CA Curious

Building Bridges: How One Conference Creates Community at CA and Beyond

March 16, 2023

“You can make what you’re passionate about become a reality […] You can always have a role!”

These rousing words, uttered by keynote speaker Dr. Ya Liu, could not have been truer to the Building Bridges Across Communities conference story. The first of its kind in Cary Academy history, the conference brought together Asian-identifying students and faculty from across multiple Triangle schools in a day of fellowship, fun, and future-oriented enthusiasm. 

It all began one year ago after Leya Tseng Jones, Isa Oon, and I returned from the Asian Educators Alliance (AsEA)conference in California. Invigorated and inspired by the work of Asian diaspora educators from across the country, we immediately began plans to bring a similar necessary experience to our community through connections at other local schools. As Leya explained,  “Collaborating and building strong working partnerships with our counterparts at Durham Academy and Ravenscroft was so rewarding; witnessing the initiative, organization, and collaboration of our student leaders with their counterparts was truly inspiring. Each group took the lead on one component of our morning and thoughtfully managed every detail. I couldn’t be more impressed with what they accomplished together over just a few Zoom meetings of face-to-face time.” 

From the beginning, it was clear to this union, known as the Asian American Alliance, that the conference should not only be student-focused, but student-led. Three student leaders and members of the Upper School Asian American Pacific Islander Affinity Group, senior EJ Jo, junior Eric Xie, and junior Angela Zhang, each took a large role in organizing with other student leaders as well as fellow affinity group students. When asked about how close the first vision was to the final result, the answers were positive. 

“Initially, we wanted to invite a keynote and have a few sessions for discussion,” Angela said. “The result was just that; it was very similar to what we originally thought.” Eric added, “Our turnout was great, especially on such short notice, and every participant definitely seemed to want to be there and actively participated in the group activities and asked insightful questions to our keynote speaker, Dr. Liu. Looking back, there’s very little I would change, if anything at all.”

On Wednesday, March 8, Cary Academy students were joined by members of Durham Academy, Ravenscroft, St. Mary’s School, and the Montessori School of Raleigh. First on the agenda was the keynote address by Dr. Ya Liu, highlighting the connection between the personal and the political.

“I didn’t intend to be a leader,” Dr. Liu told the audience after outlining her impressive experience in community organizing. “It’s precisely because of the work I did. You may think, ‘I’m just a middle schooler, I’m just a high schooler, what can I do?’ […] A lot of these experiences will become part of who you are.” Dr. Liu went on to encourage students to seek out resources from beyond their schools and to “find the friends who will support you. Find the teachers who will support you.” 

Following the speaker, all participants were separated into randomized groups to experience a spectrum activity in which members were asked to discuss the intersections of their identity and what effects this had on their relationship with themselves and others. Students then attended one of several student-only workshops while adults exchanged encouragement and visions for the future in a different affinity group. 

“In both discussion sessions, I heard from many students about their experiences with their ethnicity and race,” Angela recalled of the student portion. “Even though I had never met these students before, it seemed that we had experienced the variation of a common struggle: our adolescent urge to be ‘white.’ So it surprised me how isolated everyone felt compared to how everyone was going through the same thing. Therefore, my biggest takeaway is that we were and are never alone.”

On the adult side, Leya observed that “There are so few Asian-identifying faculty/staff in our schools. We – the adults – need to find time to gather, even if virtually, to connect and support each other. Our brief time together was affirming and empowering.” 

When I looked around the Discovery Studio at the fellowship lunch, it was clear that every person present felt fulfilled and connected. In a world where being Asian American can often lead to so much stress and pressure from many sources, the beauty of Asian diasporic joy becomes not only a delight but a necessity. Looking forward, I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we all intend to keep building this reality we’re so passionate about.

Written by Lauren Bullock, Language Arts and World Cultures Teacher

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Meet the New Faces of CA

November 10, 2022

This fall, CA welcomed many new faces to campus! New faculty and staff have joined us in nearly every corner of campus, and we are so pleased to introduce them to you. Below you will find some fun facts about each unique individual, and we hope you get the chance to say hello if you run into them in your daily lives.

Maria Arias
Operations Technician

If your life was a book, what would the title be?
The Happiest Woman Alive

What is your secret superpower?
I am hard working!

Gavin Barrentine
Education & Technology Support Specialist

What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
I grew up in Delaware and have only been in North Carolina for about 5 months.

Tell us about your favorite hobby.
My favorite hobby is watching movies. I spend most weekends watching at least a movie or two.

Nancy Barrientos
US Admin Assistant

What’s something that most people don’t know about you? 
Most people don’t know how much I actually love the fall because with all its beauty. It also means the return of Football! Sundays are a full-family event of fantasy football, snacking, and cheering for my SF 49ers!

What is something you have done in the last couple of years that makes you proud? 
I have held many titles in my roles in education, but by far my favorite was having the ability to give back to my community by going into the classroom during the pandemic – when we experienced one of the biggest teacher shortages to date. The privilege to support the special services department, co-teach grades 6-8, but most importantly serve as an advocate for my students and their families is an experience that I will always hold dear to my heart. Saying goodbye to my team and students was probably one of the hardest things to do when leaving NJ. 

