Kelly Yiadom is a “big believer in using adages” in her role as Westtown’s Lower and Middle School Director of Equity, Justice and Belonging. “It takes a village not only to raise a child but also to do anything of consequence,” she shares.
In Yiadom’s role at Westtown, she is tasked with working together with many people to move our missioncentric, anti-bias, anti-racist (ABAR), community building forward. The goal is to nurture and empower globally responsible stewards and leaders of a better world. And though this task is a large one, it is in concert with the school’s Strategic Vision and she is optimistic and excited by it and approaches her work joyfully. She references Ubuntu, a South African concept meaning, “I am because you are” when she explains, “We can only function with one another. Because parts of our culture can be insular, we may forget this. But upon further reflection, we have to remember that someone needs to manufacture a car so we can drive. We can only eat if farmers grow the food we need for sustenance. Everyone in the village must be invested in the success of the mission and each other, in order for us to progress together.”
Yiadom’s role is multifaceted, and she is extremely motivated by her objectives because she knows the end result is belongingness. She considers collaboration to be of utmost importance in this work, and she strives to cultivate it among students and faculty alike. She values her relationships with “grounded, smart, and deeply motivated,” colleagues whom she supports in their quests to create equity and belonging in the Lower and Middle School communities. She is equally energized by working with students to “celebrate all the unique parts of who they are and to help them develop their upstander power.” She adds, “Children instinctively know what’s right and wrong. They know when something doesn’t feel right or sound right or look right. Our work guides them to find their voice, their power, advocacy, and skills to express things like, I don’t like what I’m seeing or I think this person is being left out. From Primary Circle students on the playground to an eighth grader who sees something going on in the greater community or society, we want students to feel empowered to enact change.”
Yiadom also partners with families to foster a strong connection between school and home. She begins building this connection with an annual survey about family traditions and cultures, and a call to action. “One of the reasons I engage parents and guardians is because I want them to know that they are an essential part of the Westtown community. I want to know what is important to them. What’s their family’s story? What are their traditions? What holidays do they celebrate that might not be on the [school] calendar?” Knowing these pieces of information is invaluable and contributes to a greater sense of being seen and a feeling of belonging at school. When each student’s story is brought into the classroom, it is recognized as valuable. The survey also includes a call to action. She asks Westtown families what they are willing to commit to, to show up in support of the school’s ABAR initiatives, so they can take part in this work. Regular communication, frequent newsletters, emails, a dedicated resource portal, guest speaker visits to Lower and Middle School Parents’ Council meetings, and a solicitation for videos about family traditions and experiences are just the start of her interactions with family. “It’s a culture shift,” she explains. “Historically, schools have viewed home and school as separate entities. We are being intentional about combining the two.” Yiadom has only been at Westtown for a year and a half and she is already making an impact. “When a current event happens, families are being asked to engage their children about it at home. Students are then coming to school prepared to have conversations in the classroom as a result. And, more often than not, the students are initiating the conversations with teachers with a new depth and perspective.”
“This work takes time and cannot be rushed,” she shares. “If you move too quickly, it can become overwhelming and community members may withdraw.” Instead, Yiadom moves forward in stages. Small changes can be implemented quickly, such as starting with the intentional use of pronouns—Middle Schoolers are asked how they want to be known and recognized. Affinity groups have been developed in fourth and fifth grade in Lower School and continue through Middle School where students can “meet and share in brave spaces with other students who identify similarly to them.” Many Optimistic Open-Minded Students Seeking Equity (known as M.O.O.S.E.) Group provides a space in Middle School for students to talk about social justice-focused issues they want to tackle and support.
“Ensuring that all of our curriculum has an inclusive, equitable, ABAR lens is going to take some time to evaluate,” Yiadom emphasizes. “This will happen intentionally and methodically over the next few years.” Although it will take some time, much of the work has already begun at an impressive pace. In Lower School, Yiadom and School Psychologist Jessica Morley have developed a robust Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion/Social-Emotional Learning (DEI/SEL) curriculum that is composed of six themes through which students consider questions: identity (how do I see myself?); empathy (how do I put myself in the shoes of my peers); community building (how can I be a positive member of my school environment?); identity development (how do I learn about my diverse self and my diverse peers?); social justice (how do I change something when I understand it is unjust?); and anti-racism (how do I recognize and stand up to racism?).
Students learn to engage in discourse mindfully using phrases like, Can you help me understand what you mean? What I think I heard you say was ___. It made me feel ___. Practiced use of this intentional language creates opportunities for connection and understanding instead of shutting down when conflict or misunderstanding occurs.
By helping to build a knowledge base with Lower Schoolers based on curiosity, inquiry, and exploration, Yiadom and Morley are equipping Westtown’s youngest learners with the criticalthinking, knowledge, and skills they need to be successful ABAR learners. Yiadom also partners with School Counselor Elizabeth Reilly to delve deeper into this work with sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. Developmentally, students this age are forming a stronger sense of identity and can sometimes begin to push boundaries. “In Middle School, you learn by doing, making mistakes, making them again, and then figuring out what not to do,” Yiadom shares. Recently, Yiadom and Reilly established the “No Joke Zone.” Classes have discussed what’s okay to joke about, what isn’t. “We all enjoy laughter,” she says, “but when it is at the expense of someone else, we ask students to shift their perspective, to ask themselves how they can change what they are accustomed to doing, to make a different choice, to make sure other people are being respected and their voice is being heard. The key is helping students understand the importance of intrinsically making the right choice. In other words, how can you make the right choice even when no one is watching?” The effect of this work can be dramatic, it builds community, a sense of belonging among classmates, and joy.
Yiadom has not always been a diversity practitioner. But even as a 15-year classroom teacher, DEI work was an essential part of her educational space so transitioning into this work seven years ago was seamless. Her experience in the classroom is invaluable when it comes to understanding not only students but also the mindset, workload, and needs of her Lower and Middle School colleagues with whom she partners closely in their mission to be culturally responsive educators. And she is a natural. “We all have a light inside,” she says. “Whether it is brightened or dimmed depends on how a student’s fire is stoked, nurtured, and given air.” Yiadom herself is a bright light, and she is expert in the ability to brighten the lights of students, parents, and colleagues through this missiondriven work at Westtown and beyond.
Featured in the 2022 Westonian Vol. 1