A DEI Interview with Mrs. Vargas

In response to the alumni concerns regarding the experiences of students of color, specifically Black and Latinx students, Mitty launched the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative over the summer. Mrs. Patsy Vargas, who has been a teacher at Mitty for the past 13 years, was appointed as the Director of D.E.I (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) this summer. Previous to this, she has served as the LSU moderator since 2009 and Outreach Coordinator since 2012. We talked with Mrs. Vargas in August about the experiences of students of color, ExposeMitty, and the DEI initiative.


How has your position and identity given you a perspective into the experiences of Black and Latinx students at Mitty?

I’m from Coalinga, the best little agricultural town in California.  I’ve never shied away from my upbringing as a low income, 2nd generation Mexican American.  My own academic trajectory led me to Haverford College in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  Attending a predominantly white, private institution was the most challenging yet most rewarding thing I have ever done.  Given my own experience, I approach my role as an educator from a place of compassion and understanding.  Attending a private school is not easy and can even come as a culture shock for some.  Supporting all students academically, socially, and emotionally is extremely important to the success of our students.


How did you feel when you were reading the #ExposeMitty twitter hashtag?

I was certainly devastated and heartbroken.  No AMHS student should feel they did not receive the best experience possible and unfortunately that was the case for some of our students.   


While every student’s experience was different, are there any trends or patterns you have seen in terms of what students of color have faced?

Based on listening sessions, we heard several themes.  We heard from some alumni that though they had not personally experienced racism on our campus, they were concerned that others had.  Some alumni also expressed feeling thankful for their education and overall experience at Mitty, others wanted to know how they could support D.E.I efforts moving forward.

Some parents and alumni also shared they wanted to see a more diverse curriculum; we heard that at present time, some curriculum is too Euro-centric; specifically, we heard that making Ethnic Studies a mandatory course should be implemented.  Folks also advocated for a more ethnically diverse faculty, staff, and administration, a larger D.E.I. office space, and the elimination of a work study program that has since been removed.  Through listening sessions, we also heard that a greater focus on mental health issues and hiring more counselors should be a priority.  People also brought up concerns with discipline policies and the need to focus on the emotional and mental safety of our students.  Finally, we were repeatedly asked to be transparent as we navigate D.E.I initiatives.


How have you seen other staff members or community members reckon with racism, both in their own lives and in regards to what they do at school?

It certainly has not been easy, but our adult community has been extremely supportive and responsive.  In fact, this summer, I worked directly with a group of strong women educators who helped lead a book club on Ibram X Kendi’s, How to be an Anti-Racist.  We have continued the difficult conversations by working with Epoch Education, a group of fierce educators dedicated to equity work.    


What are the sentiments you perceived from students you worked with as the outreach coordinator and leader of LSU?

I certainly cannot speak for every member of LSU.  I believe every student has their own story and unique experience that should be heard and valued.  I can only know what students share with me and because of confidentiality, I cannot disclose any information.     


What do you believe has led to students of color feeling they’ve had negative experiences at Mitty?

Archbishop Mitty does not exist in a bubble.  We are not exempt from the realities of society.  Racism exists and unfortunately, we had some alumni experience it on our very own campus.  


Did your personal view of the school and its community change as a result of what you read in or know of that thread?

Absolutely.  We need to be better.  We need to do more.  It is important that we foster an environment that allows all members of our community to voice concerns and be welcomed, accepted and feel safe.  Change is a collective effort that requires us to work together to create long term sustainable solutions.


What has Mitty historically gotten right in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion? What qualities does it have that can help it to change?

At its core, Archbishop Mitty has strong Catholic values.  Our mission to see and treat all people in the image and likeness of God is central to all that we do. While I recognize that for some members of our community that was not always the case, Mitty does work towards a just and faith filled environment. 


What short-term steps is the DEI initiative taking to actively address the concerns brought up by alumni?

In order to maintain accountability and transparency, a DEI initiatives website has been created.  Available to the public, anyone can see up to date information.  

We have continued working with Dr. Melina Johnson through ScholarVision Educational Consulting.  Dr. Johnson has served as a third party consultant and has truly been a thought partner throughout the process.  Staff, faculty, and administration have begun a D.E.I professional development focus with Epoch Education.  We have committed to working with Epoch Education for 2 years.

We also expanded the D.E.I committee to include more voices.  We now have more alumni, faculty, a counselor and more parents.  D.E.I committee members were selected based on their initial interest to support D.E.I efforts.  They reached out directly to me, Mr. Rojo, Mr. Walker, Ms. Caputo, or Mr. Brosnan during the very early stages of #ExposeMitty.  We are open to expanding the D.E.I committee in the future.

Previously, students receiving financial aid were required to participate in a work study program. To address the inequities created by that program, it was eliminated this academic year.

We are currently working on a strategic plan as well as a student climate survey that will be administered in November.


Can you elaborate on the long-term strategic plan the DEI committee plans to implement?

This summer we had at least 12 listening sessions open to any parent and alumni interested in sharing their concerns and providing input.  We also had listening sessions for our faculty and staff.  Each listening session was attended by 1-2 members of administration and 1-2 members of the D.E.I. committee.  Based on those listening sessions, the D.E.I. committee compiled a list of recurring major themes.  The four major themes are: Educate the Community, Enhance Student Support Systems, Review Current Discipline Policies, and Attract and Retain Staff/Faculty/Administration of Color.  Each of the categories has 1-4 subcategories.  We are currently in the process of finalizing the action items for each of these categories.  The strategic plan has a 1-3 year time frame.  Once finalized, a copy of the strategic plan will be added to the D.E.I initiatives website. 


What do you say to students who don’t believe there is a genuine desire to change and do better? What will lead them to believe that this desire is real?

Creating change is an ongoing process.  It is not a checklist of tasks to complete.  The goal is to create long term systemic change.  Though I am pleased with the work that has been done in the last few months, there is more work to be done.  Institutional change requires patience, commitment, and dedication. It requires input from various members of our community. 


One of the themes that Ms. Caputo has emphasized is transparency. Do you believe that Mitty has a need for greater transparency, and how will this transparency take concrete form?

Transparency is critical to the success of D.E.I initiatives.  All progress and information can be found on the website.  Please continue to ask questions and keep each other accountable and accurately informed.


The outreach office was often mentioned as a safe space for Black and Latinx students on campus; how do you hope to expand that environment of welcomeness and inclusivity in the future? 

All of our Black and Latinx students should feel welcomed and included throughout the entire campus, as well as in the D.E.I office space. The same is true for all students; they should feel a sense of belonging across campus, and in the D.E.I office, which is open to everyone. That’s why we’re doing this important work.


Can you speak to the conviction and desire to do better within the Mitty administration?

We definitely want to get things right.  We are a group of dedicated individuals committed to working with a diverse student body.  We have already started this process by approving the current and future state of the strategic plan.  


In the broadest sense, how do you hope our community will grow and change, and what do you hope it will become?

We need more dialogue, we need to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable and we need to be able to ask questions.  My hope is that in 5, 10, or 15 years we will not be asking the same questions and hearing similar stories.  We need to understand that there is always a need for improvement and D.E.I work is a priority.  We must work together to provide the best experience possible for our diverse student body.


Are there any final comments you would like to share?

Creating a space of acceptance, welcome and belonging is ongoing.  It is a marathon and not a sprint.  I am incredibly thankful to work with a group of dedicated educators that believe in a just and equitable environment for every member of our community.  To students who shared their truth publicly and those who did not, I hear you and acknowledge your concerns and need for change.