Margaret Chidwick
US English Teacher

Tell us about your favorite hobby.
My favorite hobby is cooking. I especially like any recipe that requires chopping vegetables, as I find the whole process quite meditative. I lean toward simple recipes to let the food speak for itself. My favorite vegetable recipe is sauteed broccoli rabe, which requires just several ingredients. Some people say bacon makes everything better; and while I agree with them, I also believe that broccoli rabe compliments many food favorites of mine and even put it on fried eggs. Vegetables aside, I love making a good cheesecake and strawberry pie too.

If your life was a book, what would the title be and why?
The title would be Dig In because I am never more content than when I am actively committed and focused upon whatever is happening in the present moment.

Caroline Damitog
Athletic Trainer

If your life was a book, what would the title be?
Murphy’s Law

What is something you have done in the last couple of years that makes you proud?
I have climbed two 14ers in Colorado (Mt. Antero and Pikes Peak). One of them I sprained my ankle at the very top then had to hike down 7 miles on it to my car.

Tell us about your favorite hobby.
I like to crochet. But my favorite hobby is starting a new hobby/project and then never finishing it.

April Ellerbe
Special Events and Engagement Coordinator

What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
I am an introvert and extrovert.

If your life was a book, what would the title be and why?
I Don’t Look Like What I Am Going Through 

Treston Ellerbe
Logistics Coordinator

What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
I used to want to be a puppeteer.

Tell us about your favorite hobby.
I love to produce and make music.

Lou Farone
Operations Technician

What is something you have done in the last couple of years that makes you proud?
I’ve helped elderly people in my neighborhood.

Tell us about your favorite hobby.
My favorite is working around the house and yard creating different things.

Rickie Hashagen Operations Technician

What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
I’m originally from Charlotte, NC.

Tell us about your favorite hobby.
I like playing pool and watching TV, especially kickboxing and professional wrestling.

Becca Haque
Admin Assistant, College Counseling

What is something you have done in the last couple of years that makes you proud?
Running a 5K and also the Tarheel 4 miler!

What is your secret superpower?
I can recognize really obscure/random actors. And I’m a pantry-organizing queen!

Kevin Hogue
Lead Operations Technician

What is something you have done in the last couple of years that makes you proud?
Donated blood to help others.

What is your secret superpower?

Ahnie Ingram:
US ScienceTeacher

What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
I’m from Louisiana. I lived there all my life and all my extended family still lives there. My husband and our kids relocated to North Carolina in 2015.

Tell us about your favorite hobby.
My favorite hobby is cooking! I love to cook comfort foods for my family, especially Cajun dishes like red beans and rice and jambalaya on Saturdays in the fall when my LSU Tigers are playing!

Soo Mee Kaas
MS Math Teacher

If your life was a book, what would the title be and why? 
Corny Jokes…WHY?!!  My family loves to tell these tremendously corny jokes that they find hilarious.  I am the only sane one.

Tell us about your favorite hobby. 
I love to read and play volleyball.  I could spend all day playing grass doubles volleyball while hanging out with friends and family.

David Kaufmann
MS Math Teacher

Tell us about your favorite hobby.
I love to run! I have been running ever since middle school and have run one marathon and numerous half-marathons. Running is a great way to explore new places and enjoy some fresh air – especially in this amazing fall weather!

Nazim Pasha
Lead Operations Tech

If your life was a book, what would the title be and why?
Lead By Example! At the end of life we either fail or succeed because of leadership.

Tell us about your favorite hobby.
Reading and writing anything thought-provoking and universal in its application.

Kristen Thompson
Technical Assistant

What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
At home, I have a cream-colored tabby named Remus – a reference to my favorite character from the Harry Potter series. Unfortunately, I realized much too late how ironic it was to name a cat after a character who *spoiler alert* turns into a glorified dog.

Tell us about your favorite hobby.
Although I was unable to partake in this activity throughout the pandemic, I’ve been regularly attending concerts since I was in the 6th grade. I constantly listen to music – to the point that I feel uncomfortable in its absence.

Fernando Valera
Operations Supervisor

What is something you have done in the last couple of years that makes you proud?
I am about to get my associate’s degree in applied science with a specialty in H.V.A.C.

What is your secret superpower?
I don’t shy away from hard work.

Alexa Velez
MS Dance Teacher

What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
I enjoy playing the piano and composing my own music. 

What is something you have done in the last couple of years that makes you proud?
This year, I was a recipient of the Frankenthaler Climate Art Award for my video work addressing climate change.

Willie Warren
Speech & Debate Teacher

What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
I played the piano, cello, trumpet, trombone, snare and bass drum

If your life was a book, what would the title be and why?
Woah!!! What was that?: A diary of a man who believes too much in hyperbole and onomatopoeia

Tell us about your favorite hobby.
During the holidays, I work on Lego architecture sets to keep.

