BY MADDY HOLDEN
Special to the Observer
The Champlain Valley School District’s hiring in April of Liliana Rodriguez as director of diversity, equity and inclusion is part of a broader effort to drive institutional change.
The role was created after Superintendent Elaine Pinckney conducted an equity literacy audit of district schools and determined that the district needed leadership in the area. She presented her findings to the school board last June.
“Dr. Rodriguez has spent her entire career in this realm and has an incredible depth of knowledge,” said school board chair Angela Arsenault.
The director of diversity, equity and inclusion is a senior administrative position that will report directly to the superintendent.
“I was drawn to the way she talks about professional and community development, working with the teachers and educators in the buildings and also bringing in the community,” Arsenault said.
The creation of this leadership role isn’t the only thing the school district has done to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.
“During this school year, we have had diversity, equity and inclusion lead coaches and they worked with a team made up of coaches that are based in each of our schools. That team has done wonderful work this year,” said Bonnie Birdsall, the district’s director of digital learning and communication.
For Champlain Valley Union High School’s Social Justice Alliance, these efforts mean a great deal.
Chris Smith is a social studies teacher at CVU and the advisor for CVU’s Social Justice Alliance.
“This hire is just one more piece that suggests that diversity, equity and inclusion are so important,” Smith said. “We’re excited to have another advocate for social justice and my hope is that this forces the community to take this stuff seriously.”
Stella Wald, a sophomore at CVU and a member of the school’s Social Justice Alliance, said, “This has taken a lot longer than students would have wanted, but we’re grateful it’s finally here.”
Wald said she hopes Rodriguez will help create groups like the Social Justice Alliance at middle and elementary schools.
Smith echoed this hope.
“It’s not enough to teach about these things starting in high school,” he said. “By that time, society has already made its imprint on you … This is a culture issue. It is dictated by the cultures we all grow up in. It’s not as simple as saying ‘you should treat people nicely,’ it’s changing the way we see the entire world. And that’s not a fast thing.”
Wald recommends that Rodriguez sit in on Social Justice Alliance meetings. She also recommends she make surprise visits to classrooms across grade levels so she can see the curriculum.
“I would love some new courses like the Black America course that will run next fall for the first time,” said Wald.
“We should be able to bring up social justice issues in class and not be told that this isn’t the time or place,” she added. “It should always be the place and time.”
Smith is optimistic that this position will allow for greater support for people who report experiencing a problem.
“The policies in place dictated by federal laws and state laws are very prescriptive,” he said. “They don’t include how we can make sure we’re supporting the person that reported.”
Because the role is new, Arsenault anticipates that Rodriguez will have a big part in defining what it is exactly.
“Just considering how much experience Liliana’s had in different environments, I think she’s well suited to figure out what this role needs to look like in this school system,” said Arsenault. “I think her first priority is going to be listening. Just hearing from people, hearing from teachers and students and community members. She used the phrase ‘deep listening,’ which I just love. Like, ‘what is really happening? What is your experience in this school system?’”
Rodriguez brings a background in higher education and diversity, equity and inclusion. Most recently, she was vice-chancellor of campus life and inclusive excellence at the University of Denver. She served as director of diversity recruitment at Williams College and associate dean of diversity, inclusion and community development at Swarthmore College.
She has been a lecturer at Williams College, an educational consultant and a mental health and substance abuse counselor for Hampshire College and Berkshire County, Mass. She holds a B.A. in psychology from Williams College and an M.S. in clinical psychology and a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Her first day on the job will be July 1. She was not available for comment for this article.
Maddy Holden is a reporter with the Community News Service, a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.