Building Empathy by Understanding Others

Faculty and staff at Sacred Heart Schools, a PK-8 Catholic, independent school in Chicago for students of all faiths, are committed to a mission that highlights diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) so that everyone can thrive.

“This is not some trend, but a new way to look at civil rights and how we advocate and educate. It’s about building a perspective that focuses on truly understanding what it’s like to be in another’s shoes,” explains Brian Williams, director of Inclusion and Community Life at Sacred Heart Schools. “The approach we take with DEI isn’t a strategy as much as it’s woven into the fabric of what we do at Sacred Heart Schools.”

Growing leaders through empathy

The commitment to DEI involves the whole community at Sacred Heart Schools. Through the five Goals and Criteria of Sacred Heart Education, the Diversity and Inclusion Committee and the active investment of parents, faculty and staff, all community members work to advance equity and inclusion through faith, intellect, service, community and personal growth. In 2017, Sacred Heart adopted an Equity and Inclusion Statement that speaks to the heart of the Schools’ commitment to be a welcoming community.

Through a collective practice of DEI, Sacred Heart Schools faculty and administrators meet overarching goals of understanding and awareness that are deeply rooted in the tenets of equity and inclusion. To this end, Williams supports adults who teach and work with children. And that means meeting each person where they are in their understanding of DEI.

“This is not a cookie-cutter process. Everyone comes from different experiences and we all have different needs. We try to meet those people where they are through equity,” Williams says. “That takes a while, but it’s exactly why we do that work with adults who support children.”

Part of the work is unraveling old myths about what DEI actually means. For example, in our society, equity and equality are often conflated.

“We talk about fairness rather than about meeting everyone where they are and meeting their needs,” Williams explains. “Instead, we need to work to support each individual to be their greatest self. The important part about equity and inclusion is helping the entire community have a better understanding of who we are — living in the shoes we want to live in, unapologetically.”

DEI work at Sacred Heart Schools helps everyone in the educational community reach beyond sensitivity to true empathy toward differences in gender identity, race, language ability, income level, learning ability and family makeup. “Empathy is so important, especially when we’re talking about young children, and we all need to be equipped with how to adjust to their needs, from pre-K through eighth grade at Sacred Heart,” Williams says.

Involving the entire educational community

“Last year, our January Justice Day event celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights mission and vision and we brought in a number of people to help bring his vision to life through activities,” Williams shares. “We watched his ‘Mountaintop’ speech that referenced Jericho Road and reflected on what he said 50 years ago and how we are still dealing with these issues today.”

Through a partnership with the National SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity), Sacred Heart Schools is developing leaders to guide peers toward social justice and the student affinity group JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion) has worked together remotely with the book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of Stamped from the Beginning by authors Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi.

Through International Night, a fall event that celebrates diversity, families at Sacred Heart Schools share a favorite dish and discover diversity through cooking. This year, the event was held virtually, but was successful in building community nonetheless.

“Something we feel is important here at Sacred Heart Schools is creating a sense of belonging,” Williams says. “We are giving young people leadership opportunities with the work we do in service learning and ministry, in fine arts and athletics. In all of these places, students find space and opportunity to express themselves and just be themselves without judgment.”

Sacred Heart Schools is an independent Catholic school committed to academic excellence for grades PreK-8. For more information, visit shschicago.org.

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