Written by Ellie Sammons

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Letting Our Children Be Who They Are Meant To Be

October 27, 2022

The other day I was watching a clip* from a neuropsychologist Dr. Russell A. Barkley who was addressing a group of educators in a series called “Essential Ideas for Parents.”  He began with “The problem with parents these days…” and he almost lost me. Heavy sigh. Eye roll.

I usually have no tolerance for whatever negativity comes after such grand, generalized statements—especially one aimed at parenting (which is arguably more complicated now than in any previous generation). While defensive, I continued watching. He jabbed his finger in the air and proclaimed, “Parents do not get to design their children.”I was intrigued. He went on to say:

Nature would never have permitted this to happen. Evolution would not have allowed a generation of a species to be so influenced by the previous generation.  

A quick perusal of any medical office waiting-area parenting magazines would suggest quite the opposite. There, in glossy print, you’ll find recipes for The Perfect Baby.  The D1 Athlete.  The Child-Who-Has-An-Easygoing-Temperament. Who is writing those articles?

Reading one of those magazines gives a false impression that if parents just do the right things, their children will become what they plan for them to be. No pressure, right? Dr. Barkley would rip those magazines to shreds. Based on everything neuroscientists, behavioral psychologists, and many other researchers have studied, our children are born with a “unique genetic mosaic” comprised of hundreds of psychological and physical traits from genes that extend beyond the biological parents and well into your extended families.

The development of these genes in your children is, science tells us, largely out of the control of parents. Regardless of whether the mother ate enough broccoli when she was pregnant or if she frequented Bojangles for fried chicken twice a day (totally random example, don’t look at me), a large part of her child’s gifts and challenges are already pre-programmed. Too often, society likes to suggest that we have control over so much of what is not in our control. Our kid’s success, we have been told, is based on the choices we make as parents.

The truth is:  we don’t have that degree of power.  Nature would never permit that to happen.”

What does this mean, that we’re not in control?  Is it frightening, or is it freeing?  You tell me. Yes, Dr. Barkley says, a stimulating environment is better than a deprived environment.  But ‘more is better’ reaches its point of diminishing returns, and overload in the name of child design has negative consequences. Maybe our pre-covid schedules and our post-ish-covid schedules in our homes tell that same story. Dr. Barkley and his colleagues encourage us to think of ourselves as parents as Shepherds, not Engineers. He goes on to explain:

The idea that you can engineer IQ, personality is just not true. Your child is not a blank slate on which you get to write.  Instead of an ‘engineer’ view of parenting [that makes you responsible for everything that goes right and everything that goes wrong—totally guilt inducing] step back and take the ‘Shepherd’s View’.  

You are a shepherd to a unique individual. You don’t design the sheep. But shepherds are powerful people. They pick the pastures in which the sheep will graze and develop and grow. They determine whether they’re appropriately nourished. They determine whether they’re protected from harm. The environment is important, but it doesn’t design the sheep. The shepherd knows that he will never make the sheep into a dog, no matter how much he wants a dog.

I read that as this:  we can do what we can to make sure our children have opportunity and surround them with great teachers, healthy friends, and intellectual stimulation. And then we get to observe, accept, and encourage. 

The stress we put on ourselves to engineer our children, surely rubs off on the child—how can it not?  We can unpack the damage of all that parental pressure:  it undermines confidence, sense of self, sense of trust in knowing who you are, and ultimately, paralyzing stress narrows your child’s options rather than follows their lead to new horizons. It certainly would decrease the competitiveness the world wants us to feel with other parents. Imagine this gentler, graceful approach snowballing into a new wave of parenting that encourages observation, discovery, and celebration. And, imagine, our children growing into their authentic selves—confident, assured, proud, and supported.

*After I saw the short video, I dove into literature that was footnoted at the end of the talk. Wow, one can really go down a rabbit hole if one chooses!  Stephen Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature boils the nature vs. nurture argument down and highlights many of these points.  He’s a psychology professor at MIT and was featured on a MIT author series.   I’ve talked about this book before but Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree reads like a textbook but is an ambitious exploration of children’s search for identity in families, in the world. 

Written by Josette Huntress Holland, Head of Middle School

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Reflections on AsEA

April 14, 2022

Legendary Asian American civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama once said, “Life is not what you alone make it. Life is the input of everyone who touched your life and every experience that entered it. We are all part of one another.” Ironically, it’s often when I gather with people under the banner of a shared identity that this sentiment truly comes alive, and I realize how intricate and vast the human experience really is.

From March 25th to March 27th Leya Jones, Isa Oon, and I all had the privilege of sharing space with other Asian American educators at the Asian Educators Alliance (AsEA) National Conference in Newport Beach, California. From the very beginning, the conference clearly communicated an intent to coalesce as a community first, rather than leaning into the academic atmosphere that comes both with the setting and the content. Conveying this tone may seem easy on the surface, but as someone with the experience of organizing over a dozen national and international conferences, I know that it’s one thing to mouth “community” and it’s quite another thing to physically relax into communion with strangers from across the country.

