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Get to Know Director of Social Justice and Equity Savannah Strong
Nueva Communications


Savannah Strong joins the Nueva Leadership Team as our new Director of Social Justice & Equity. Her work involves close partnerships with all members of the Nueva community. Director of Communications Karin Storm Wood (whose own Q&A will appear in an upcoming issue of Nueva Notes) sat down with Savannah for a conversation just before the first day of school.

What drew you to this role?

As a classroom teacher at my previous school, I found myself asking more and more questions about how to create a class community in which all of my students could thrive. That was grounded in my own experience as a Black girl growing up in predominantly white and wealthy spaces. I always felt like an outsider. I had to contort and change in order to fit in, in order to accomplish what I thought belonging was. And it worked: by a lot of external metrics, I had a lot of success as a student. But there was an aspect of myself that was constantly wearing a mask. 

When I got to college, I began to engage in a process of deep identity work. I began to come into a racial consciousness. That process was messy and hard: I didn't feel as though I had a community or a framework to map what I was feeling on the inside onto. 

As a teacher, I never wanted any student to feel that isolation. To me, it was important that every single student felt that they were not only celebrated and affirmed, but also that they had the support they needed, to understand who they were, in all of their beauty and complexity, so that we could create a school community in which every student could thrive. 

What other aspects of your childhood inform your work?

My mom is a naturalized citizen from Jamaica. My father is from Los Angeles, and his people are from Mississippi. One thing I'm coming to understand as an adult is the ways in which intergenerational trauma has shaped our lived experience, how it gets stuck in our bodies and passed down from generation to generation. So part of doing DEI work is, yes, understanding the theoretical frames, but it’s also about equipping ourselves with the tools to liberate our bodies from our history. To be effective in this work, we can’t intellectualize it: we must take the time we need to heal ourselves and to heal one another. 

In first grade, at my public school in Stanford, CT, I was immediately placed in all of the lowest reading and math classes. I think there was an unstated resistance to the idea of putting a Black child in advanced classes, but I had the privilege of having a mother who, despite the fact that she was a naturalized citizen, despite the fact that she did not have a college degree, advocated on my behalf. She pushed and she pushed. Finally, I was tested and moved into the gifted program. I think about what an opportunity it was for me, to have an unlimited ceiling. And I think about how many students who had Black or brown skin were looked over, and not given that opportunity to thrive. 

In fifth grade, my parents placed me in an independent school in Greenwich, CT. It was a huge investment for my parents to send my brothers and I to independent schools. In many respects, it came at a profound cost to their wellbeing and stability. I recognize the commitment that’s being made by so many families who choose to send their kids to a school like Nueva. I also recognize that being entrusted with the children of families of color is, for us at Nueva, an honor and a responsibility. 

When we think about bringing more Black and brown students, faculty, and staff into our community, we also need to acknowledge that cognitive assessments have a real and painful history.  I’m encouraged by the work being done across the school to right this wrong. Addressing this problematic history head-on—by expanding Black and brown students' access to a Nueva education—is central to our school’s commitment to social justice. 

What do you see as the importance of DEI work at Nueva? 

When we can't show up in community as our full selves, we are limited in our capacity to thrive. I see this with folks who hold marginalized identities, who feel they have to contort aspects of who they are, or hide and closet aspects of who they are. The cognitive load of that is so significant. No one should have to experience that. 

I see DEI work as deeply empowering. This holds true even for folks who hold a lot of power, who move through the world with white privilege, male privilege, socioeconomic privilege, able-bodied privilege, or other types of privilege. It's important for us to recognize where we hold power and to understand our ability to leverage that power to make a more just and equitable world. I want every community member to see themselves as having a seat at the table. When we move through the hard and complex parts of it, it is so deeply liberating. The work of DEI at Nueva needs to be held by the collective.

What values inform your work? 

Belonging is a big one. Research psychologist Brené Brown argues that there's a distinction between belonging and fitting in. I know I have moved through the world working hard to fit in. To me, belonging is showing up in all of your beauty, complexity, and diversity, knowing that this is a space for you where you will be celebrated and affirmed. 

