Writing a Legacy of Diversity
St. Teresa’s Academy has progressed towards furthering diversity and integration since its establishment in 1866. The legacy left behind by former students of color reflect the school’s past and awareness for the future.
March 11, 2021
Diversity and Inclusion
“When you don’t have the perspective of the people that you want at your institution, you won’t get what you want at the institution,” Brianna Walker said. “And having somebody in my role, like myself or anybody like myself in this role, is integral to starting those conversations, bringing that experience, bringing those perspectives to the table.”
Walker, director of equity outreach and inclusive education, has been a part of the STA community for three years. Before working at STA, she worked with St. Louis University and University of Missouri-Columbia within their college outreach and diversity programs.
“All of my work has really been geared towards college access, serving the underserved communities, serving diverse populations in the inner city and urban core and then also working in diversity, equity and inclusion,” Walker said.
Her role is integral to ensure that each student feels welcomed on campus. This helps students of color feel as through their community and culture is represented and appreciated.
“The major thing is just where STA wants to be: STA wants to serve the community that it is housed in, and the community that it is housed is in the heart of the Kansas City area, which means you have to look at the population of Kansas City,” Walker said. “You have to look at the demographics of Kansas City and then the demographics of the area that we’re in.”
As of 2019, Kansas City, Missouri is 60.9% white, 28.2% African American, 10.6% Hispanic or Latino, 2.7% Asian, 0.4% American Indian and 3.6% two or more races according to census.gov. Walker also works within admissions and often has parents ask for the demographics at STA.
“A breakdown of our student population: so white 87%, Asian 3%, Native American 1%, Black 4%, Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander 0.4% and Hispanic or two or more races would be 8%,” Walker said.
According to the school’s website in reference to the admissions process, “St. Teresa’s Academy seeks a diverse student community and admits students without regard to race, color, national or ethnic origin.” This means that students are not disqualified during admission based on those characteristics. However, Walker explains how many schools use bias during admission decisions which can prolong the admission process, especially for students with ethnic-sounding last names.
“They may ask more questions of that parent, like ‘Why are you interested in this school’ or questions like that that make it more difficult,” Walker said. “They’re jumping through more hoops, which they wouldn’t ask anybody else that they seemingly wanted to admit, right. So I think bias occurs way more than discrimination.”
Bias differs from discrimination since it relies on inferred knowledge about a person to decide the next step for their admission process, rather than directly deferring them from the school. In order to correct this, St. Teresa’s Academy and its leaders had to recognize where bias occurred within the admission process.
“I think it was happening this year, and we have done an amazing job of making sure we’ve called it out like when we changed our admissions process this year,” Walker said. “We wanted to do family meetings, so what we did was when we set up the students with their interviewer, the interviewer didn’t know what school they went to, the interviewer didn’t know their last name, they just knew their first name. And that was it. And so we did that as a way to eliminate, or try our best to eliminate, any sort of bias that could arise.”
Even though the admission process has changed, the student body remains predominantly white — 87% of the student population. Walker believes that this discrepancy is partially due to the nation’s history.
“It all goes back to history, it always goes back to history and just the legacy of St. Teresa’s,” Walker said. “We look just going down the line, if you think about things like post traumatic slave syndrome, which is this theory that even though slavery happened so long ago, the effects of it still linger on, even today. And when you think about how Black and brown people were not able to be educated with white students back then and once they were able to be educated, that didn’t mean that just because schools were integrated that people felt welcomed and included. Just because they made it a law, that does not change the individual minds of the people in that school.”
STA was founded in 1866 by the Sisters of Saint Joseph, only one year after the end of the Civil War. During this time, persons of color were rarely integrated into white schools. The first African American student was accepted into STA in 1955, nearly 89 years after its opening.
“Part of the reason why you have those schools and neighborhoods and predominantly Black or historically Black colleges and universities is because, it wasn’t that we didn’t want to be educated with white people, it was that we didn’t feel welcomed, and white people did not want us to be educated with them,” Walker said. “So that is what that is, when you ask, ‘why is it still like that’ or ‘how that came to be,’ it’s because it’s a lingering effect.”
The Sister Barbara Moore Legacy
One of the primary figures of advancing diversity and integration within the Sisters of St. Joseph is Sister Barbara Moore, the first Black CSJ. When she was in grade school, the Archbishop of St. Louis Joseph Ritter spearheaded the integration of Catholic schools in the St. Louis diocese and allowed seniors from St. Joseph — the all Black Catholic high school — to graduate alongside white Catholic high schoolers.
“St. Joseph High School closed, because Cardinal Ritter back in ‘47, desegregated the Catholic schools, and their enrollment continued to decline,” Moore said.
The nationwide desegregation of public schools did not occur until 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court case.
The desegregation of diocesian schools in St. Louis allowed for Sister Barbara to attend Rosati-Kain High School, where her journey to sisterhood began. In 1955, Sister Barbara became the first Black woman to enter into the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Throughout her time as a sister, she was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and has also worked in healthcare and is now a retired professional nurse.
