Masked teacher teaching elementary school children.
Four Friends School Heads of Color - Panel Discussion

Joan Countryman

As part of celebrating the 90th Anniversary of Friends Council, the spring 2021 annual meeting featured a panel discussion with four heads of color in Friends schools, moderated by former head of school Joan Countryman.  Heads spoke about their leadership journeys, why they lead in Friends schools specifically, and what having close to 20% heads of color in Friends schools might mean for the future of Friends education.  Panelists included Angela Garcia, head of Friends Community School, Ken Aldridge, head of Wilmington Friends School, Brenda Crawley, head of Plymouth Meeting Friends School and Karen Cumberbatch, head of Carolina Friends School.

Joan Countryman, one of the first heads of color in Friends schools, moderated the panel. Joan has many fond memories of Friends Council meetings from her time as head of the Lincoln School (Providence, Rhode Island) and expressed her delight in moderating the panel.

Leadership Journeys

In talking about their leadership journeys, all four heads of school shared the impact of mentors or sponsors on their career paths. Angela Garcia spoke about the role that two people played in her career trajectory. “My journey is really the people who walked with me on it, a mentor and a sponsor. Both were white men.” One was a head of school who approached her and told her she was a leader; he became her sponsor. “He gave me the opportunity to lead and packed my resume with leadership roles.” The second is her mentor. “He opened the vault. He had me sitting in Board meetings, leading committee meetings. Every day I watched him and learned.”  As heads of schools we have the responsibility to open doors for others, says Garcia. She notes that these two individuals used their status and privilege to provide opportunities for her.  Brenda Crawley shared that she was guided by a head of school who “saw leadership in me in a different way. There were people along the way who saw my readiness before I did. It started with a white woman who saw a need for me to advance in terms of position. Another one was a Black woman who asked, “What are you waiting for?”  Ken Aldridge echoed the message of the importance of mentors and sponsors, sharing that there have been “So many people who have been sponsors or mentors or folks who just nudged you…nudged you in true sense of discernment to think about what you want to do or to lift something up for you that you had not anticipated.” Aldridge referenced the wooden trolley on the shelf behind him, sharing that it is a replica of the trolley from Mr Roger’s neighborhood. “Who are the people in your neighborhood you can lift up?” Aldridge asked. “As a head of color, it is very important to think about who nudged me, mentored me, sponsored  me so I can do the same for those behind me.”

Impact of FCE's Leadership Institute

Another theme that emerged was the impact of attending Friends Council’s Institute for Engaging Leadership in Friends Schools, or IELFS. “IELFS was an essential pivoting point for me in helping me to understand the possibilities and also what I could bring and contribute in role as head,” shared Karen Cumberbatch. “The experience helped me sit in discernment of getting over the imposter syndrome of feeling I am not ready. IELFS and work with Irene and Joe were really transformative for me.”

Being called to lead in Quaker Education

On being called to lead in a Friends school, these panelists shared their perspectives.  “What resonated with me was to be in a faith-based school,” said Aldridge. “I grew up in an  AME/Baptist household. There was no question of how faith would guide my life. I did find that Quakerism resonated with me to the point I became a convinced Friend. I feel called to lead because I feel this is a phenomenal way to educate children.” Cumberbatch shared that aspects of Quakerism -- continuing revelation and the religion's optimism -- appeal to her.  “There is a sense of -- we can do better, we can teach children to visualize a world that can be better and serve a higher purpose....I appreciate the way the school attempts to actualize the sense of community, Quaker decision making, inclusiveness.”  Crawley shared she deliberately sought out leadership in a school that placed value on community and “the membership was founded on being who you are. Bring who you are. Welcome home,” she said. In Quaker schools it is about sharing your voice, about “teaching children they have a voice and can share what they know and think and they will be valued.” For Garcia, “It was the spiritual piece.” As a young student, she grew up as the daughter of an AME minister. Her parents placed her in Quaker schools (Haddonfield Friends and later Westfield Friends). There came a point in her career when she “felt God was telling her to be in a Quaker school... I cannot imagine not leading in a Quaker School. I am glad I didn’t let God’s call go to voicemail.” 

Regarding the future of Friends education given the presence of many heads of colors in Friends schools, panelists shared a series of comments:
  • “I am struck by how many heads of color lead in Quaker schools. That is wonderful. What will that number be in 5 years? Double? Less? Will it stay the same?... I would hope that at this moment  FCE is thinking about how to hold us in light, how to allow our tenures to double, how to help our numbers double.”

  • “Having more heads of school of color than ever, though a positive, is not an end point. It should be a catalyst. We need to have the conversations. The only way to support heads of color and have that number to support those people and support those differences, and we don’t hide around the notion that equality is the same as equity.”

  • “Just because there is presence doesn’t mean there is true inclusion. You can have numbers and feel that you are not truly part of it all in meaningful ways.”

  • There is still much work to be done at our schools as we endeavor to be antiracist communities.”


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