I’ve spent my whole life being the only Black, white, and Vietnamese person in the room, so I’ve come to expect that a room will be filled with more of Emily Style’s proverbial “windows” than “mirrors” to my experience. While “Asian American” began as a political term meant to unify various people groups experiencing similar oppression, in recent times it’s been appropriated to stand for an easy checkbox in the diversity list that erases the multiplicity of identities it is meant to stand for, often reducing us to singular representations.

At the AsEA conference, however, not only were there a myriad of Asian Americans represented in origin but also in skin tone; you could look around a room at any given moment and witness the vibrant rainbow of pale to tan to deep brown that reflects the reality of those of us in the global majority. As Jolina Clement mentioned in the “Multiracial Identity: Hyping the Hyphen” workshop, there’s a real privilege in being “in a space and not [having to] explain why I get to be in a space.” Often it was difficult to tell who was a keynote speaker, organizer, workshop leader, teacher, or student in the space, creating a climate of openness and adding a real authenticity to the moments of sharing.

This impression not only imbued the optics of the space, but also the content. The theme, “Radical Re(Imagining) of Asian America: From Myth to Truths,” created a shared metaphorical and literal landscape for both dispelling harmful myths (such as the Model Minority) and reconnecting to pre-colonial understandings of our world, often connected to “myth” and folklore. In “Hyping the Hyphen” we broke down the notion of multiracial Asian Americans as a recent phenomenon, tracing historical records back before the Chinese Exclusion Act and leaning into thinking of multicultural experience as pluralities, not fractions. In “Return to Our Cultural Psychologies to Disrupt the White-Dominant LGBTQ+ Spaces and Narratives” Lilia Cai and Maria Graciela Alcid interrogated what it means for us as educators to hold space for both our own and our students’ intersectional identities without forcing them to fit into narratives that were not built with us in mind. In “We Are Not Monoliths: From Essentialism to Panethnicity” Ricco Siascoco continued the conversation on what it means to have a shared identity that forges connection but can also erase vital disparities between cultures.

Student programming was also a highlight of the conference, involving multi-day workshops with educator and writer Dr. Liza Talusan who challenged participants to dig into what they wanted to build knowledge, engage in reflection, and then move to action to determine 1. what their respective schools needed to start doing, 2. what their schools needed to stop doing, 3. what needed to change, and 4. what needed to continue. This experience culminated in a final share out where students’ voices were centered, reading each other’s work to protect privacy while being able to voice their concerns candidly with their teachers in the presence of other educators. It provided a key reminder that our job as teachers is a continuous push for positive change centered on the needs of future generations in conjunction with ours, a reminder that the age-old translation of I love you, “Did you eat yet?” is a call to both feed ourselves and our students, together.

Written by Lauren Bullock, Middle School Language Arts teacher

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Eddie Glaude, Jr. addresses CA Students


Acclaimed scholar guides students through the lessons of Martin Luther King’s final years

January 13, 2021

On Wednesday, Cary Academy, in partnership with Durham Academy, proudly welcomed acclaimed scholar Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr. as part of its Upper School Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Observance.  

In an inspiring and thought-provoking keynote address “Lessons from the Later Dr. King,” Dr. Glaude offered a complex and nuanced representation of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and work, ultimately issuing a call to action for us all to strive towards creating the Beloved Community– a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love of one’s fellow human beings – that King envisioned.

Glaude argues that, for most Americans, the image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is frozen in time. We easily think of him as the leader of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott or as the passionate preacher delivering “I Have a Dream” in 1963. Dr. Glaude, however, offered students a look at another facet of the MLK story: Dr. King’s later and final years — when he was doubtful and felt that the country had turned its back on him.

Five years after “I Have a Dream,” King was grappling with despair and disillusionment over the country’s direction — a sentiment he shared with James Baldwin, one of the 20th century’s greatest writers and chroniclers of the Black experience. When the two men met a few months before Dr. King’s murder, both were desperately trying to re-narrate the civil rights movement and change the consciousness of America.

Dr. Glaude examines this critical juncture in the life of Martin Luther King Jr., and what we all must do to make America live up to its promise. “We long for a Dr. King or an Abe Lincoln, because we don’t see our own capabilities as being sufficient,” Glaude has said. “History converged in a way that called Dr. King forward, and he answered the call. That can happen with anybody. We don’t need another Martin Luther King. We need everyday, ordinary people. We are the leaders we’ve been looking for.”

Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. His most well-known books, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, and In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America, take a wide look at black communities, the difficulties of race in the United States, and the challenges our democracy face. His most recent book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, was released in June 2020. Glaude holds a bachelor’s degree from Morehouse College, a master’s degree in African American Studies from Temple University, and a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University. He is a columnist for Time Magazine, an MSNBC contributor, and regularly appears on Meet the Press.

