2020 National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference: Q&A with King School Head Dr. Karen Eshoo

What does it mean to be a leader of a school community at this critical moment in history? What does it mean to be a leader and a person of color in a predominantly white institution? These questions and more were explored in Lora McManus's "You Are Not Alone: Experiences of Discrimination and Microaggressions Toward Women of Color (WOC) Heads of Independent Schools," one of the presentations at the 2020 NAIS People of Color Conference (PoCC). King's own Dr. Karen Eshoo, Head of School, participated in the study that the presentation explores and was one of three presenters at the PoCC webinar.

Q: How did you get involved in this study?

A: Every time someone asks me to participate in educational research, I almost always say yes...Research in and on independent schools is still really thin compared to public systems. Because we actually have the resources to impact change relatively quickly based on what we learn from research, I think it's important to participate in studies like this one precisely because it is about independent schools. We need to get better about taking research seriously and using research to drive change. The more research we have on independent schools, the less opportunity people have to look the other way.


Q: In the panel, you and Brenda Crawley, Head of Plymouth Meeting Friends School, discussed your experiences in leadership. While you are both Heads of Color, you acknowledged that your experiences have been different. How would you characterize the way being a woman of color has impacted your headship?

A: I don't bring my "Assyrian-ness" with me in the same way that another person of color would. I know I'm not white. I do sometimes have a problem saying that I'm a person of color though because I know how I look. I have privileges because of my skin tone, and as a Black woman, Brenda has had a very different experience. 


Q: What would you say was the most important takeaway from this study?

A: The fact that Lora McManus was asking the twelve of us the questions that she did meant that we were seen. That's a big deal. The fact that she was then turning that around and sharing our experiences and perspectives with others meant that we were seen on a broader and deeper scale. That's hugely important for other women of color in positions of leadership. 


Q: PoCC is a unique experience for white attendees. For many, the conference is the first experience of what it means to be in the minority; this year there was some pushback from white attendees about their status as "guests" at the conference. What is your perspective on the debate as to whether or not white colleagues should participate in this conference?

A: Every year, it's controversial. Every year, we ask ourselves: is this a place just for people of color? And what we continue to come back to is that, as long as we are creating places within this conference that are just for us, and as long as we prioritize the experiences of people of color, then it's important to have white attendees at this conference. This is work that we have to do together.


Q: In his opening speech at PoCC, Eddie Gaude referenced the following quote from James Baldwin, which set the tone for the conference: "It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person." What responsibilities do you believe we have as educators?

A: Our responsibility as educators in our schools is to get just as good at being questioned as we are at being asked questions. When we allow ourselves to be questioned, we empower our students to actually dig into things and think. We empower them to imagine a different world than the one that exists right now. Sometimes, I think that we have a tendency to believe that, when we are being questioned, it is inherently disrespectful. I would disagree with that. Sometimes it is, of course. But often, it's coming out of a very legitimate place of curiosity that needs to be fostered.