Reena Patel: ‘Creating more of a sense of belonging and safety’ for all

May 16, 2023 By Carol Britton Meyer

Soon after moving from the Bay Area to Hingham with her family in Aug. 2020, Reena Patel became a member of the School Council -- and then the Equity Team -- at East School where two of her children were enrolled to help to create and foster a diverse, equitable, welcoming, and inclusive community.

"It was important for me to be involved in ways that would be meaningful to my family as well as other BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) students and families," Patel told the Hingham Anchor. "As part of a South Asian family, we grew up with communal values, and it’s important for my children to see me modeling those."

Patel went on to say, "If we can teach children to be better global citizens, they will have the opportunity to take those tools out into the world and be successful anywhere."

If students can learn "open curiosity about what is different and understand basic social justice and accountability to honor one another's identities early, they will learn to respect each other through tougher transitions where they are trying to figure out who they are and what they believe in spaces like middle school," Patel said. "It's simple things like replacing the words 'that's strange' with 'that's new, tell me more.'"

Patel is teaching her three children (two who are at East School and the other in pre-school)  to use their voices to advocate for themselves and others. "We talk about fairness in terms they can understand and the importance of recognizing whose voices are missing in conversations and to think more critically on their own," she said.

Last month, Patel's son wrote a report about a holiday their family celebrates called Holi, and he asked her to help him define cultural appropriation so he could explain it to his class. "It was a proud moment for me to see him honor his culture and own his beliefs unapologetically and for his teacher to carve out the space for him to express himself," Patel said.

Patel had already recognized from past experience that sustaining culture "is a key part of students feeling that they can go to school authentically [acting in a way that honors their culture and humanity], but there was a lot I didn't know," she said.

Her work on the Hingham Public Schools Equity Task Force and with the Hingham Unity Council and the town's Human Rights Commission has broadened Patel's knowledge around the subject of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

As background, while attending seven different all-American schools in Milan, Kuwait, and other locations where her father traveled for his work as a chemical engineer during her K-12 years, Patel learned that "when there's a pressure to assimilate or the idea that if you speak a different language or eat certain foods you’re 'other,' it eventually leads to a loss of culture," Patel said.

"You try to avoid sharing what makes you unique, even feeling embarrassed about doing so, or if a member of your family does the same. You feel like you don’t fit in at school or in your own community -- that you are never enough."

Patel said she learned to fight for her values and her voice early by watching her mother advocate for her as a child in Houston, Texas, when she would come home for a month with bruises on her arm at age 6 "because the kid on the school bus was upset that they had to sit with the 'dirty Indian,'" she recalled. "I remember successfully advocating for myself with my high school world geography teacher, refusing to write answers on the test that reduced my religion to 'mythology' despite what the textbook said."

'Learning how to find common ground'
For many other children of immigrants, this sense of cultural loss becomes a "source of deep pain" in adulthood. "From my travels as a child -- learning how to find common ground with students from around the world -- I understood that sustaining culture requires cultural humility and decentering of the dominant voices in the room," she explained.

As a result, Patel began reading the work of authors such as Ann Ishimaru, Tracey Benson, and Beverly Tatum to learn more about equity and belonging in schools. "I started looking at data and research and what it reflected about student learning," she said. "What became clear to me is that authentic belonging requires racial equity, and the absence of that feeling has detrimental effects on learning and even safety and access to quality education for some students."

Patel's nursing background was particularly useful in helping her understand the impacts of systemic racism. Her search for more information led her to social justice leaders such as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and contemporary voices such as Karen Walrond's.

"I did a lot of self-reflection (which is an ongoing practice) to learn about my own biases and how to break them," Patel said.

"Biases are something we all have, but if we can learn to undo them, we can create more of a sense of belonging and safety."

It wasn't long after she joined Hingham Unity Council that Patel -- who is now a member of the board -- was asked to chair its school and education committee.

In her role with HUC, Patel has helped to facilitate conversations among students, families, PTO leaders, teachers, the school district, and community-wide related to racial equity, anti-racism, the need for a gender-neutral school dress code, and [cultivating a sense] of LGBTQIA+ student belonging and safety.

"The Hingham Unity Council has had a great deal of success facilitating conversations that have taught me and others a lot within the context of our own community," she said.

Patel is currently studying for her master's degree in DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion )-focused educational leadership and policy at Boston College, which she will complete in 2024.

Pursuing equity and belonging in schools
"I applied there because I wanted to continue to pursue equity, social justice,  and belonging in schools in more meaningful ways," she said, noting the importance of   authentic partnerships between schools, families, and the larger community based on shared values that are already part of documents such as the Hingham Public School’s Strategic Plan and the town's Master Plan.