This event was co-hosted by Cary Academy’s Director of Equity and Community Engagement, Danielle Johnson-Webb and Durham Academy’s Director of Diversity, Equity and Engagement, Kemi Nonez, and sponsored by Cary Academy’s PTAA.

Written by Dan Smith, Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager


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The Work Ahead

August 20, 2020

Photo: The leaders of CoExist (l to r): Sarah George ’21, Clay Thornton ’21, Vibhav Nandagiri ’21. Not pictured: Jordan Cuffee ’21.

This summer, we issued a letter to the community reaffirming our values and reiterating CA’s longstanding commitment to the hard—at times uncomfortable—introspective work of diversity, equity, and inclusion that have been core values since we first opened our doors. We pledged to be part of the solution and to work together to engage in anti-racist work to ensure that CA is a safe space for all our students to thrive.   

As you may have noticed in your social media feeds, in recent months, “Dear@” and “Black@” Instagram accounts have popped up all over the country. These accounts are part of a powerful national movement, as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and their allies share their experiences, rightfully calling independent schools and universities across the United States to account for their roles in perpetuating systemic racism.   

We know from stories shared within our community that CA is not exempt from this charge. Despite a longstanding commitment and history of anti-racist work, we have not been perfect. There is much work to be done, and we are committed to taking it up.   

We recently responded to a newly-launched DearCaryAcademy Instagram. I’ll be honest. These posts are difficult to read and reckon with. Introspection is crucial to anti-racist work, even (especially) when it is difficult. The experiences reported in these posts, however, are crucially important to hear, to acknowledge, and to discuss, process, and address as a community. That’s also why we have been soliciting stories from BIPOC members of our community on our anti-racism action page.   

We hope that owners of this account will be open to formally partnering in our anti-racist efforts, much as we partnered with our alums and parents of alums this summer in a series of listening Zoom calls. In those calls, alums and parents of alums were offered a safe space to share their experiences and perspectives. Being able to have those conversations openly and transparently has been instrumental in allowing us to be more effective and responsive and to chart the critical work that lies ahead this year (you can follow our evolving anti-racist work and planning at http://united.cary.academy/anti-racism/.)  

Indeed, some of the most challenging work that lies ahead is in creating a community where we can dialog openly and honestly about these painful matters. Where we can protect and respect BIPOC as they come forward to share what might be painful, scary, even traumatic, experiences, while also discussing, processing, and addressing them as a community. Only then that we will be able to heal, to learn, and to grow.  

To that end, this year, I am particularly excited to work in partnership with CA’s revamped CoExist Committee. Led by Clay Thornton ’21, Jordan Cuffee ’21, Vibhav Nandagiri ’21, Sarah George ’21, and Student Dialogue Leader Meirav Solomon ‘21, this group represents a passionate group of students working on behalf of their peers. They feel it imperative for young people to have a voice; they are dedicated to ensuring that alums ten years from now have a different, more positive experience than those who came before them.  

Central to their efforts is creating a safe space for intersectional dialogues, where we can work together across our differences to discuss and address hard topics in meaningful ways. This is foundational and crucial anti-racist work, and Meirav has been hard at work planning dialogues in partnership with our affinity groups and student clubs, like the Campus Conservatives.   

I could write for hours about the work that lies ahead of us, but instead, I would like you to hear from our Chief Student Diversity Officer, Clay Thornton:  

My name is Clay Thornton and I am a current senior at Cary Academy (Class of 2021). I am honored to serve this year as Cary Academy’s Chief Student Diversity Officer, or CSDO for short, a role committed to fostering a diverse, equitable environment for our community by leading Cary Academy’s CoExist club. This year, however, I am not leading CoExist alone. For the first time, Cary Academy has established a CoExist council to bolster my role as CSDO, comprising of my fellow Class of 2021 members Jordan Cuffee, Sarah George, and Vibhav Nandagiri. CoExist provides a space for members of the Cary Academy community to learn about and engage with diverse perspectives and identities through dialogue, workshops, and affinity groups. We provide an intersectional curriculum that encourages students to create and foster a better, more equitable CA community. By equipping students with the necessary tools to understand and respect different perspectives and identities, we prepare students to effectively collaborate and build relationships in their future beyond CA. While CoExist is a longstanding club within the CA community, the CoExist council is working this year to rebrand CoExist to match the current needs of the community.  

This school year will be unlike any year we have seen before. Not only must we adapt to the necessary protocols regarding the COVID-19 global pandemic, but we must also prepare opportunities for students to productively explore the tension throughout the United States. Disagreements over health protocols are omnipresent. Civil unrest, including protests against police brutality and racial injustice, has emerged in every major American city. Political tensions are boiling over as Biden and Trump begin their gruesome political warfare, marching quickly towards November 3rd. Americans are truly living in a historic moment, one filled with tension and in desperate need of cohesion. In an effort to find this cohesion, CoExist is pivoting to an introspective agenda. This year, more than ever, CoExist should focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion within the Cary Academy community. CoExist believes that this change will allow students to separate the high-tension experience with equity work in our nation from the equity work happening within our school community. For this reason, a new Social Justice club, unaffiliated with CoExist, has been started at Cary Academy, dedicated to educating students on the societal issues of our nation, as well as organizing ways for students to be catalysts for change. CoExist, however, will host dialogues, workshops, and affinity group meetings, not to discuss policy or politics, but rather to determine what we can change about ourselves and our community to make Cary Academy a place of which we can all be proud.   

