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Exeter Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice Director Wants Students To Feel Like They Belong

File Photo, NHPR

This past year, school districts across New Hampshire have pledged to do a better job at serving students of all backgrounds.

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Andres Mejia is the director of diversity, equity, inclusions and justice (DEIJ), a new position at SAU 16 in Exeter. NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley recently talked with Mejia about his vision for the district and what he hopes to accomplish there. Below is a transcript of the interview.

Rick Ganley: First, can you describe what a typical day looks like for you at the job? I'm wondering if you're working mostly with administrators and staff or if you spend any time in the classroom.

Andres Mejia: I'm mostly working with administrators and staff, the leadership team. This is, I believe, the end of my fourth week here. So I'm pretty sure my day-to-day will look differently as I get to know more of the administrators, and the school's staff members and the students. I will be going and talking to students. I will be talking to families who want to.

Rick Ganley: I think when we think about diversity, equity and inclusion, at least in the corporate world, it can sometimes not be an ongoing experience where I think it sounds like what your position is, is looking at it from a holistic approach. Can you talk more about how you address diversity, equity, inclusion, justice on every level of the system?

Andres Mejia: So first I just want to put out there that DEIJ is acknowledging that our differences make us a whole. Yes, it's a bunch of different parts, from students to the teachers, to the parents, to everyone across who is part of this community. But the biggest part is to acknowledge that all of our differences make a whole when we get to sit and listen to each other and understand each other, where we're coming from, our perspectives.

If I was supposed to be in a meeting and the whole time I'm thinking, 'man am I even supposed to be in this space? Am I even supposed to be in this position? Or no one looks like me, no one understands what I'm talking about, what I'm eating at my family table. You know, no one understands the type of dance, the kind of music I'm listening to.' If I'm always thinking about that, then I wouldn't be able to focus solely on my job. That goes into the classrooms.

If a student can't go to school and not worry about 'am I different than my classmates? You know, I speak a different language. Do I sound weird? Why can't anyone pronounce my name? Why have I never seen a book with someone that looks like me?' You know, those are things that are on students' minds, and therefore they cannot focus on succeeding academically.

Rick Ganley: Sure. I mean, if you don't feel included in the group, you can't participate in the group.

Andres Mejia: Yeah, exactly.

Rick Ganley: Critical race theory has become a huge political talking point this past year. NHPR has reported many times that critical race theory is not being taught in New Hampshire schools. So can you explain the difference between that term and what you are doing? They're two very different things.

Andres Mejia: Yes. Yes, they definitely are. Recently, people have been saying they are the same and combining their definitions and what it means. But I would just say critical race theory it's more about the law and the legal institutions in the United States, and how they function to maintain social, economic, political inequalities. That's not what we're talking about when we're talking about DEIJ. DEIJ is about when decisions are being made, are we really thinking about everyone across the board?

Rick Ganley: Let me ask you, if language in the latest state budget is limiting in any way. It limits the way schools can talk about certain topics in the classroom, like systemic racism and sexism. And it also allows teachers and staff to opt out of implicit bias training. I'm wondering how that law could affect how you do your job.

Andres Mejia: Well, I know for sure that we're going to follow the law. You know, that we won't do anything in our spaces or in our DEIJ initiatives that will break the law. There are certain words that, you know, maybe we can't say now or we can't say because the law doesn't allow it. But the biggest part I want to say is that DEIJ is not divisive. For some people, they will struggle to see the difference, and that's why this DEIJ is there. So we can talk about it.

Rick Ganley: It sounds to me like your job, really, you're facilitating conversations. I mean, you're really trying to bring people together to talk and share.

Andres Mejia: Yeah. It's community engagement. It's relationship building. It's providing the space and providing the platform for people to come together.

Rick Ganley: I'm wondering what your measure of success is in this new job for you. What's your big picture vision for how the district could, you know, be better to serve all of its students?

Andres Mejia: One of the biggest parts is diverse staff, and educators and administrators. And when I say diverse, it's not just race. It's people who identify with many different identities. It can be LGBTQ+. It can be people with ability disabilities. They can be people who are underrepresented in certain subject studies. So I think that's one measurement to see that happen. I think another is hearing students grow in their own personal stories, that they feel community, that they feel like they belong, that they feel like they were included in their schools.

Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.
For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.

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