Rivers’ Equity and Engagement Team: Innovation in Action

This is the first year that the Equity and Engagement Department has been reorganized and expanded to oversee DEI, community engagement, and global education under new director Jenny Jun-lei Kravitz, but the impact is already being felt throughout the school, with enhanced programming, a sweeping vision, and an emphasis on the kind of environment and community Rivers values.

Parents, caregivers, and alums learned about the novel structure of the new team at a panel event titled “Innovation in Action” on the evening of March 6, shortly before spring break. Kravitz, along with Associate Director of DEI Katie Henderson, Director of Community Engagement Lucas Malo, and Director of Global Education Andrea Villagrán, spoke about their respective areas of oversight. The team members conveyed to those in attendance their excitement about what they’ve already accomplished and about the plans that lie ahead.

Head of School Ryan S. Dahlem introduced Kravitz. “One thing that attracted me to Rivers was its commitment to creating an inclusive community and to DEI work,” said Dahlem. 

Before Kravitz came on board in July 2023, the position of permanent DEI director had been vacant for two years, with the interim role ably filled by Henderson. “When I was hired,” said Dahlem, “I immediately embarked on the journey of hiring a new head of DEI. Jenny is an extraordinary leader and researcher.”
Kravitz then took the stage. “This is a really innovative structure, and it’s part of what brought me here,” she said. “You don’t see this kind of structure in a lot of places.”

She told the audience that the team created a mission and vision statement at the beginning of the year, landing on the goal of infusing equity, access, and belonging across all areas of the school. “Our vision is to create an institution that is intentionally equitable,” she said.

The “belonging” piece, said Kravitz, is particularly crucial. “You want to make sure that members of the community aren’t just welcomed and seen, but also that they have agency to co-create the environment and the community.” She shared a chart that illustrated the areas of Rivers that are touched by DEI—essentially, all of them. 

Each panelist explained a bit about their role and how it relates to the broader mission of Equity and Engagement. Henderson handles DEI programming, overseeing everything from special presentations to affinity spaces to the cultural calendar to bias reports. Malo, as director of community engagement, said, “My main philosophy is to get students off campus, connecting with organizations in the local area and with passions and topics that are close to their hearts.” He also serves on the team that teaches the required Grade 10 foundation course focusing on community and civic engagement. Villagrán has overseen travel programs for several years but emphasized that, under the new structure, “We’re moving toward a more comprehensive program, away from being tourists to being active learners.”

The shift in structure, the panel explained, grew out of discussions that made it increasingly clear that these areas are interconnected. Calling the outcome “accidentally strategic,” Henderson said that “having our search for a permanent director last two years instead of one meant that we had time to think about how the person we were bringing in could do DEI differently.” She said because she’s continued to oversee the programmatic initiatives, Kravitz has the time and bandwidth to implement a larger strategic vision. 

This year’s DEI theme, “Engaging Across Differences,” is a case in point, Henderson continued. The school has had a different yearly DEI theme since 2020, but this year, because of the new structure, the implementation of that theme has been more “organic and collaborative,” she said, citing such examples as a panel of Rivers professional community members who spoke about their own immigrant experiences and an impactful visit from award-winning journalist Sonia Nazario

Kravitz asked the panelists what most excites them about the work going forward. Malo, who joined Rivers in September, spoke about a new Grade 10 community impact fellowship planned for next year. “Whether it’s health-care inequities or a STEM program for BIPOC youth, I want them to find their passion and dive in, and I want them to share those passions with the community.” Said Villagrán, “I’m most excited about creating a globally competency framework that’s integrated into the curriculum and isn’t just travel programs and language classes.”

“You can see why I’m excited to work with these three,” said Kravitz. “The fact that we have this structure means that they can focus on the student experience.” Students are always centered in the work of the team, said Kravitz later, and the new structure also enables her to bring her attention and expertise to strategic work with school leadership. “There are so many things we’re excited to do,” said Kravitz, “and we’re so lucky to be able to lean on each other throughout the day.”
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