Striving for a diverse, inclusive Cary Academy community is not a question of liberal or conservative. It is not an issue of democrats versus republicans. It is instead a commitment to embracing our differences, fostering collaboration, and celebrating our many identities. I hope this pivot will encourage more students, faculty, and staff to make this commitment because, if we all work together, we can create long-lasting, meaningful change within the Cary Academy community.  

Written by Danielle Johnson-Webb, Director of Equity and Community Engagement and Clay Thornton ’21, Chief Student Diversity Officer


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Affirming our values in trying times

June 1, 2020

Dear CA Community, 

It has been a challenging, painful, and scary week for our country and our community. 

Amid such emotion, it can be hard to find the right words to give hope and comfort. Writing on behalf of Cary Academy, we must try – as now is not the time to sit in silence. 

Recent events, including the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Atatiana Jefferson, and the unnerving incident with Amy Cooper—who made a false accusation against a black birdwatcher in Central Park—have laid bare not only the overt physical danger but also the insidious, systemic racism still facing people of color.

At Cary Academy, we are proud of our words and deeds regarding diversity, inclusion, and equity. We have held workshops on implicit bias. We have welcomed speakers such as Peggy McIntosh to campus to speak on white privilege. Regardless, we must recognize that the private act in the woods of Central Park by a self-proclaimed liberal white woman showed that racism transcends political parties and unearthed more than fault lines within our ability to build trust. It exposed a chasm.   

We recognize that there is much work to be done by white people. Racism in the United States is no less a crisis, no less pressing, and presents no less a threat to our society and our community than the current coronavirus pandemic. And it must be met with the same sense of urgency and thoughtful, proactive response.

Many black people in our community are grieving, fearful, angry, and distrustful. Many do not feel safe. We recognize this fear, pain, and anger. We grieve with you. We are angry alongside you. And, representing Cary Academy’s Leadership Team and Board of Directors, we remain committed to listening, earning and building your trust, and ensuring your safety through ongoing community and anti-racism work.

We will not be silent or cave to hopelessness. Instead, Cary Academy reaffirms our longstanding commitment to the hard, at times uncomfortable, introspective work of diversity, equity, and inclusion that have been core CA values since we first opened our doors. 

  • We pledge to be part of the solution—to prepare our faculty, staff, and students to combat racism and make the positive changes we all want to see in the world.
  • We pledge to listen—to lean into discomfort to grow and learn, and to create a safe space for difficult conversations. 
  • We pledge to look hard within to ensure that every member of our community is empowered to participate fully in the CA experience—to be known, lend their voice, and be heard—and to feel safe and respected while doing so.

As with our COVID-19 response, this will be an ongoing, evolving effort—one that is taking shape now. 

To our families of color: your voices and experiences are valuable and crucial. Yet, we recognize the psychological and emotional toll it can take to share your experiences and concerns. If you are in a place to share them, we want to hear them. We are here for you. 

We look forward to inviting all our members into these conversations as we work together to combat racism and become a stronger community, together. 

Dr. Michael Ehrhardt  
Head of School                                                                 

Manju Karkare
Chair, Board of Directors

Written by Mandy Dailey, Director of Communications

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Community Conversations

Building an Inclusive Community

February 12, 2020

What is the key to understanding each other? What allows us to open ourselves to the diverse experience and perspectives of others? How can we create a community strengthened by our differences, rather than one divided by them? How can we engage in difficult conversations around important—and even polarizing—issues in ways that support, respect, and validate all our community members, their belief systems, and backgrounds?

As a learning community that places a high value on inclusivity and equity, these questions are of the utmost importance at Cary Academy. Now in its third year, the Dialogue Across Difference initiative aims to respond to them by providing a framework for community members to “meet in the middle” to respectfully and thoughtfully engage each other’s differences in a productive, validating, and community-building way.

“We are one of the most diverse independent schools in the Southeast. It doesn’t matter that we are all at Cary Academy, each one of us brings different things—perspectives, experiences, backgrounds—to the table,” offers Director of Equity and Community Engagement Danielle Johnson-Webb.

“It’s critical that all of our students, faculty, and staff, feel that their voices are heard loud and clear, so, at the end of the day, we can find common ground,” continues Johnson-Webb. “So that we can say ‘We may come from different backgrounds, have different perspectives, or different opinions, but we still care about the same things. We still share concerns. We still value and respect each other as community members despite our differences and can learn from each other because of them.’”

Dialogue across Difference launched at CA in 2017, after CA’s leadership identified a need to help facilitate challenging conversations on campus. After an exhaustive search, they ultimately chose the Reflective Structured Dialogue method employed by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based consulting firm, Essential Partners, having encountered the approach in use at the University of North Carolina.