"The context of this community and its values are central to creating an environment where every member of the community feels they belong and that their needs are met," Patel said. "There is a great deal of interest and enthusiasm for this work here in Hingham and a lot of great people willing to roll up their sleeves and be part of the effort."

In her work with the district Equity Task Force, Patel brings a voice to the experiences of some families of color in the schools and community and works to build accountability and trust between educators and parents so that more people will join the conversation now and in the years to come.

Patel joined the Human Rights Commission to learn more about the Hingham community and to help center the conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion that will benefit all members of the community and make them feel at home.

She noted that the Commission recently supported the lifting of the familial restriction for accessory dwelling units -- which passed at the recent Town Meeting -- "because of the potential systemic impact to marginalized families."

Once she achieves a master's degree at BC, Patel hopes to work in a field that focuses on compassion, empathy, "and the understanding of human emotions, relationships, and how the brain learns in order to serve social justice and equity.

Poetry speaks to her own experiences
Patel has been writing poetry that speaks to her own experiences for years, but only recently found the courage to begin sharing them with others.

"I want to use my art to speak to my DEI work, because storytelling is such an impactful part of doing the work well," she said.

"When people can relate to your experience, even though they cannot walk in your shoes, it creates a relatability that then potentially sparks learning or action through empathy and compassion."

The Houston Public Library in her hometown recently featured a few of her poems -- along with some of the work of author Varsha Bajaj (who spoke at Hingham Middle School last year about her book, "Count Me In") -- to create a conversation around the South Asian experience of race and racism in America.

Patel wrote the poem below after an experience she had in her Hingham neighborhood involving a woman Patel met when she and her children first started going to the bus stop.

"She decided that because of my skin color, I scared her. I stopped going to the bus stop for a few months after this exchange and would just drive my children to school and pick them up," Patel said. "Shortly after I returned to the bus stop, she sold her home. The new owner tore down the old house to build something new."

The remains of the house where my children catch the bus

Because I’ve already done this punishing adagio enough to know how it works
I have it down to muscle memory
Lock the car, block the open driver door
Switch the code
“Ma’am” I say, “I have a toddler in the car”

She has a pad with my license plate already written down,
yelling, as she moves into my space
I assume 4th position to make myself taller
Right arm up
Arching my back into the driver’s seat for a glance at my toddler
Swinging my left arm out over the car door between her and my toddler
I weave in a lilting Texas twang
Except it comes out a little shaky
“Ma’am I’m just waitin’ on my children”
She spews anger and tells me I may go
As she sneers “your child is here, LEAVE”
I pirouette in a warning flurry
Eyes trained on her at each turn
As the children run to the car
We all take flight building up adrenaline and anguish
The dam bursts about 20 seconds later
My tears, a downpour
A glance in the rear view mirror
The children exchanging worried looks
My body releasing the adrenaline from the familiar repetition
Of twisting my entire being into foreign positions

The remains of the house where my children catch the bus
Feel like the physical manifestation
Of my spirit breaking beyond
Dancing to its native rhythm
The liberation felt in a monsoon soaked aadu pambe
Of relief
Of closure
Maybe now I finally can stop replaying this exchange in my head
Or stop wondering how my waiting in a place silently
Could possibly terrify someone enough to threaten me with police
Or maybe
I can finally see stop wondering if she just decided to sell her house
Because my waiting
Was so terrifying
That she just had to leave.

In keeping with its ongoing mission "to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive community, the South Shore Conservatory Dance Department -- at Patel's request -- updated its dress code from pink tights and shoes only to flesh-colored tights and shoes in 2022.

In a social media post, the Department explained that as racial diversity increases, "we would like to honor and celebrate our dancer's different skin tones.  SSC strives for inclusivity, diversity, and equity, and as part of this mission SSC dance wants to reflect on what 'pink' tights and shoes mean for our students."

On the lighter side, Patel shared a fun fact about herself when she owned a bakery, where she was a pastry chef, from 2013-2018.

"My favorite cake was one I made for the Marine Birthday Ball in Dallas," she said. "It was an honor to be asked. I wanted to create a cake worthy of the incredible humans who serve our country, so I put a lot of extra hours into it. The entire cake was handmade and hand-decorated down to the 50 stars and stripes!"

Nowadays, Patel's creative side serves her pursuit of equity. "I got to collaborate with South Shore Conservatory last year by providing the artwork for their updated tights policy," she said.

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