By Maddy Holden | Community News Service
Champlain Valley School District (CVSD) announced the hiring of Dr. Liliana Rodriguez for Director of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) as part of a broader effort to drive institutional change.
The new role was created after CVSD Superintendent Elaine Pinckney conducted an equity literacy audit of district schools. She determined that the district needed leadership in this area and presented her findings to the School Board on June 9, 2020.
“Dr. Rodriguez has spent her entire career in this realm and has an incredible depth of knowledge,” said School Board Chair Angela Arsenault.
The Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is a senior administrative position that will report directly to the superintendent and the only administrator position that is responsible for some amount of community outreach.
“That’s kind of a unique responsibility for [Dr. Rodriguez], and she has so much experience and knowledge around the topic and around change,” said Arsenault. “I was drawn to the way she talks about professional and community development; working with the teachers and educators in the buildings and also bringing in the community.”
Dr. Rodriguez brings with her an extensive background in education and DEI. Most recently, she was Vice-Chancellor of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence at the University of Denver. She served as Director of Diversity Recruitment at Williams College and Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development at Swarthmore College. Dr. Rodriguez has been a lecturer at Williams College, an educational consultant, and a mental health and substance abuse counselor for Hampshire College and Berkshire County, Mass. She holds a B.A. with honors in psychology from Williams College and an M.S. in clinical psychology and a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
The creation of this leadership role isn’t the only thing CVSD has done to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“During this school year (2020-2021), we have had diversity, equity, and inclusion lead coaches and they worked with a DEI team made up of coaches that are based in each of our schools. That team has done wonderful work this year. The lead coaches shared some of that work at a School Board meeting in March of this year,” said Director of Digital Learning & Communication Bonnie Birdsall.
For Champlain Valley Union High School’s Social Justice Alliance, these efforts mean a great deal.
Chris Smith is a social studies teacher at CVU and the advisor for CVU’s Social Justice Alliance. “This hire is just one more piece that suggests that diversity, equity, and inclusion are so important. We’re excited to have another advocate for social justice and my hope is that this forces the community to take this stuff seriously,” said Smith.
Stella Wald, a sophomore at CVU High School and a member of CVU’s Social Justice Alliance, said, “This has taken a lot longer than students would have wanted. But we’re grateful it’s finally here.”
When asked what her hopes are for Dr. Rodriguez, Wald said that she hopes the director will help create groups like the Social Justice Alliance at middle and elementary schools.
Smith echoes this hope. “It’s not enough to teach about these things starting in high school. By that time, society has already made its imprint on you.”
When asked why it’s taken so long, Smith said “This is a culture issue. It is dictated by the cultures we all grow up in. It’s not as simple as saying ‘you should treat people nicely,’ it’s changing the way we see the entire world. And that’s not a fast thing.”
Wald recommends that Dr. Rodriguez sits in on their Social Justice Alliance meetings. She also recommends that Dr. Rodriguez makes surprise visits to classrooms across grade levels so she can see the curriculum. “I would love some new courses like the Black America course that will run next fall for the first time.”
But for Wald, it’s bigger than just a diverse curriculum. “We should be able to bring up social justice issues in class and not be told that this isn’t the time or place … it should always be the place and time.”
Smith is optimistic that this position will allow for greater support for people who report experiencing a problem with someone or something. “The policies in place dictated by federal laws and state laws are very prescriptive. They don’t include how we can make sure we’re supporting the person that reported,” said Smith.
For an alliance that strives to bring student concerns to the attention of the administration, Smith called the creation of a role that helps bridge the communication gap between the two a “win.”
Because the role is so new, Arsenault anticipates that Dr. Rodriguez will have a big part in defining what it is exactly. “Just considering how much experience Liliana’s had in different environments, I think she’s well suited to figure out what this role needs to look like in this school system,” said Arsenault.
“I think her first priority is going to be listening. Just hearing from people, hearing from teachers and students and community members. She used the phrase ‘deep listening,’ which I just love. Like, what is really happening? What is your experience in this school system?” said Arsenault.
Dr. Rodriguez’s first day on the job will be July 1, 2021. She was not available for comment for this article, but according to an April 14 message from Champlain Valley School District, Dr. Rodriguez “says that she is excited to join CVSD and is excited to get started.”
The Community News Service is part of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program at the University of Vermont.