Flintridge Sacred Heart alumni help academy reckon with intolerance

Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy has become one of Southern California’s most renowned educational institutions since its founding 90 years ago, but recent allegations of prejudice and intolerance on campus have stained the once sterling reputation of the private, all-girls Catholic academy.

In reaction, however, school leaders say they are repenting and making changes.

“We’re really interested in those values that are really reflective of who we are and who we want to be,” Sister Carolyn McCormack, president at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, said. “This is about really wanting to, first, till the soil across our community, and then we are really hoping to plant the seeds for growth as an anti-racist, anti-bias school.”

A campaign born online

Taking to social media, current and past scholars first began grieving about their experiences as a minority or LGBTQ+ students at Sacred Heart almost a month after they witnessed the killing of George Floyd. Like millions across the country, some of the school’s youth found a voice on Instagram, where they could air their thoughts on the matter alongside personal instances of prejudice occurring in the hills above Linda Vista.

On June 23, the account “Dear_FSHA” shared its first post: “Based on @dear_poly (anonymous platform for people of color to share experiences with white supremacy at a polytechnic school,) Dear FSHA is a space for BLPOC to count their experiences on the hill. Dm and I’ll share,” the inaugural post reads.

The 194 posts that followed mostly delve into specific instances of racist and homophobic remarks. Others simply look to show support for those who have been harmed, but all laid the foundation for the wave of changes in La Cañada Flintridge that are still in the works today.

Among the posts were allegations such as these:

• (A)sking me “if I speak Asian” is not only ignorant and rude, but unbelievably racist. No, I do not speak Asian the same way we don’t speak North American.

• A mother saw my mom who is darker than me and asked if she was the maid.

Dear_FSHA owner comes forward

“I’ve heard so many stories from trans, queer and lesbian students about getting called into the office and being told to change their hair or their appearance or to not date another girl at the school,” alum Maya Richard-Craven said in an interview, noting she — a Black and queer woman — has also experienced slurs and negative comments about her hair or identity.

Richard-Craven, who graduated in 2012, recognizes the problems are far from unique to her alma mater, but that doesn’t make the reports any easier to bear.

“I loved attending campus. I truly did, but there were noticeable issues with diversity,” Richard-Craven said. “There are so many instances that come to mind, but it’s not so much about the staff and faculty. It’s more about the environment that is created based on living in an affluent community that’s predominately White.”

The longtime local chalks it up to a misunderstanding of sorts.

“A common theme of all of our negative experiences is the little bit of fear and misunderstanding of the Black community here,” she said. This is partly due to the fact that one of the few interactions with Black people comes through reading Huckleberry Finn and studying Black history through the lens of a slave, she said.

“That was what some of the girls perceived Black people to be like: N-word Jim or whatever they call him in the book,” according to Richard-Craven. “But the thing is now the school is taking so many strides to make differences and it is a breath of fresh air to finally see that people care.”

With support from fellow alum DeShawn Samad, a 2011 graduate, and peers in the surrounding community, the two formed a Black Alumni Association dedicated to making the “The Hill,” as it’s commonly referred to by students, a safe place for all of God’s children — no matter their gender, race or sexual orientation.

A moment to choose

Richard-Craven said Sacred Heart leaders have fortunately been very eager to rectify the school’s shortcomings. In fact, McCormack personally thanked Richard-Craven for starting the dear_FSHA account in an interview with this news group during which school leaders described the last 12 months as a “watershed year.”

“We were really blessed by the voices of our alumni, who literally called us out, and we are grateful for this because I know that they did this out of love and respect for our school and its mission,” McCormack said. “To be truthful, … it was difficult and painful at first to hear the voices of students we thought we had served well describe the harm that they felt had happened to them.”

The school had a choice at that moment though.

“We could ignore their truth or we could lean in, listen and learn how to make amends. And that’s the direction we chose to take,” McCormack said, detailing how the school has helped facilitate an anti-racist reading list, the hiring of a diversity consultant and many other institutional changes, such as a sponsored a restorative circle with alums to offer another space to listen to their stories and aspirations for changes on The Hill.

Most of the changes resulted from an evening webinar titled Voices for Veritas, “where we centered representative voices of those who had courageously shared their experiences via dear_FSHA,” McCormack said. The event allowed Principal Sister Celeste Botello and herself the opportunity to express remorse, “and to repent for the harm that happened to our girls.”

Comparing the diversity, equity and inclusion efforts to biblical teachings, McCormack said the efforts are “top-down” from the board to the community because everybody has to be on board with the change in mindset if the school is to answer the call from God.

“As you know, this is a lifelong journey — this is not something that will end for us or for anyone,” Botello said, noting she and her peers are humbled to see God’s spirit teach them how to be change agents in the community. “This is something that we truly hope to grow into. So, as Sister Carolyn said, it’s about putting down and planting seeds so that in the future we will see results. And I can tell you we are continuing to work on our acceptance of one another during this changing world of ours.”.

Changing a community

Richard-Craven feels proud to see Sacred Heart making the efforts, “but the thing about La Cañada is you can’t change the parents. So it’s crucial that the community, the parents and the psyche of the town’s families be addressed because I think people are having a really hard time accepting this wave of change,” she said.

Fortunately, the sisters of Sacred Heart recognized this and created the Dominican Justice Community, a small group of local residents who are currently undergoing diversity and equity training themselves.

The group held its first meeting earlier this year, and members are currently undergoing training that they will use in this coming year to create new initiatives to connect everyone — the board, the staff, the students, the families — through activities.

Everybody involved is excited to see what the result is, the sisters said.

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