Vanessa Cohen Gibbons: New Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer
A leading figure in helping establish a more equitable and just culture at Milton Academy, Vanessa Cohen Gibbons became the School’s first chief equity and inclusion officer in July.
Since arriving in 2016 as an Upper School math teacher and dorm faculty member, Cohen Gibbons has played an integral role in diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) initiatives at Milton. Since August 2020, she has served as Upper School director of equity; as a member of Milton’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Commission; and as head of Hathaway House.
She has also provided support to Onyx, a student organization that offers social, cultural, and political support for Black students and their peers through meetings and activities, and LGBTQ+ affinity spaces.
Cohen Gibbons is grateful to be stepping into a role she believes already has a lot of support. “My understanding is that people choose Milton because they want to be in a diverse environment,” she says. “They already value the opportunity to do this work and that’s a great starting position.”
Cohen Gibbons earned her doctoral degree in astronomy at the University of Maryland in 2009. Prior to coming to Milton, she taught math and science and supported DEIJ efforts at Garrison Forest School, in Maryland. Over the years, Cohen Gibbons has participated in numerous DEIJ-related profession- al development opportunities, including at the National Association of Independent Schools Diversity Leadership Institute, the People of Color Conference, and the Klingenstein Summer Institute at Columbia University.
One of her first goals, says Cohen Gibbons, is to develop a greater sense of alignment throughout the institution. “Be- cause there is already so much buy-in, many of our students and employees see themselves as active participants in DEIJ work,” she says. “One of my goals is to bring all these folks together and help make this work an integrated experience. I want to help develop an eco-system, a web of DEIJ work, that brings K–12 faculty and staff, families, and alumni together, connecting and communicating with one another.”
Over the next year, Cohen Gibbons will be working with VISIONS, Inc., a nonprofit organization supporting DEIJ work across educational institutions, to administer a DEIJ training program for all Milton employ- ees. The multi-day program, she says, offers employees an opportunity to think about “their own identities and experiences and to process both interpersonal and institutional dialogues around diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice and to think about how to make change within their sphere of influence.”
Cohen Gibbons is looking for- ward to developing more formal opportunities for people to get involved in DEIJ initiatives. “I am really grateful for the engagement that I’ve already had with parents, trustees, alumni, and students, and I look forward to formalizing some of those relationships. This isn’t an effort of one person or one office. I want to make this an integrated effort across all of our stake- holders.”
Cohen Gibbons’s appointment follows an extensive nationwide search for someone to lead the School in bringing about important institutional change. In announcing the appointment last spring, Head of School Todd Bland said, “Vanessa has consistently demonstrated a passion for building a more just, anti-racist, and equitable learning, living, and working environment at Milton. I look forward to working closely with Vanessa as she transitions into her new position and to partner- ing with her as she continues the development and implementation of a long-term vision for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice at Milton Academy.”