As the director of strategic communications at The Browning School, a boys-only independent school in Manhattan, Jan Abernathy strives to contradict the preconceived, exclusionary notions. Although founded to teach one of the Rockefellers in the 1800s, the school has continued to evolve and is now working with a Black alumni group on issues of equity and more.
“You change the conversation by changing who’s around the table,” she says. “I was the board chair of my kids’ school board. I was the first Black person elected to the board, then, when I left, it was half people of color, which is what it should have been.”
Abernathy spoke to CASE’s Currents magazine for the “What is Equity?” feature story, which couldn’t contain all of her equity-related observations in detail. What follows is an extended Q&A that has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Do you recall when the term equity became a central term in education?
I do not. I’ve been working in schools professionally since 2013. By then, equity was being used. This is a really recent concept that gets to the heart of who is in control.
When communicating with stakeholders, both internally and externally, do you feel that there’s a similar notion of equity as a concept?
I think people have somewhat of an understanding of what it is. As you move further and further away from the school, families are more self-interested in terms of the education of their kids. If you think your kid is having an equitable experience, you don’t think about it at all. If you think your kid is having an inequitable experience, you think about it all the time.
There’s something interesting with families that have chosen a single-gender education for their children. There’s more of a lens on difference or on identity. They have the idea that this child has particular needs which relate to their gender, which is why it would be better to be at a school where everyone is focused on teaching that gender.
It can make the conversation a little bit easier. It can give you a starting point. Boys have certain needs that girls might not have. So why would you not think that Black students might have needs different from white students?
This all goes back to people not being able to view whiteness as its own identity. Until you can turn people onto that, it’s really hard to have a conversation. In a world where white men have the majority of advantages, people fighting for equity are a group that’s saying “not so fast…”
The power piece is very hard, because equity suggests that you’re not just looking for a number in terms of percentage of students of color in the school. You’re also looking at their outcomes.
Browning is in New York City, one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. Yet, independent schools including Browning have a perception of being elite, in positive and negative ways. How does equity play into Browning’s identity as an independent school?
I think that with “elite,” the question of what that means is in the consumer’s mind. How is elite tied to being exclusive? I’m not going to communicate about Browning in a way that says it is elite or exclusive for reasons other than your child can come here and do well or you as an employee can come here and do well.
We would say we would want any boy to be academically, socially, and emotionally successful. We’re not saying that your child would be with children who are similarly situated. That’s been a big change for all of our schools—no school can be satisfied with being a finishing school for the ruling class. Diversity, and a real focus on getting kids of color into the doors, made these schools better. That did not compromise the quality.
In Browning’s Buzzwords magazine, you profiled the Panther Mentors, a group of Black alumni who are working with the school on a number of issues, including those related to equity. Can you tell me about how those men came to be involved?
When the “Black At” [Instagram] movement started, we did not have a “Black At” page, and we moved quickly to identify these gentlemen and invite them into a conversation. The Panther Mentors have a story that deserves to be heard. They have a story where some of the same things that happened to Dennis, who graduated in ’72, were still happening with Dylan, who graduated in the 2000s, or even someone who graduated just last year. Sometimes the stories are shockingly similar because the face of racism doesn’t change all that much.
We talk about equity and there’s power in those gentlemen coming to speak to our faculty. Some of the teachers they had as students are still in the faculty. To have these alumni come in and say, “You might not have realized this was happening, but here’s what happened to me and here’s how I felt about it.” People need to have that look in the mirror.
It’s impactful for schools to have training and DEI officers to talk about these sorts of things. But to have some kid that was your student at 12 or 14, saying this is what was going on, there was definitely a tear shed. There was nothing that I heard, being a fellow Black American, that was shocking to me. But I think there were things that were shocking for people to hear.
I think this will be transformational. Even beyond these guys, we’re having an active conversation about mentoring. At a place that values relational learning, we want you to think about identity and race and what that means to the boys and the faculty that teach them.
What are the challenges in communicating about equity programs?
People who work in communications, they don’t buy into sunshine-y communications anymore. Who are you fooling? These parents already know the good and the bad.
We’re on the Upper East Side and there’s a whole image of inherited wealth that you have to get past. The whole Browning origin is that it was founded with money from the Rockefellers. Could you have a more exclusionary origin story?
But then you open the doors—and welcome this bunch of Black guys who are the Panther Mentors—and suddenly Browning is relevant, it’s current, and the best part is the story is authentic because it’s really happening. It’s better than writing 500 words for the magazine on the training someone attended.
Community, Celebration, and Change: How traditions bridge past, present, and future. Plus, understanding how equity is central to institutions’ pursuit of social and racial justice, engaging alumni of color, and investing in alumni during trying times.