Humanity work: Meet Director of Inclusivity Vickie Onodera

A self-described student of systems change, Vickie Onodera arrives at Colorado Academy as its new Director of Inclusivity having most recently served the sprawling Cherry Creek school district—comprising some 70 schools, 3,000 teachers, and more than 50,000 students—as a culturally responsive educator and coach in the district’s Office of Inclusive Excellence.

It was a learning experience like no other.

Charged with coordinating faculty professional development focused on equity, working with families and students in need of translation services, facilitating parent and community partnerships, supporting the hiring and retention of teachers and administrators of color, and partnering with local and national organizations, Onodera’s office provided mission-critical resources on a massive scale.

At CA, there’s less sprawl, but there’s no shortage of vision for this work. And there’s one more essential ingredient—readiness for change.

“Throughout my career,” says Onodera, “as I’ve visited different buildings and worked with different groups of faculty, I’ve learned to sense the level of readiness to do the work to support diversity, equity, and inclusion. There’s a big difference between saying you’re ready, and actually being ready.”

“I believe there is a very strong commitment at CA to do this work,” she adds. “A foundation has been laid, and we are now in a position to start to build real capacity across the system.”

“For me,” Onodera explains, “this is a chance to put everything I’ve learned into practice—all of these years of personal and professional experience, as a woman of color, a career educator, a career coach, a career administrator—to finally see how this comes to fruition.”

Vickie Onodera
Onodera leads a workshop for faculty and staff in August.

What is the work to be done?

Onodera describes four “pillars” that support any institution’s efforts toward inclusion. These are the areas in which she’ll focus as the director of CA’s Office of Inclusivity.

“First,” she says, “we think about systems and structures—policies, traditions, community standards. Admissions and financial aid, for example—are they inclusive, are they equitable, who has access? If there are barriers, can we remove them?”

Thinking about systems and structures also requires examining student achievement data. For example, Onodera points out, student success rates are often correlated with their home ZIP Code. At an institution such as CA, which draws students from more than 80 Denver-area ZIP Codes, this means asking whether the school serves students from some areas better than others.

Next is cultural competence, “or what I call cultural humility,” Onodera explains. “That is, how do we not only respect and honor, but also make a commitment to learn from all aspects of our community? We must develop the humility to learn, appreciate, respect, elevate, and include one another. These are competencies that we need in order to function and thrive in our world.”

Closely related to cultural humility is racial and social consciousness, the ongoing personal work of attending to the ways that racial, gender, and other identities and differences impact community members’ experience of school. “This is the area where discomfort often arises,” Onodera says. “But part of the work of developing this type of consciousness is learning to tolerate discomfort.”

“Near and dear” to her heart, says Onodera, is the fourth and final pillar supporting inclusivity: culturally responsive education. “Culturally responsive education is where the work gets done every day with students in the classroom.”

Culturally responsive education is a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning. Traditional classroom strategies emphasize the teacher-student dynamic: the teacher is the expert; the student receives the knowledge. Culturally responsive education, by contrast, builds on individual and cultural experiences and students’ prior knowledge. It is justice-oriented, and reflects the social context of today.

“When I talk about culturally responsive education,” Onodera says, “I emphasize leveraging the assets of all students in the context of the learning experience. When we are planning, we have to ask ourselves what our students know, and what their opportunities for engagement may be. If students aren’t engaged in the work, then they don’t see themselves in the work. For students of color, this is a huge barrier. We want all of our students to be able to think critically and bring themselves into the curriculum—to be fully who they are when they are in the safe space of the classroom.”

Theater Department faculty meet with Onodera.

What is the role of families?

Onodera is eager to bring families along on this journey. At the same time, she realizes there is no one-size-fits-all approach. “This is humanity work,” she says, “and given that, I know that families have varied opinions about seeing this work happening at school.”

That’s why transparency is key, she explains. “Families need to know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we’re going about it. We also need to be prepared to have difficult conversations with families. Personally, I love having those conversations. I am a parent myself, and sometimes I have questions, too.”