Reflective Structured Dialogue relies on personal narratives to break down stereotypes and create a sense of common ground and shared humanity. Participants are encouraged to listen and reflect upon what they hear, rather than react. All of this happens within a guided, structured format that ensures everyone has the chance to speak and to be heard in an open, thoughtful environment.

The Power of Dialogue

“Vulnerability is the key,” explains Meirav Solomon ’21, who underwent intensive training to become a dialogue facilitator as part of an expansion of the Dialogue Across Difference initiative. “A lot of perspective-taking is based in vulnerability. It’s the key ingredient in a good structured dialogue. It’s crucial to the ‘meet me in the middle’ experience that dialogue is all about.”

And “meeting in the middle” is crucial. Johnson-Webb is quick to point out that the goal of dialogue is not about changing anyone’s mind. “It isn’t debate; it isn’t intended to be persuasive,” explains Johnson-Webb. “Dialogue doesn’t mean that you have to accept what someone else says as your truth; its intent is only to build a common understanding.”

That’s a distinction that isn’t lost on students. “When a debate occurs, you never feel like you get to hear a person’s full point of view,” explains Vibhav Nandagiri ’21, a newly-trained dialogue facilitator. “But, through dialogue, you get to learn someone else’s perspective without any competitive need to win an argument. It leads to mutual understanding; listening to each other helps us chip away at our differences.”

It is a process that Clay Thornton ’21 has found leads to a closer connection and the development of empathy. “It’s hard to argue with someone’s experience,” he explains. “Having an environment that gives you that space to listen to others talk about their experiences and understand how those experiences have led them to the opinions that they have—it is truly eye-opening.”

Importantly, dialogue isn’t just about listening; the act of storytelling is just as important to the process. “To form the connections and relationships, it’s all about storytelling in the beginning,” explains teacher and Upper School advisor Kimberly Shaw, an inaugural Essential Partners Fellow, who took part in intensive leadership training in Boston and has led dialogues on college campuses and amongst communities beyond the CA campus.

“As you enter a dialogue, you can either decide to lean into your vulnerability and share your story, or you can hang back; the more vulnerable you allow yourself to become, the more connected you feel with those around you,” Shaw explains. “My first dialogue was in a group of strangers from around the globe. After two days of sharing our stories, sharing pieces of ourselves, and listening to each other speak our truths—I’ve never felt such strong connections to people that I’ve only known for two days. That’s the power of dialogue.”

To create that safe space that allows participants to “lean into their vulnerability,” dialogue has strict guidelines, rules of engagement that are co-authored and agreed to by all participants at the outset. These guidelines might cover anything from respectful body language, to allowing space for silence, to prohibiting cross-talk and interruptions, to confidentiality and assurances that what is said in the dialogue space, stays in the dialogue space, or any other parameters that the participants feel need to be addressed.

For Becca Humphries ’21, the creation of that safe space made all the difference in her dialogue training experience. “The dialogue setting created an environment where people weren’t afraid to open up and share those things that they might not always share out loud. It made us feel closer and provided a stronger sense of trust. It allowed me to be vulnerable to people outside of my community and to be open to sharing.”

Dialogue on Campus

Dialogue Across Difference is considered so critical to CA’s core value of fostering a richly diverse, equitable, and inclusive learning community that it is a core commitment of the Center for Community Engagement. The newly formed Center, which coordinates cross-divisional work in experiential learning, service learning, entrepreneurship, and equity, offers students opportunities to stretch, grow, and co-author their learning through meaningful engagements both within and outside of the CA community.

During the first two years of Dialogue Across Difference, the program initiated dialogues amongst CA’s faculty and staff, Board of Directors, parent groups, and students. The first student dialogues were facilitated by faculty members, with later dialogues co-facilitated with student leaders who had participated in specialized training.

The success of those latter dialogues inspired Johnson-Webb, who envisions student leadership as an important strategy for building community both on campus and off. It is this vision that prompted the recent training of 17 new student facilitators in October; 17 more students will undergo training in the spring.

African american affinity and alliance group

Indeed, the shift from dialogue participant to facilitator was a powerful leadership experience for recent student trainee Jordan Cuffee ’21: “The dialogue training allowed me to push myself to speak up first. In an informal conversation, I’m not usually the first person to voice my opinion; I usually end up listening, rather than taking a stance on sharing my opinion. But the dialogue training empowered us to decide if we want to say something now or listen. It really made me feel part of the conversation, rather than being on the outside, observing.”

“Like all CA programming, we’re always evaluating and reflecting to consider what is working and what isn’t, how we can increase impact, how to better meet the needs of our community,” says Johnson-Webb. “Putting students in the drivers’ seats as trained facilitators in these dialogue sessions, allowing them to own the process and work alongside faculty to address community issues—it makes them more invested in the dialogues. Hopefully, that leads to meaningful experiences that benefit our whole community.”

