Is Northwest a Social Justice School?

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When families research The Northwest School with the intention of applying and look on the school website, it states that “Ethnic, racial, religious, gender, and economic diversity are essential for the highest quality of secondary education,” amongst other points. In our school’s mission there is a very clear intention of cultivating a social justice environment, however, the question of whether or not the school can call itself a social justice school has been repeatedly asked and never answered.

The controversy surrounding the Northwest school’s self-proclaimed title of being a “social justice school” has been around for many generations of students. Both the head of school, Ray W., and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), Catalina M., are new this year. They are both central to this issue, especially Catalina. Coming to the school, they have had a lot to learn about the school’s successes and failures with regards to social justice. Ray and Catalina come from quite different backgrounds, but are in agreement as to the school’s successes. Catalina has many years of experience in the DEI field and has finally settled at Northwest. Coming from St. Louis, Missouri, a place that, according to Catalina, tends to be more conservative and often diminishes the importance of DEI work, she finds it refreshing to work at an institution like Northwest. This school, in her eyes, very clearly values DEI work, and sees it as a priority. During the interview Catalina mentioned that she was hoping to expand the DEI department because she felt the DEI work for the school was a lot of work for her alone. Since the interview, Catalina’s proposal to expand the DEI department has been accepted. There will be a new assistant director of DEI coming soon. Along with new positions in the DEI department, faculty and parents who have been involved with the school’s DEI work will receive stipends. The people receiving stipends will include: the DEI Coordinator, the Faculty Sponsors of Faculty of Color, Faculty sponsors of BIPOC Parent Group, Faculty sponsors of Faculty and Parent WARWG (White Anti-racist Working Group). Catalina has been very pleased with her reception at Northwest and she believes that the whole school does work towards the goal of being socially just and that the school, as an institution, is right in calling itself a “social justice school.” 

When asked about social justice at the Northwest School, Ray took a lot of time to focus on the definition of social justice. This was a very interesting approach in my eyes and it even caused me to change my mindset going into interviews. After this interview, I focused heavily on establishing a definition of social justice with the interviewee. It was interesting to see the contrast in Catalina and Ray’s views of social justice. Catalina leaned more into a communal sense of social justice whereas Ray talked more about the experience of the students. He concluded that social justice is about creating a space where every student can be their full selves. He believes Northwest has been working towards this and has been an effective example of what social justice can be to schools in the Seattle area. In his previous work at the Bush School, Ray highlighted how Northwest was always the “golden example” in social justice work.

Student leadership at Northwest had very different opinions from Catalina and Ray’s. Brooklyn K. ‘22 is a very involved student leader in our community. She is a leader of the Black Student Union, has helped organize multiple Northwest School events, and was a member of the Change Coalition in the past. From her experience at Northwest, she does not believe this is a social justice school. She claims that many of Northwest’s social justice-related events were held because of students’ efforts, not the efforts of the administration. Many student leaders feel the same way and say that Northwest merely supports students and rarely takes action themselves in steps towards social justice. 

The Humanities department chair, Curtis H., when talking about social justice was very thoughtful about it. He believed that to be socially just was to reach a point where people of all identities had equal opportunity, and were treated equally. Curtis said that to be socially just is almost unattainable, but the point of social justice work is to be constantly chasing that dream. In Curtis’ eyes, Northwest does a good job of constantly striving to do better at involving students and giving them equal opportunities. Social justice work is constantly evolving and improving in order to attain that dream of being socially just and he believes Northwest is evolving along with it.

An interesting discovery I made throughout my research for this article was that the majority of students who believed Northwest was not a social justice school were students of color. The majority of the white students that were questioned agreed with the faculty that the Northwest school did a good job of executing its promises of being a social justice school. Students who are more involved in organizing events or leading interest/identity-based groups more often believe Northwest is not a social justice school. This says a lot about the Northwest school culture. It shows that based on identity at the school, students have vastly different experiences and think very differently about the school’s impact as a social justice institution.

When I went about writing this article, I was very conflicted as to whether or not I believed Northwest was a social justice school. After all the research I did I was able to come to my own conclusion. When considering what being socially just really meant, my interview with Curtis H. really stuck with me. Having a space where all students are treated equally and have equal opportunities was what was most important to me. As a private school, I do not think that Northwest School can call itself a social justice school. While it is true that Northwest is generous with their financial aid, by simply creating a school where you have to pay money to attend, there are already many students from different demographics that will not have an equal opportunity to even attend this school. The very nature of a private school shuts out many students in a way that cannot be tied with social justice. Furthermore, many students at Northwest do not feel represented in the school’s curriculum and do not feel like they have been taught anything about the history of their people. As a Latino, this really resonates with me. In my time here at Northwest anything I’ve wanted to learn about my own people has had to take place on my own time, with my own resources. The most informative experience about my own people I had at Northwest, and frankly only informative experience, was a student-led moment in an affinity space, once again showing how students are constantly tasked with pushing forward the social justice work at Northwest School.

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