The Network for Independent School Equity (NISE) Story: Why NISE? Why now?

The Network for Independent School Equity (NISE) Story

Why NISE? Why now?

I don’t quite remember the conversation that started the brainstorm. But somehow, Melissa Lawlor and I ended up in a cafe in Wolfeboro, NH scratching out notes on a napkin last summer. Those doodles were hope. They were the imaginings of how we might just make our communities a little bigger, our schools a little better, and our connections a little stronger. In part, because we needed each other and because we both understood that we also needed things that the other would never understand.

Five years ago, my partner and I became the first gay married couple hired by Holderness School. We live on campus and are dorm parents who care for 26 high school girls. My presence here matters. Our presence here matters. It is not just what I do in the classroom or as the Director of Equity & Inclusion. An alum that graduated in my 3rd year at Holderness wrote to me, “You made me believe that I could be happy and that I have a future to look forward to in my life.” Another student once said that my wife and I are “high-key relationship goals.” For LGBTQ+ students, we present one of the many possibilities of their future that can be happy and joyous. We give them hope. For all of our cis-gender, straight students, we normalize queerness and create a collage of possibilities for what love might look like. Forming relationships with me as a teacher, administrator, advisor, coach, dorm parent, or member of the community is a lesson in itself.

But it gets lonely being one of the few or the only. Despite knowing how important it is for me to be here and open and out and willing to share my stories in order that others may find new paths to their own stories, it gets lonely. Even with my wife. We get lonely. I live on a campus that is full of people with huge hearts and open arms. I am connected to the local community through my partner. But it gets isolating.  When legislation gets passed that impacts our lives as LGBTQ+ people, sometimes, you don’t want to have to explain why you want to cry. Or, worse, that the reason the legislation even passed was because of inaction from others whose lives it didn't impact. When a nation is divided by hateful and vitriolic rhetoric that demeans the experience and lives of certain people, sometimes you just want to be in a space where you don’t have to explain things. A place where you can be fully you.

And that is why those ideas, that brainstorm that day in Wolfeboro mattered so much. In her previous blog post, Melissa described affinity spaces as feeling like a big group hug. That metaphor is apt because it envisions a comfort that is physical, emotional, and palpable. Those hugs, those moments when we feel connected with someone because of a shared identity and the experiences that occur because of that identity, are necessary soul fuel that carries us through the difficult times and gives us others to share our celebrations with. When you are one of the few or the only, sometimes, you have to stretch those arms wider in order to enfold those that need to feel embraced as their whole selves.

NISE is an organization working to create a network of support, community, mentorship, and opportunities for professional development for faculty of color, international faculty, and LGBTQ+ faculty in Independent Schools in Northern New England (Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont). We recognize that the experiences, opportunities, and successes of individuals who identify in any or all of these ways is often bolstered by connection with and creation of community. In rural communities and independent schools in our region, identifying in any or all of these ways can mean that sometimes you’re the “only” or that you may be the first, or that you are one of the few. But it doesn’t have to be. Melissa and I, with the support of our heads of school, Phil Peck and Craig Gemmell, are striving to create a wider community. Our goal? Simple. Redefine the borders of our schools to create a community beyond campus.

At our first ever NISE LGBTQ+ social gathering this winter, I looked around the room and knew I was with my people. I felt that hug. And I felt more supported by my school than I ever had.

Why NISE? Because we need it as individuals and in order to be our best selves for our students. Why now? Because now more than ever, caring for each other matters. Join us. Become a part of NISE.  For your faculty who identify as people of color, international faculty, and/or LGBTQ+ adults. Help us build our campus beyond community.

If you have questions or thoughts, please reach out to Melissa Lawlor (melawlor@brewsteracademy.org) or Jini Rae Sparkman (jsparkman@holderness.org).

About The Author

Jini Rae Sparkman

Jini Rae Sparkman is the Director of Equity and Inclusion and an English faculty member at Holderness School in Holderness, NH. She is a Texas native who found her home in the mountains of New Hampshire with her partner, Courtney, and their French bulldog, Dublin. She joined Holderness School as a teacher, coach, and residential faculty member in 2014 from the Plymouth State University English Department. She holds a B.A. and an M.Ed, both from Plymouth State University. She is currently completing a Masters of Educational Leadership in Independent Schools at the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.