Engaging families takes understanding, says Onodera, “understanding that parents may never have talked about this kind of work when they were in school. There is hesitation; there’s a fear of not knowing how to navigate certain topics and issues. Creating opportunities for us to learn together and grow together will help everyone feel comfortable in the spaces we’re in.”

“I always say, ‘Speak your truth, but hold my heart in your hand while you do it; and I will do the same.’”

What drives you in this work?

Onodera’s passion for the work of inclusivity goes back decades, to her own very first school experiences.

“In my earliest memories, there was my parents’ love,” she recalls. “You’re the center of the universe, you’re beautiful, and you’re perfect, just the way you are.”

Then came the shock of school. “I identify as Latina; both my parents are Spanish speakers. In the classroom, I immediately felt like I was getting messages that the way I said things or did things wasn’t right. ‘We do this; we don’t do that. We raise our hand; we don’t call out.’”

At the same time, Onodera was deeply aware of the importance of education: her parents had never had the chance to go to college. She desperately wanted to be a good student.

“I conformed; I navigated that space,” she admits. “And honestly, I was very successful. I was one of those kids whom my teachers would have described as ‘just fine.’ But grades aren’t always an indicator of how ‘fine’ you are. At school I felt like I was holding my breath; only at home could I finally release it. There was one person I had to be at school, and there was the person I got to be when I was in the loving arms of my family.”

This is what it means to talk about an opportunity gap, Onodera argues. “I was learning math and reading and writing—but in my heart, I was wondering, ‘Who am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to do? Did I sit right? Did I say it right?’ It’s the exhaustion of not being able to come as your full self. My culture, my diversity—that’s my superpower. Why would anyone try to take that away? Being successful and being comfortable in your own skin shouldn’t be antithetical.”

Today, she says, it’s critical that families understand not everyone is able to come into a school space—or any space—and be their authentic selves. “Whether it is racial diversity, gender identity—who gets that luxury and who doesn’t? And at what cost does that come? I have to believe that every parent wants their child to be able to show up in their full humanity. Even if people are afraid or not sure, even if something is unfamiliar, we can still work together to humanize the learning experience for all kids.”

How does inclusivity serve CA’s mission?

The inclusivity work that CA is now engaged in ties into every word of its mission statement, says Onodera. “Curious, kind, courageous, learning, leading—students can’t be their best in these areas if they don’t have the capacity to recognize, embrace, and elevate differences.”

Research has shown, Onodera points out, that people learn and perform more effectively in diverse environments.

It’s no surprise, then, that colleges and universities are hungry for those high school graduates who already know how to operate in these types of spaces. CA can provide that body of knowledge, Onodera says. “Wouldn’t it be great if in a few years our graduates started to come back to us and tell us this was their foundation—this was the place where they learned to be truly inclusive? Regardless of where they go after CA, regardless of what field they choose, these are essential skills they’ll need to take with them.”

In 2020, CA’s Board of Trustees affirmed that equity and inclusion work must go beyond the student experience and extend into all of the school’s operations. Key among these are areas such as family and employee retention, says Onodera.

“As this work has evolved,” she says, “and we’ve moved past the simple notion of representation, we’ve begun to ask questions like, ‘How are people treated when they come to our school to work or to enroll? Do they stay? Do families feel welcome? Do they feel like their presence is viewed as an asset and not a deficit?’”

These mission-critical questions “require a high level of intentionality on the part of the system as a whole,” Onodera explains. “It’s one thing to get people through the door; it’s another thing entirely to be able to have them stay.”

What does the future look like?

“Equity is not an event,” says Onodera. “It is a way of being and knowing, and if we start to feel it running like a thread—a pulse—throughout our community, I am convinced that students will be inspired by it; families will be inspired.”

And, she envisions, word will spread. Outside of CA, other independent schools will look to us as an example. They will notice the culture of belonging, acceptance, and inclusion that our students carry with them.

Of course, there will be mistakes, she says. “There’s always some trepidation around this work; people wonder, ‘What if I mess up?’ Don’t worry—you will. And so we have to be ready to repair harm.”

But together, we can do this work, and succeed, says Onodera. “It means always leading with the humanity of our students, our staff, our faculty, and our families.”