A fourteen-year veteran Ensworth teacher and community leader, David Whitfield has recently assumed the role of Director of Community Engagement & Inclusion and sits on the Ensworth Leadership Team.
Share a little about your educational journey and your history with Ensworth. I joined the Ensworth community in 2006. Since that time, I have been the Seminar Department Chair and have taught in both the History and English departments. I created and taught elective courses in both the History of the Civil Rights Movement 1954–1968 and African-American Literature, both of which I teach currently. It has always been important for me to teach students about America’s challenge to get better in the arena of race relations and the quest for a more perfect union in general. We deal with tough and sensitive questions daily as we explore history and literature. I have also taught Russian Literature, British Literature, Short Stories, World History, and Contemporary Issues. This is a great time for Harkness instruction and critical thinking.
I’ve been in independent school education for a long time. I was the first African American faculty member hired at Montgomery Bell Academy, and I spent 12 years at MBA in a variety of roles: history teacher, Director of Counseling Services, Head of Model UN, and Head of the Advisory Program.
What was the genesis of this new role of Director of Community Engagement and Inclusion? In 2017, David Braemer and I entered into discussions about my playing more of an expanded role at Ensworth. In 2019, our SAIS accreditation visiting team recommended that we create an official position to spearhead our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts, and I was appointed to this leadership role earlier this spring.
What do you see as opportunities for growth for Ensworth in the area of community engagement and inclusion? Ensworth is an American institution, and America is an evolving nation. We remain in pursuit of a more perfect union. We are always seeking improvement as an institution, and right now, independent schools across the country are being challenged to improve in our efforts to create a stronger sense of belonging for our students in more systematic and concrete ways. This is an opportune time for Ensworth to become assertive in our efforts to meet these challenges. Some of the modest efforts we have made have helped other independent schools in the southeast to grow. We haven’t been afraid to open our doors to students of color and put them in prominent roles, from quarterback to student government president. And we can still get better.
Tell us about your involvement with other community organizations and how those relationships have extended to Ensworth. Thirty years ago, I co-founded and became Executive Director of Time to Rise, Inc., which provides summer camps for at-risk youth that offer academic and enrichment opportunities along with a character education initiative. Time to Rise helps build bridges between independent schools and the community and operates on four different campuses now: Ensworth, Harpeth Hall, MBA, and we have an ELL program at Harding Academy.
Then in 2009, we established the Kids Academy program because we had an eager population of high school students who were very capable and interested in service opportunities in the summer. With Kids Academy starting at the high school in Bellevue, we identified rural communities to work with instead of urban areas. We train high school students to be the teachers and counselors and utilize our facilities to host these camps in the summer.
We developed Tearing Down the Walls (TDW), a race and leadership conference for independent school students in the Southeast. The purpose of the conference is to afford students from diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds the opportunity to become leaders in the arena of race relations and inclusion. This year, the conference was supposed to be held at Ensworth with 25 premier schools from throughout the southeast, but we had to cancel due to COVID. The conference was held at Vanderbilt for the first two years.
TDW is designed to create a safe environment to have constructive conversations about complicated topics, specifically race. The idea is to make sure students from all walks of life can come together, talk, disagree, and understand that it’s ok to disagree. We exchange ideas and opinions but insist on civil engagement. The goal is to create a haven for fair-minded people who want to talk about race, recognizing there will be some discomfort, but no one will be penalized for not being as far along in the journey as someone else.
We have established a TDW club at Ensworth, and we hope to eventually have these clubs throughout schools in the southeast. As we build upon our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts, this club will become more instrumental in creating constructive, peaceful, and healthy discourse between students about all kinds of issues. And we won’t confine the focus to just dialogue but extend it to sharing in cultural experiences together.
What are some of your goals/priorities for the coming year? I’d like to facilitate much more systematic training for faculty to be more inclusive and culturally sensitive through professional development opportunities. I will be working with Dr. Rich Milner to develop more projects that raise the level of cultural awareness, and some of these will also be woven into student life. We also need to be much more intentional about building relationships with sources that can help us identify teaching faculty of color, which will include attending fairs in different parts of the country and building alliances with institutions and other organizations so when positions do arise, we can tap into these sources to ensure we have applicants of color.
I’ll be working with the Ensworth Parent Association to host monthly lunch conversations with parents and help new parents transition to the school. We’ll have roundtable discussions on what the transition to the Ensworth culture is like. We’d also like to offer evening classes for all adult members of the Ensworth community to come together and have conversations on race. It is also important to realize that at this moment the major focus is race, and this should never be trivialized, but we must also broaden our consciousness about the creation of safe spaces for all.
Ultimately, this has to be a community effort and will include the formation of a K–12 faculty diversity council and a K–12 parent diversity council whose intellectual capital I will leverage to help us move forward to create a greater sense of belonging for all students and faculty.