to work with all segments of the H-F community – faculty and staff, school board members, students, parents and community members – “to lay the foundation of our equity work (and) starting to engage those partnerships and really start to determine what does equity mean to you, what needs do we feel have been met and what needs are still to be identified.”
“I think there’s so much opportunity to tap into spaces that we don’t even realize that we have and how we can utilize that to make us even greater as H-F,” she said.