There had never been a day quite like this at the exclusive Brentwood School. Students, faculty and staff set aside regular classes to consider topics such as Harlem Renaissance art, Japanese World War II internment, gay youth suicide, Chicano lowrider culture and dwarfism.
Dave Velasquez, assistant headmaster, organized and presided over Diversity Day, an opportunity to grapple with the complexities of race and culture that continue to inflame young people and loom large in multifaceted Los Angeles.
When Velasquez arrived as director of admissions and college counseling, there were few students or faculty members of color. Today, minority students represent 27% of the 900-member upper and middle school student body. And of 111 faculty members, 15% are people of color. Nationally, about 14% of employees at private schools are minorities, according to the National Assn. of Independent Schools.
Now, the school reflects a greater ethnic and socioeconomic range: 15% of students receive financial aid and a school bus picks up and drops off students from South Los Angeles. There are more activities to promote diversity, such as a potluck that attracted more than 130 of the school’s Latino students and a celebration of Black History Month. Also addressing topical issues and reinforcing the school’s core values as a diverse and vibrant community are assemblies like the one featuring Dr. Drew Pinsky, a medical doctor who hosts a radio show that offers relationship advice for young people.
Speaker Walter Gertz, a staff member of the Museum of Tolerance, explained the economic and social forces wrenching Germany in the late 1920s that led to the rise of Hitler. A member of the Guerrilla Girls, an activist arts collective, wore a gorilla mask while telling students, “Change doesn’t just happen. You have to make it happen.” An Vo, an exchange student at Brentwood from Ho Chi Minh City, led a workshop titled “Is Your Heart Big Enough?” about the continuing trauma from the U.S. military’s use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
Jill Foley, who graduated from Brentwood in 1996, led a workshop on poverty and how it affects families and children. An attorney for New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, Foley said Velasquez’s commitment to diversity and social justice issues helped shape her career.
As the school’s first Diversity Day wound down, teachers, students and parent volunteers congratulated Velasquez. Headmaster Michael Pratt said the event would probably affect the school’s curriculum.
“We wanted to define diversity in the widest sense to grapple with issues that often times aren’t part of traditional college prep curriculum,” Velasquez said. “Hopefully, it will provoke continuing discussion.”