In honor of Sister Barbara’s accomplishments, St. Teresa’s announced a new scholarship program beginning in the 2021-2022 academic year for incoming Black students: the Sister Barbara Moore Scholarship Program. The program will recruit five incoming students every year, and the scholarship will go toward aiding students in the cost of tuition and other fees such as uniform, lunches and extracurriculars.
The students will also be enrolled in St. Teresa’s STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) program to celebrate Moore’s legacy within the healthcare field. As an inspiring woman of color, Moore will be a keynote speaker at St. Teresa’s annual Women’s Symposium this April.
“It’s not a handout, but a hands up,” Moore said. “You never know what seed would be planted and what enrichment graduates from St. Teresa’s will continue to bring not only to the community, but maybe even to the country, into the world. So, you give people an opportunity and it can be very enriching not only for them, but also for many for years to come. And that’s my hope that it will be a very positive experience for all concerned and that it will continue.”
Affinity groups have been a critical aspect for students of color to bring people together under a shared culture or nationality in order to advance diversity and integration at St. Teresa’s. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, affinity groups are defined as “a group of people having a common interest or goal or acting together for a specific purpose.”
Senior Marisa Araujo is a co-president of the Hispanic Affinity Group at St. Teresa’s. Araujo clarified the importance of what affinity groups look like within the school’s community.
“I think, most importantly, it’s just important for us minorities to know that they have a place here and they belong here and they’re not just a diversity card at STA,” Araujo said.
Similarly, senior Ange Dickson who is co-president of Asian Affinity Group, highlighted the excitement that goes into sharing culture with the greater student body outside of affinity groups. In fall 2019, St. Teresa’s hosted an International Day which allowed students of various cultures and national backgrounds the opportunity to share their identity with the greater student body.
“That was really nice for me to show off my culture,” Dickson said. “Really, the first time I’ve had the opportunity to do that, that I can imagine ever, and I think it would be nice for other people to also get, specifically people of color, to be able to share their experiences with their culture and their knowledge of their culture. I think STA really has the opportunity to foster that, and I hope that it continues to do so.”
Similarly to other affinity groups, the Black Student Coalition gives students of color the opportunity to connect and discuss topics together. For sophomore Lauren Chestnut, it has become an important aspect of her experience at St. Teresa’s.
“It is important to me because I get to kinda relate with other people on campus who, like, deal with the same thing as me,” Chestnut said. “You know it’s like a family in a sense that we all get to come together and just be ourselves.”
Over the past couple of years, the Black Student Coalition has integrated the celebration of Black History Month into St. Teresa’s. The first episode of the Plaid Table Talk was released Feb. 19 as part of their 2021 Black History Month efforts to have discussions about race on campus featuring six different student perspectives. Black church leaders were also highlighted throughout Black History Month via daily prayer videos in order to raise awareness of people of color within the religious community. Chestnut anticipated that the Black Church Experience event, which took place on Feb. 25, would bring in a lot of different perspectives.
“I’m definitely looking forward to the Black church experience because my family is actually playing a huge role in the service,” Chestnut said. “My mom’s a minister so she’s gonna, like do a sermon, and then my mom has a choir and the choir is my aunt’s and my sister’s so it’s like, all family oriented.”
The events planned for Black History Month by the Black Student Coalition encouraged students to come together and share their experiences as a school community.
“I feel like it’s important because we learn so much about, we experience so much of the white history and just kind of, and I’m not trying to sound offensive, the white world that we don’t really get a chance for us to add what we as African Americans have experienced to it,” Chestnut said. “So it’s definitely just a learning experience for everyone and just kind of introducing, you know, people to our space.”
St. Teresa’s Academy has utilized affinity groups, along with the department of equity and inclusion, to bridge the gap of racial and cultural knowledge between students of color and white students.
“[Story telling] widens the world around non people of color because a lot of times Black people, Native Americans, Hispanic students and alike people, we live in our own bubbles a lot of the time, right, and so having all of these things celebrated, especially in a school, is the perfect place to celebrate all these things because it brings everyone out of their bubble,” Walker said. “It helps everybody celebrate those things together.”
Even though diversity and integration is actively being achieved at St. Teresa’s and has improved since its founding, there is still room to grow. In some cases, access to affinity groups or these safe spaces for minorities has deepened students’ relationship with their racial identity and self.
“When I came here, I mean, it’s a small group, but there are still more and then just growing to love that part of me. I think STA does a really good job of celebrating that type of stuff,” Araujo said. “I do think that STA has really gotten me more in touch with my Hispanic identity.”
Students can show support to all students through allyship. An ally is someone that supports equality for any minority group and it can be shown in many different ways. Some allies focus on amplifying minority voices and making a point not to speak for them. Allyship primarily lies in solidarity, whether it’s by protesting, discussion or education. Walker suggests that the first step students should take toward allyship is educating themselves.
“It’s not only support, it’s also educating yourself to support better,” Walker said. “So there’s so many different things that you can do without having to be in the front line or having to ask anybody, ‘how can I support?’ Educating yourself is supporting.”