A New Face in Pop Rotunda: Dean Holifield on his DEI Plans

By now, most students are familiar with Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement Rick Holifield, but what students may not know is that before pursuing a career in education, he played professional baseball for 10 years with the Toronto Blue Jays and several other organizations, after being drafted in his senior year of high school.

By now, most students are familiar with Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement Rick Holifield, but what students may not know is that before pursuing a career in education, he played professional baseball for 10 years with the Toronto Blue Jays and several other organizations, after being drafted in his senior year of high school.

Following his retirement from professional baseball, Holifield embarked on his journey in private school education, starting as a baseball coach at The Brunswick Academy in Greenwich, Connecticut and pioneering the school’s first diversity initiative. Three years later, Holifield became the Dean of Student Life and Director of Multicultural Affairs at St. Luke’s School as well as the Commissioner for Diversity at the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools. He then relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, where he served as the Chair of the Atlanta Area Association of Independent Schools (AAAIS) and the Director of Diversity at Pace Academy. In addition, he was the only independent school representative on the advisory board for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Four years later, Holifield became the Assistant Head of Community Life at The Walker School and chaired the committee when the People of Color Conference (PoCC) was held in Atlanta.

While Holifield initially applied to be Head of School at two different institutions, he became interested in the Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement position at Lawrenceville after attending the PoCC in Seattle. When speaking with an administrator from Lawrenceville, he was posed the following question: “Are you interested in being the leader in this work [among] independent schools…so that we could ultimately become the ‘beacon on the hill’?” Holifield recognized that Lawrenceville was not “looking to do diversity work for diversity work’s sake, but rather, to be leaders in this industry.” This desire to make real, substantial change, coupled with Lawrenceville’s reputation, ultimately influenced Holifield’s decision to apply for and accept the offer for his current position.

While his official start date was scheduled for July 1, Holifield’s work began much earlier than planned due to the cases of police brutality and nationwide protests that took place this past spring. In addition, the “blackatlawrenceville” Instagram account and members of the Lawrenceville Black Alumni Association (LBAA) brought several instances of racism to light, which Holifield felt were important to address immediately.

Beyond acknowledgement, though, he wanted to take immediate action to prevent injustices, particularly racism, from perpetuating on campus. When he stepped into his role, three action plans had already been presented to the School: one 60-point anti-racism plan from the LBAA, another presented by two members of the Board of Trustees, and one proposed to the Board of Trustees by Lawrenceville’s 2019-2020 Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Task Force. In order to consolidate the three proposals, Holifield created a 10-point plan titled “DEI Vision for Diversity Plan,” which outlines past, current, and short term future action items. The plan also includes details for ongoing work such as enhancing the School’s diversity webpage, developing a task force on classroom language, and adding three new members to the Office of Multicultural Affairs: Religion and Philosophy Teacher Dr. Nuri Friedlander, Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach Kelly Wise, and Associate Director of College Counseling Beth Foulk.

Reflecting on the past few months, Holifield believes that the School—and the nation as a whole—is currently navigating two different pandemics: COVID-19 and the pandemic of racial and social unrest. “The truth is, we cannot pretend like the things we learned through blackatlawrenceville did not exist. In my estimation, that is a pandemic that we have to deal with,” he said.

After hearing several accounts of racism and injustice at Lawrenceville, Holifield’s main goal is to ensure that every community member feels safe and secure on campus. While tackling these issues have presented several challenges, Holifield believes that perspective is important and prefers to consider the following: “What opportunities have we had, and what opportunities lie before us?” To him, one such opportunity is regaining the trust of some Lawrenceville community members, who may be currently operating at a “trust deficit.” While safety is his main priority, Holifield also aims to foster a culture in which black, brown, and marginalized students are “beyond surviving, but thriving.”

According to Holifield, “It’s not good enough to do the work—it’s important [that] we make it meaningful…There are competencies that we expect a Lawrenceville graduate to have, and I would like to see DEI skills added to that competency upon receiving a Lawrenceville diploma. That’s my long term goal.” On that note, he hopes that through DEI work, Lawrentians will graduate with not only the technical skills learned in the classroom but also the adaptive skills needed to be leaders in the world.

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