Too much work for one person; Mrs. Williams’ departure proves new DEI role fails to address root problems


Isabel Engel

A graphic from Mrs. Williams’ presentation given October 2, 2020: “Potomac commitments for an inclusive culture and climate.”

“Last year I was spread so thin that I couldn’t do anything at the depth that it needed to be done, but now with Mrs. Williams she can really focus on DEI programming and initiatives in a way that I couldn’t in the past,” Mr. Grant said in an interview conducted this fall.

“At a K-12 school only having one person with a title of Director of Diversity is not enough, we needed another person,” he continued. 

Potomac came into the school year with a new head of K-12 Equity and Inclusion Initiatives, Tamisha Williams. She was brought in this year to bring a focus on DEI efforts as part of Potomac’s senior administrative team. This position was created as a change to the one formerly held by David Grant. Potomac hoped to create a broader role to foster a community that better protects its diverse student body and faculty.  

Head of School John Kowalik explained that creating a new role for Mrs. Williams to work alongside Mr. Grant was important in how the school was evaluating its work on DEI. The intent of that decision was to alleviate some of the workload from Mr. Grant and create more space for someone to be able to focus on diversity related-initiatives. 

“The decision was really because over the past several years it was clear that the nature of a lot of DEI issues was becoming more complex,” Mr. Kowalik said in an interview last fall.“From a leadership point of view, we just thought the depth of the work was becoming really too much for one person to handle. As good as he is, the world has changed and the nature of these issues are more complex.”

With Mrs. Williams handling DEI community initiatives, Mr. Grant shifted his focus to diversity in admissions and supporting new families of color. 

“I’m excited to be a part of admissions in a way that I haven’t been to in the past by supporting students (of diverse backgrounds),” Mr. Grant said. “My strength has always been developing relationships with people and families, making sure they feel supported while they are here,” Mr. Grant continued. 

Juna McDaid, the Assistant Head for Academics, described how over the last three years the school had been evaluating the administrative structure in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion. “One person officially in this role is not enough for the size of school as we are. We had to make this commitment and bring on another person so that they can sort of split the work,” Ms. McDaid said.

While clearly, the administration was aware that there was not enough staff to adequately tackle the depth of DEI-related problems that needed to be solved, that is not something that was remedied with the creation of Mrs. Williams’ position.

“At points, I feel stretched thin because there are some things I can’t be a part of just because I can’t be everywhere,” Mrs. Williams said. 

In an email to the Potomac community on February 26, Mr. Kowalik announced that Mrs. Williams will be leaving the school in June, at the end of her first year. 

“I would be doing Potomac a disservice by staying on to a position that doesn’t spark joy for me any longer in the way that it has to for me to do it well,” Mrs. Williams said. 

In his email to the Potomac community, Mr. Kowalik explained how he hopes Mrs. Williams’ departure affects the school’s plans for how DEI will be addressed in the coming years. “We will maintain our momentum by moving forward with a search for the right leader and leadership structure to build on the strong foundation that is now in place,” Mr. Kowalik wrote in the email.  

While Potomac is clearly emphasizing their vision for an empowered DEI role and staff within the administration, the administration has yet to explain how that will be implemented. Mrs. Williams told us what she saw as the ideal structure for DEI positions, in which they would have a seat at the executive level within the Potomac administration. 

“I would love to see for the new equity practitioner that comes into the school that they have a seat on the administrative staff and that the role has that partnership with the administrative team,” she said. “I hope that whatever position comes forward is created in a sustainable way.  I think that it would be very helpful to have a team that’s dedicated fully to that work (of DEI), to make sure that this new person has many levels of support and they don’t feel isolated.” 

English teacher Torrye Parker echoed the need for a team to make the role of Director of DEI sustainable. “At a K-12 school, one person being in charge of all the diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, having one person lead it, it’s not sustainable. I think Mrs. Williams needs a team behind her, we have an IT team, a development team, a team of academic deans, student life deans, there needs to be a diversity team of people working underneath her in every single division.” Ms. Parker said. “So of course it’s sad to see that she’s leaving after only this year, but I wasn’t surprised because the position is extremely challenging and overwhelming.” she continued. 

Mrs. Williams is not the first faculty member of color to leave the school in recent years. Faculty of color, according to Ms. Parker, can feel the burden of continually having to speak up for the experiences of students, parents, and other faculty of color. 

“There is a pattern of people who are in diversity and inclusion work feeling overwhelmed, feeling like they don’t have enough support for the work at our school, and there’s a pattern of faculty and staff of color leaving, we can all see that,” Ms. Parker said. 

The human resources department has stressed the importance of their diversity hiring fairs, which provide new opportunities to hire a more diverse faculty and staff. They should certainly be lauded for their efforts to hire a talented and diverse faculty and staff, but hiring is not the end of the line. 

“I think HR needs retention strategies focused on people of color. In the HR world, people know that it’s not just about recruiting, it’s about what are you doing to retain them, what are you doing to keep them, or else you’ll have a revolving door where people come for a few years and then end up leaving because they don’t feel affirmed, or valued, or supported. So we need to do the hard work of coming up with those strategies,” Ms. Parker said. “I think that they need to put as much energy into retention as they do into recruiting, and to do that they need to get a consulting company that actually specializes in retention,” she told us. 

Through all of the indecision regarding the future of the DEI role in the Potomac administration, Mrs. Williams’ advice from the start of her role still rings very true. 

“It’s so important that we know what we’re fighting for. If we’re just fighting for a life of exhaustion, then it’s not something I would be excited about; if I know that I’m fighting to have moments of joy, laughter, and play with my community and that’s why I do liberation work, that’s what motivates me. I can have challenging conversations because I know what I’m fighting for. I hope students are doing that–to not just fighting for fighting’s sake but also make sure that you are filling your cups up so that you can pour yourself into other things in a healthy way. Please, center joy.”