“Student facilitators flip the script,” offers Shaw. “When students lead, you can see a change occur, a shift as they understand the difference between being a participant and being a facilitator, as they work to hear and address the needs of their classmates and community.”

That shift is already having an impact on the way students see their concerns being heard by faculty and staff. “It makes you respect [the faculty] even more when they talk to you as equals,” Nandagiri explains. “To harness that in dialogue allowed me to realize that they actually do want to meet us in the middle.”

“Even though I knew my opinion was valid, to know that everyone there—not only the students but the teachers too—wanted to hear what I had to say, it made me feel my experience mattered,” adds Cuffee.

In addition to increasing student facilitator training, Johnson-Webb is also altering the way dialogues are implemented school-wide by engaging Upper School students in the choice of topics they will take up during this
year’s dialogues.

Already, a committee of student leaders has suggested a slate of dialogue topics that will be put to a vote by the Upper School student body. Topics under consideration include the role of PE and athletics on student health at CA; the definition of privilege, how it is manifested at CA, and its impact on students’ futures; how to better foster a community that honors all political ideologies; social dynamics and cliques; and stress and academic pressure.
It’s an innovative and forward-thinking approach to fostering inclusivity that sets CA apart. “The best thing a school can do is to call us before there’s a crisis—to live out the fullness of its diversity, to strengthen community resilience, or to transform its institutional culture,” offers Essential Partners Co-Director John Sarrouf. “Cary Academy’s vision and ambition are groundbreaking, and they are inspiring other schools to develop robust cultures of dialogue as well.”

Written by Dan Smith, Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager

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Inspiration in Seattle: the People of Color Conference

January 9, 2020

Front row, left-to-right: Shelton Shepherd, Twanna Monds, Donna Eason, Kelly Wiebe, Freya Kridle.  Back row: Bill Velto, German Urioste, Danielle Johnson-Webb (not pictured: Trish Yu)

Imagine over seven thousand independent-school educators, from across America and around the world, the vast majority of them people of color—Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, Asians—congregated in one place to seek pedagogical, psychological, and spiritual inspiration from dynamic speakers, eye-opening workshops, and engaging affinity groups. What does that all add up to? Hands down the best conference I’ve ever been to—and I’ve been to my fair share in my twenty-five years as a teacher.

I’ve had the pleasure and the privilege of attending the People of Color Conference twice, most recently in December. With a cohort of other CA educators, I traveled to Seattle for three days of professional and personal enrichment. Suffice it to say, we all experienced just that. How could we not? The conference’s theme—1619. 2019. Before. Beyond. Amplifying Our Intelligence to Liberate, Co-create, and Thrive—commemorated the 400 years since the first slave ships reached the so-called “New World”, and the keynote speaker, Dr. Joy DeGruy, an internationally renowned expert on “the intersection of racism, trauma, violence, and American chattel slavery”, as noted in the program, brought the house down with her rousing presentation on how the enduring legacies of horrific past injustices can be overcome by education, resilience, and community. Amid darkness, there is hope—that’s what she conveyed to her rivetted audience.

Or how about Valarie Kaur? A modern-day Renaissance woman—civil rights activist, celebrated documentary filmmaker, lawyer, and founder of the Revolutionary Love Project—she spoke eloquently about love as a form of “sweet labor”, imploring us to see ourselves in the suffering of others, not only in those most unlike us but also in those who espouse hatred. There are no monsters, she insisted, only wounded humans. What’s beneath their stories? What’s behind their hate? Forgiveness, Ms. Kaur declared, is not forgetting; it’s freedom from hate.

I could go on about the speakers. Want to learn about what it’s like to grow up in Los Angeles as a gay Filipino American? Look no further than Dr. Anthony Ocampo, who told his own story to convey the struggles and the triumphs gay men of color from immigrant families experience coming of age in America. As faculty sponsor for the GSA and the son of Bolivian immigrants, I found Dr. Ocampo’s talk especially fascinating.

How about the workshops? Perhaps the most intriguing one I attended was titled “They Don’t See Me Either: Fighting the Bias of Artificial Intelligence”, about how AI systems that use facial recognition, retinal scanning, and other biometrics too often feature built-in gender and racial biases, a consequence of flawed data sets created by programmers often unaware of their own inherent and often unconscious prejudices.

Finally, the affinity groups. At CA, as well as at the two other independent schools I’ve taught at, I’ve always been a minority, one of a handful of Latino faculty, so you can imagine how inspiring it was to be in an overflowing conference room with scores of other Latino independent school educators from around the country. In small groups, we shared our stories—who we are, where we come from, why we teach—stories as varied and vital as our familial, cultural, and geographical backgrounds.

I’m lucky to teach at a school that values professional development, and I can’t thank CA enough for affording me this transformative experience. As an English Department, we collaborate to enrich our literary selections with interdisciplinary connections—film clips and essays, short stories and poems, historical studies and current events—and the insights I’ve gained from the People of Color Conference will undoubtedly inform my thinking as I work with my colleagues to refine existing courses and create new ones.

Written by German Urioste, US English chair


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