Courtney Portlock on Her Brave New Work

Oxbridge Academy's assistant head of school discusses the philosophy that fighting social injustice and embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion starts with knowing yourself first

Photography by Chris Salata/CAPEHART

PBI: You’ve worked to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion at some of the top independent schools in the U.S. before moving to South Florida to join Oxbridge Academy. What’s your why?

Portlock: The old paradigm of “fitting in” was set up 20 or so years ago—and persists even now to some extent. I like to help students understand their own identities enough that they develop a sense of belonging, instead of trying to fit in. Belonging means you don’t compromise who you are. You can actually be who you are within the school community.

I’m passionate about teaching kids how to love themselves. For me, that centers around how social identities—age, race, religion, gender, socioeconomics, ability, et cetera—are incorporated into a student’s understanding of themselves. Having that deeper understanding of yourself is key to coming to your own understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Can you talk about those terms—diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)? What do they mean to you, and how are they intertwined?

Diversity is the numbers piece that looks at social identity. We can look at our space and name who the people of color are or identify the percentage of any given social identifier. But when we talk about what equity means, we’re looking at how these social identities come together. We have to ask ourselves, “How can we work together so that we all have access to what we need to be successful? How can we all be full participants and members of the community?” A community becomes inclusive once we’re all able to participate. Of course, to get there, the next question to ask is, “What are the different ways that power, privilege, oppression, microaggressions, and marginalization play into our social identities?” When we start working through those answers, we’re really doing the work of understanding what equity means. That’s when we’re seeing equity in action as it relates to inclusion.

How do you see Oxbridge Academy leading the way in DEI work?

I think there is a myth that if we talk about DEI, or if we put the right words on our website, or if we join in some of the lingo then we should be okay. But one of the things at Oxbridge Academy that is incredibly encouraging—and that I’m excited about—is how the school recognizes the ongoing nature of this work. They acknowledge that there will be feelings of fatigue, but they are dedicated to taking the necessary self-care while pushing through to make sure the DEI work continues.

You lead in this space by ensuring that DEI has the same amount of attention as all other aspects of the educational process—like curriculum development, safety protocols, and health and wellness, because all of these things ensure well-roundedness and the healthy growth of the students in our care.  

It’s not just about what you say. It’s about the behavior and the experiences of the folks in the community who are working to change things for the better. Oxbridge has demonstrated that it is ready, willing, and able to take a leadership role as a school that will be part of the solution to racial injustice.

What do you see as the biggest areas of opportunity and challenge—for Oxbridge, and for the American educational system at large—to effect meaningful change?

This is both head and heart work. It’s a chance for folks to connect and ask themselves, “What does DEI mean to me? Why should I care? Why is this something I want to keep engaging in?” That’s a huge challenge.

A lot of folks think, “If I go to diversity training, I have to learn about someone else.” But diversity training actually means learning about yourself, learning the ways you’ve come to understand what it is you understand. Learning about yourself has everything to do with how you approach this work, and how you’ll approach your own self-care in times of fatigue. Implementing this kind of training is an incredible area of opportunity for schools in general, and for Oxbridge in particular.

When you come across people who are resistant to your message, what tools do you use to help shift their mindset?

I’ve found that when someone is resistant to this work (or resistant to understanding it), there’s a reason why. And I’m really interested in that reason. I want to listen. I want to know what it is that’s blocking them from engaging. 

With educators, I presume that folks want to be here. They want to be teachers, and that means they want to connect with their students, to help them develop in their own knowledge and understanding, and to help them fulfill their potential. I also presume that an educator wouldn’t want to lose a student’s attention, engagement, or sense of safety and belonging. So, if that’s the case, you have to choose. You can’t simultaneously not be interested in DEI work but also be interested in the success of your students.

With students who are hesitant, I also want to understand why. “Let’s talk about your experiences,” I tell them, “I would love to hear more.” Having a space where students can reflect on what they understand and what they’re grappling with is really critical.

It must be rewarding to watch as students and educators do this work and begin to see things differently.

It’s amazing. I get affirmed in so many ways by being in the education space and having that happen. That “aha” moment is what I live for. It’s a very special moment for me when I can see the wheels turning; when I can see folks making connections to the material they are receiving and how it intersects with their lives.

How do you see students leading the way and helping to change the opinions in their own families and in society as a whole?

A lot of the conversations and things happening now with students who are demanding change around racial injustice is really heartening. It’s encouraging to see so many young people who understand. Now, maybe they don’t have all the scholarship yet to fully understand the historical context, but they understand enough to know that something is not right—and that we need to do something about it.

It’s my responsibility as an educator to fill in those gaps, to provide an historical foundation that explains why and how it isn’t right. It’s my responsibility to help them learn how we can move forward together to create a better and brighter future for Black people in particular, for people of color in general, and for all of us collectively. Together, we can really make meaningful and remarkable change in our world.

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