Community and justice, too—recognizing that we are all situated in a particular time and space, that our lived experience is impacted by our history. We have an opportunity to recognize the ways in which our history has created unequal opportunity and to do the hard work of crafting a world that is more just. 

I think part of that requires having the capacity to dream expansively. We so often get mired in what is, and we start from this place of trying to fix what is. For me, the first step is actually to dream expansively of what can be, and then to decide collectively how we get there. 

I don't know if in my life I'll ever see the world that I dream of. But giving myself the space to dream radically, in and of itself, is a liberatory practice that allows me to continue to do the work.

What do you hope to achieve in this role?

The Nueva community has done so much foundational work around creating a school ecosystem in which folks feel that they belong. I think about the tenure of my predecessor, Alegria Barclay, and the work that she stewarded on behalf of this community. It’s a tremendous honor to be standing on her shoulders. 

And it’s a tremendous honor to learn from and work alongside our phenomenal divisional coordinators, b Garcia (lower school), Matthew Oakland (upper school), and Shelby Divan (middle school). I am a big believer in the idea that those most proximate to problems also have the most nuanced understanding of solutions, and this team has been an invaluable source of knowledge to me as I learn the intricacies of the Nueva community. 

Part of creating a community in which everyone belongs is creating spaces in which everyone feels that they can exhale, that they can be in community with each other and just experience joy and celebration. So my team and I are planning to expand our affinity spaces for students across the three divisions, and for employees and for families. 

This includes anti-racist affinity spaces for students who identify as white. Many of our white students are trying to find their voices in this conversation. They don't want to say something that inadvertently causes harm to their classmates of color whom they love and care about. As a result, they often feel that they're pushed into silence. 

Our white students deserve to have these tough conversations. An anti-racist affinity space will provide a beautiful opportunity for white students to talk about whiteness, to talk about and unpack the ways in which whiteness lives in their bodies. From there, they can engage in a broader community conversation from a place of empowerment, self-interrogation, and deeper understanding. 

That said, my deepest goal is for every single one of our kids—our children of color, our queer kids, our neurodivergent kids, kids from underrepresented faiths—to be able to celebrate themselves and to be celebrated by the communities around them.

You recently completed a master’s degree at Stanford. How did that program influence your approach to this work at Nueva? 

At Stanford, I had the opportunity to teach design thinking with Michael Berry and Michelle Jia. In the design world, particularly in Silicon Valley, often the solutions we build for communities—particularly communities that historically have had a lot taken from them—are perhaps ineffective or even cause harm. But in this course, our first nine classes were about need-finding—about understanding the problem. It wasn’t until our tenth and final class that we began to even think about building solutions. 

With this work that we call DEI, we need to sit in problems, to understand problems deeply, before we jump to solutions. When we think about the small numbers of Black and brown students and teachers here, that’s a problem that we need to center. And instead of me coming in and generating a million solutions to this problem, I—we—need to listen to people. We need to listen deeply to the folks who move through this space—especially the folks who are most marginalized—every day. We need to ask creative questions. 

Let’s switch gears before we close. What are you passionate about outside of work? 

For me, it's really important to build a home space, a place where I can exhale and be myself, where I see myself reflected and where the folks who come into my space can have that same feeling. So I get weirdly passionate about DIY projects, about interior design, about cooking, about candles. Really it's about creating physical spaces, experiences. 

What is something that people might be surprised to know about you? 

A life goal of mine is to own a pickup truck. I'm always hauling things. I'm always trying to build stuff, and it's very challenging to do with my sedan. I will know that I've made it when I own a four-door pickup truck.

 

QUICK FACTS
 
Favorite book to gift: Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother's Hands
 
Favorite travel destination: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
 
Song that gets you on the dance floor: "Dance to the Music" by Sly and the Family Stone
 
Person, place, or thing that brings you joy: My apartment on Sunday morning, a cup of black coffee, and Miles Davis.
 
Favorite rule to break “No white after labor day.” 
 
Hidden talent: I’ve got some pipes.
 
Your hero: The late, great bell hooks. 
 
Last "supper" (i.e. favorite meal): I've recently made the decision to start becoming a vegan. But that aside: my mother's spaghetti carbonara.


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