Sustaining an Inclusive School Community
Leslie Tran and Karin Soriano-Bilal

Leslie Tran (left) and Karin Soriano-Bilal. Photo: Kevin Schoenbohm

As a school community that believes in embracing, celebrating and respecting diversity of all kinds, MCDS is deeply committed to supporting students, parents, faculty and staff to develop the skills needed to communicate across differences and embrace each other’s stories.

Providing support and resources for faculty is a key area of focus. As Co-Coordinators of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), MCDS teachers Karin Soriano-Bilal and Leslie Tran provide faculty and staff with opportunities, resources and guidance around the issues of equity and inclusion. 

Karin, a second grade teacher, has also directed Beyond Borders, a former MCDS art-based enrichment camp for 4th-6th grade students from diverse backgrounds and taught STEAM education at WonderLab summer camp.

Leslie, who teaches fifth grade, is also on the faculty at the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (organized by the National Association of Independent Schools) where she trains high school students from across the country on how to lead justice and equity initiatives at their respective schools. 

Their work around diversity, equity and inclusion is fueled by their belief that “the ability to connect deeply with others, to listen to each other’s inspiring stories, is not just a source of happiness and contentment in life; it is also an increasingly necessary skill as we challenge ourselves to envision and work towards a better world.” 


How would you describe your role as Co-Coordinators of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?
Karin: We serve as a resource, working individually with teachers and with grade-level teams or departments, to continue to cultivate an inclusive school culture. We plan trainings and meetings where skills can be developed and relationships deepened and there are opportunities to have meaningful conversations. Through this personal work and skill-building, we become better equipped as teachers to guide our students.

The work of equity and inclusion is about making sure that everyone feels a sense of belonging and is seen. Where everyone is given the resources that specifically meet their needs and opportunities in order for them to thrive. ~ Leslie Tran 

Why is this work important?
Leslie: The work of equity and inclusion is about making sure that everyone feels a sense of belonging and is seen. Where everyone is given the resources that specifically meet their needs and opportunities in order for them to thrive. 

Vernā Myers, a well-known diversity practitioner, once noted that “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” But what if you don’t know how to dance or grew up dancing to a different form of music that’s not being played at this party? 

An inclusive party would be one in which everyone invited feels at home. Where everyone would feel comfortable building relationships with the other people in the room. Where everyone can dance without feeling self-conscious.  

An equitable party would be one where there was a space for those who may not like to dance and would prefer a space for maybe a board game. 

What brings you to this type of work?
Leslie: I’ve been doing this work since the first day I immigrated to the United States, though it was never termed “equity and inclusion.” I was born in Vietnam and raised in Philadelphia. I was four when my parents made the decision to escape their homeland, Vietnam, with me and my sister, who was six. After seven nights on the South China Sea, we landed in a refugee camp in Malaysia, where we stayed for 18 months before relocating to a transition camp in the Philippines. 

My first entry into American life was through school, where I learned English but also slowly lost my connection with my mother tongue. My teachers defined success as assimilation to mainstream culture and as a result of ascribing to that model of success, I became disconnected from my Vietnamese identity. It wasn’t until college that I began to reclaim my own narrative and redefine my identity as a queer, gender non-conforming, woman of color. 

My story is one of crossing borders, both literal and figurative, and of navigating different worlds. Of building bridges and being able to see the world through multiple lenses. It is these life experiences that fuel my work. I want to cultivate a community where young people don’t have to wait until college to find the language to tell their stories and to form healthy self-images. 

Karin: My teaching practice is rooted in the principles of multicultural education and its relationship to literacy, identity, and social-emotional well-being. Being biracial, of Filipino and Scandinavian descent, I have always been intrigued by blends: color wheels, compound words, and cars like the El Camino — a car-truck hybrid!

My husband and I find our greatest joy in being the parents of our two multiracial children. My work toward a more equitable and inclusive society is rooted in their walking through the world as fully-recognized human beings. 

As an educator, I teach through the lenses of equity and inclusion because being in a classroom community is a shared experience. I intentionally use materials of underrepresented races, genders, beliefs and practices, to help all students become critical thinkers. ~ Karin Soriano-Bilal

How does the work that you do around equity and inclusion translate to the classroom?
Karin: As an educator, I teach through the lenses of equity and inclusion because being in a classroom community is a shared experience. I intentionally use materials of underrepresented races, genders, beliefs and practices, to help all students become critical thinkers. Through self-awareness comes agency to act against unfairness and prejudice. These practices look developmentally different across all ages but have the same goal: to build deep and caring relationships.

Leslie:  I volunteer with a number of grassroots organizations. I’m committed to these organizations because they center the voices and experiences of people who are traditionally placed on the margins of society. The work that I do lives at the intersection of racial, economic, gender, and environmental justice. All of this work outside of the MCDS community informs the curriculum that I build with the fifth grade team and the conversations that I have with my colleagues. 

What are you looking forward to this school year?
Karin: Our work builds on the current curriculum around fairness and kindness. We hope to highlight these lessons and resources so that parents may continue these powerful conversations with their children at home. We also look forward to sharing more about parent and student affinity groups. 

We have lined up some remarkable guest speakers who will ground our work this year for our faculty, staff, and parent body. We plan to work in alignment with the Parents Association and Board of Trustees so that these rich conversations can be felt in all areas of our school. We welcome everyone to join the dynamic discussion and participate in what will be an exciting year of learning about each other.