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Solving our "social pandemic" with anti-racist education

“Racism is making us sick. Like any infectious illness, racism is highly contagious and transmittable through social institutions to individuals who, in turn, become carriers.” — Lora McManus ’14, Women of Color in Headships: Uncovering Experiences of Discrimination and Microaggressions

A diversity practitioner and aspiring Head of School, Lora McManus ’14 is determined to forge her own path into an educational leadership role. But, as she found in her master’s thesis, the prospects are less than encouraging. She describes her research into the discrimination experienced by women of color who lead independent schools as “intrinsically personal and professionally humbling.” Of the more than 1,600 members of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), only 51 heads of school identify as both a woman and a person of color. 
Lora is determined to break down the barriers—from unconscious bias to structural hierarchy—that stand in her way. And she’s doing it with “Actions Not Words,” by taking responsibility for the next generation’s attitudes toward equity and inclusivity. While she says that everyone in a school community—trustees, parents, faculty, staff, and administration alike—have “the privilege and responsibility” of combating racism, she’s dedicated to planting the seeds of awareness and empathy in students from a young age. At just 24 years old, Lora recently landed the role of PK-12 Department Chair for Equity and Instruction for the Blake School in Minnesota, where she works to build a community of inclusivity and empowerment.

One method Lora uses to build self-worth in her youngest students is the “language of superpower,” which encourages students to identify their own unique gifts. Often it is hard for them to name at first, she says, because they don’t realize that passing out papers really fast or writing very neatly is a superpower. In looking beyond traditional academic skills and scores to embrace and celebrate their uniqueness, students are able to gain confidence and feel encouraged in new ways.

This approach comes full circle when looking at the hiring process for heads of schools. When we look beyond the traditional background markers when reviewing candidates, Lora says, we open the doors to potential assets that may have been overlooked. For example, a candidate who does not have a smooth career path may have faced difficulties that taught them how to be more adaptable and resilient, and therefore a better fit for the types of problems they will encounter in their role. As Lora looks towards her own future, she has her end point in mind, but is allowing the path to take her where she needs to be at the right time. 

Lora cites her experiences at Mayfield Senior School as the springboard for her journey in the fields of education and equity. During her freshman year at Mayfield, Lora attended the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC), a multiracial, multicultural gathering of high school student leaders from across the U.S. and abroad that focuses on self-reflection, forming allies, and building community. The conference gave Lora the language to understand and process her own experiences as a woman of color. She attended the conference each year during high school, and then went on to work as SDLC faculty in college, developing curriculum and facilitating diversity training from 2015-2018. (Read our SDLC Q&A with Lora from the 2019 issue of Postscripts.)

After Mayfield, Lora studied sociology, with an emphasis on education, at Pitzer College in Claremont, CA and earned her master’s degree in Education Administration and Curriculum & Instruction at Cal State Channel Islands. Lora serves on Mayfield’s JDEI Alum Advisory Board.
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.