Q & A with...DEI Director Karen Velásquez
By Maggie Pilloton, Kite Staff Writer

Karen Velásquez joined the MCDS community in July 2021 as MCDS’s new Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). She comes to our community with decades of experience as an educator, a wealth of knowledge of DEI practices, and an undeniable amount of passion, enthusiasm, and dedication. 
 
Welcome to MCDS! Can you share a bit about the professional experiences that have led you to this new role?
 
I have worked in education my entire life as a Sunday school teacher, an Administrative Assistant for a K-5 public school, and a second-grade school teacher for a private, Catholic school. After serving as a school principal at inner-city schools in Los Angeles for seven years, I moved to the Bay Area and worked as the Spanish department chair for an independent school. I moved to do DEI work full-time in 2017, including serving as a DEI consultant for small non-profit organizations.
 
I am incredibly passionate about moving DEI initiatives forward by creating actionable goals for myself and the teams I work with. MCDS has had a very successful journey in this area, and I strongly felt their enthusiasm, commitment, and desire to take action with their current initiatives. I knew faculty, staff, families, and students were part of a community that was not afraid to lean in with their imperfect selves and build a more inclusive society.
 
What identities do you bring with you into your role as DEI Director and which feel the most important to you in doing this kind of work?
 
I identify as a white-presenting Latina female, a daughter of Salvadoran immigrants. I am also an honorary Mexican person. I grew up poor in Baja, Mexico, but attended an elite Catholic school on a complete elementary and middle school scholarship. I am also a Muslim-American, but I was a practicing Catholic at one point! I am a wife, which is an integral part of my identity. My husband is an Indian national, so I have been connected to the Desi community in South Asia for 11 years. It has added another layer of understanding for me about intercultural communication, culture, and values! 
 
My experiences with an intercultural world have provided me with the skills and ongoing curiosity for humanity and navigating local and international conflicts. I genuinely believe that we all grow together when we can see each other through our differences and find common ground. 

We build community by developing solid relationships. When we are truly curious about someone else, we will find time to know them.

We’re now working to reconnect as a community after having to be physically distanced for so long. How do we build community around diversity, equity, and inclusion?

We build community by developing solid relationships. When we are truly curious about someone else, we will find time to know them. We need to center our personal or professional conversations with our children in mind. This is not an easy task, but it keeps us focused, united, and disciplined without losing sight of the end goals. 
 

together we can bring hope

Affinity groups are one way to build community and the Upper School student affinity groups have really taken off this year. Why are these groups important?
 
Affinity groups at MCDS allow students to explore this experience of shared identity through facilitated conversations to understand self, build authentic relationships, and ultimately feel empowered to engage deeply with others in the community. We started with three to four affinity groups this year. Seven months later, we have 11 vibrant affinity groups [for students] in the Upper School that I help oversee, and I am enthusiastic about expanding this program even more next year. 
 
The success of our affinity groups is due to the fantastic collaboration and leadership from our volunteer faculty/staff facilitators, who help elevate the voices of the students who participate in these spaces! Also, we offer engaging activities about identity, anti-racism, and allyship for those students who choose not to participate in affinity groups. Our wonderful Upper School (US) Division Head Barbara Kramer-Cook and Assistant US Division Head Micheal Duryee-Browner, and I craft these activities. 

What’s ahead for other MCDS DEI programs and initiatives?

I’m interested in expanding the adult education programs for faculty, staff, and families to advance cultural competency skills. This year, we have been exploring sessions about intercultural communication skills with faculty and staff. For parents and guardians, we’ve offered DEI sessions about the importance of engaging in courageous conversations with our students about topics that help shape their identity. 
 
I’m a member of the Board’s DEI Committee. We continue to measure our progress with our DEI initiatives. These are all multi-year implementation goals that will open the doors to more programming opportunities and help us build a more robust, inclusive community where the sense of belonging is palpable. 

Finally, you’ve been spending time in classrooms, talking with students and teachers. What have been some of your favorite moments so far?
 
I have been visiting classrooms to introduce the definitions and interconnectedness of inequality, equality, and justice. My favorite moments happen when kindergarteners become my teachers. They are receptive and curious, and they have the purity to identify unfairness. That is inspiring me every day! 

I have also enjoyed watching faculty and how they allow students to explore their learning with joy, innovation, and collaboration. There is truly something remarkable about our students' strong relationships with our faculty and staff. This helps everyone be a risk-taker, which is one of the main ingredients to becoming critical thinkers as we wrestle with the complexities of the DEIBJ (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging, Justice) world.