Exploring Experiences of Identity and Belonging in Independent Schools

At the beginning of her April 29 talk to the Chapin community, Kahdeidra Monét Martin ’99 began with a simple yet complex question: “Who am I?”

With these three words, Professor Martin, one of Chapin’s 2020-2021 Scholars-in-Residence, embarked on a powerful presentation in which identity and belonging surfaced as resounding themes. (The two other Scholars, Professor Naomi Extra and Dr. Westenley Alcenat, gave their community talks on February 9 and March 4, respectively.)

“First and foremost, I’m a teacher,” explained Professor Martin, a member of Chapin’s Class of 1999 and a doctoral candidate in Urban Education: Language, Context and Culture and a Provost’s Fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center. “As a teacher, I create windows for students to experience different perspectives. I also create mirrors for students to see themselves reflected.”

Professor Martin, who also holds two master’s degrees – in Urban Education and Teaching Urban Adolescents with Disabilities – from Long Island University and a bachelor’s in African and African American Studies with a minor in Linguistics from Stanford, told the community that her “positionality as a Black woman in the United States” has indelibly shaped her personal and professional experiences and served as a robust jumping-off point for her research.

Her virtual lecture, a distillation of her thesis project and entitled “Counterstories of Black High School Students and Graduates of NYC Independent Schools: A Narrative Case Study,” offered unique insights into the intersectionality of race and gender, while providing historical perspectives on diversity in independent schools.

After greeting the audience from her Zoom box, Head of School Suzanne Fogarty introduced the evening’s moderator, Class 12 student Brianna Bembry, who, in turn, introduced the guest speaker.

“Professor Martin’s research foci primarily orbit around adolescent literacy, the spectrum of urban education, social justice pedagogies, and sociolinguistics,” noted Brianna, adding that Professor Martin is scheduled to defend her dissertation on May 5.

Joining the webinar, Professor Martin remarked that she is an alum of both Chapin – “I’m a Gold!” she declared – and Grace Church School. She shared her screen to reveal side-by-side photographs of her at each institution before taking the audience back to the late 1990s when she was in Upper School.

As a student Professor Martin was “curious about the ideologies of race, class and gender that were swirling around these independent school cultures,” she said. “What’s going on and what can we do about it?” This interest eventually turned into the crux of her dissertation project.

After defining key terms, Professor Martin discussed her essential questions, conceptual framework, and principals of critical race theory (which she noted is widely misunderstood these days), including the understanding that “race is a social construction.”

She also elaborated on her research process, which entailed developing a pilot study, interviewing a cohort of independent school students and alums, and analyzing relevant works by Black authors such as “Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League” by Dan-El Padilla Peralta, a Collegiate School alum, and “New Kid,” a middle grade graphic novel by Jerry Craft, who attended Fieldston.

At the end of her talk, Professor Martin offered important take-aways from her research. “On the whole, Black/African-descended students and alums benefitted most from faculty and staff who served as mentors; teachers who demonstrated interest in their cultures and taught a multicultural curricula; time and space to socialize with [Black/African-descended] peers; and participation in sports and arts programming.”

For the last part of this engrossing evening, Brianna Bembry asked Professor Martin a selection of audience questions, which were submitted through the Zoom Q&A function. Topics ranged from school integration to the value of teaching civics to the importance of increasing one’s knowledge.

“Committing to being a lifelong learner and having empathy will go a long way,” said Professor Martin. “My goal is to build a better society in which everyone is humanized and included,” she added.

“Thank you for taking the time to share such an informative and eye-opening presentation with us,” said Brianna as the hour-long webinar came to an end, leaving the Chapin community with much to contemplate.

To watch a video of Professor Martin’s Chapin presentation, click HERE.

Learn more about Chapin’s Scholars-in-Residence program here: https://www.chapin.edu/about/community-life-and-diversity