A new conference asks Independent School League athletes to be leaders in equity and inclusion.
Story by Marisa Donelan
Olivia Greenaway ’22 fell in love with the game of squash in middle school after following her older sister into the sport. By the time she reached Milton’s Upper School, she was the only freshman to make it to the varsity team—and the only Black girl in the program—struggling both off and on the court.
“Even though I had always felt different from my teammates, by the time sophomore year approached, my inferiority complex was at an all-time high,” she told a group of Independent School League (ISL) athletes, coaches, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) directors in November. “There was no amount of encouragement from friends or family that would alleviate the sense of anxiety that I had built up around my skill level.”
Greenaway, who is now in her first year at Columbia University, was delivering the closing address at the first-ever ISL Changemakers Conference, held at Milton. Her advocacy as a Milton student for social change in athletics was one of the catalysts for the conference, which welcomed select groups of students and adults from 15 ISL schools. Programs throughout the day included workshops on racially conscious leadership skills, equitable leader- ship, tools for interrupting biased language and behavior, and how privilege shows up in sports.
Activist, filmmaker, and former college athlete Byron Hurt was the conference’s morning keynote speaker. Athletes have a built-in level of status in the United States, and their behavior can set the social tone for a whole school, he noted.
“Because you are a leader, you have the potential to shape the direction of this country, to shape the direction of your school based on your status and your influence as athletes,” he said. “Why do you have some extraordinary opportunity for influence, wherever you are? Whether we like it or not, whether we agree with it or not, whether we understand it or not, athletes have a very high profile in this country. And it’s really up to you to decide how to use your status.”
Invented in England in the 19th century, squash has earned a reputation as a game of the white, male elite. Its unique court requires dedicated facilities and expensive equipment, and there are few free, public programs for new players to learn, Greenaway noted. In the United States, squash is disproportionately offered in private schools, which Greenaway explained are predominantly white and often enroll students from wealthier families. In her first years as an Upper School player, Greenaway felt isolated as one of the youngest players and othered by her racial identity. She over- heard comments from teammates mocking Black visiting speakers and was asked to demonstrate a “Crip walk” (a move associated with a notorious Los Angeles street gang).
After a particularly rough patch during her sophomore year, Greenaway talked with her father about quitting the team. He encouraged her to keep at it. She raised her concerns with her coaches, who comforted her and called a meeting with the team to discuss its dynamics. Things felt more welcoming after that, until, while watching a match, she felt something delicately touching her hair: The mom of a white teammate was petting her box braids.
The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted ISL sports for most of the 2020–2021 academic year, which meant that Greenaway’s junior squash season was canceled. Before returning senior year as a co-captain, she established the school’s Diversity in Athletics Student Board to start the conversation about inequity in sports at Milton and beyond. Working with faculty member Molly Swain and others, Greenaway suggested expanding the conversation beyond Milton.
In the meantime, Milton hired Melissa Lawlor as the first-ever Upper School director of equity in the newly established Department of Equity, Inclusion, and Justice. Lawlor, a former college athlete, had organized a similar conference in her previous job in New Hampshire. Milton’s Athletic Director Lamar Reddicks is the DEI commissioner for the ISL, Lawlor noted, so Milton made sense as the inaugural host for the event.
“The feedback was amazing,” Lawlor said after the event. “Universally, the kids wrote in how much they had craved conversation across the league. They loved this concept of coming together as one team to tackle issues of racial inequity.”
Lawlor recalls being one of only three athletes of color on one of her college teams. Although her white teammates were kind and caring, she felt that she didn’t have the power to speak out about things that made her feel isolated.
“Half the battle is getting kids to realize that they have that kind of power as athletes and what they can do with that kind of power,” she says. “Do they just sit on it and perpetuate the status quo? Or are they going to be the ones to put their social capital on the line? Because that’s real allyship if you are willing to put something on the line for someone else who might not feel comfortable using their voice.”
In the fall of 2021, the Diversity in Athletics Student Board was up and running at Milton, Greenaway says. They had four areas they wanted to investigate: equitable access to sports for students whose families couldn’t afford expensive equipment and private training; interscholastic conversations about sports equity; the allocation of athletic funds to various sports teams; and diverse representation for underrepresented student-athletes.
“These social biases are not unique to Milton—they are reflective of a problem that permeates all educational institutions,” she says. “We need to have uncomfortable conversations that inspire athletes and coaches to take long, hard, introspective looks at the shadow aspects of our schools.”
When her senior squash sea- son came around, Greenaway and co-captain Rhea Anand ’22 were the leaders of a more racially diverse team, which captured the ISL title and ended up ranking 12th nationally. Greenaway herself felt more confident, which was reflected in wins on the court. “Having more athletes of color join the team reminded me that I, too, belonged, and was worthy of succeeding,” she says. Today, she belongs to a women’s league at StreetSquash in Harlem, a nonprofit program that provides urban youth with athletic opportunities, academic enrichment, community service, and leadership development.
Seeing the Changemakers Conference come to fruition so quickly after the idea sprouted was wonderful, says Greenaway, who credits current and former Milton faculty like Lawlor, Reddicks, and Swain, along with Vanessa Cohen Gibbons, Chris Kane, and Heather Flewelling for supporting the efforts that led to the event. “I hope that all the attendees left the conference feeling inspired and ready to spark change in their communities.”
Much has changed in the 24 years since Gretchen Johnson first taught at Milton, but some things never do
Story by Sarah Abrams
Gretchen Johnson remembers her first days as a fifth-grade teacher in Milton’s Lower School. After spending several years just out of college working in marketing for the Boston Celtics and Bruins, she was ready and eager in 1995 to put her training in early education into practice.
“I dove right in,” Johnson says, about those early years coteaching fifth grade with longtime Milton faculty member Scott Ford. “I don’t think I realized how much I would love it until I really was in it. I found the students to be just so refreshing and straightforward. In the corporate world, everyone is very careful about what they say. Engaging with fifth-graders is so uplifting. That was the first ‘wow’ for me and it ran throughout the year.”
Johnson taught for several years, until in 1998, her passion for writing took her into the magazine world where she worked for Inc. and Boston Magazine. She also expanded a tutoring business she had begun in the summers while teaching at Milton. Miller Academy (Miller was her last name at the time) was a thriving business for many years as she married and raised a daughter. It also helped keep her up to date as theories and practices around education evolved.
Having returned to Milton two years ago, first as a Middle School learning specialist and then, in 2022, as a fourth-grade reading and writing teacher, Johnson is delighted to be back in the classroom. “I had been on my own as a tutor for a long time,” she says.” After a while it can get a little lonely. When I learned after all these years that I would be teaching fourth-grade reading and writing, it was like a dream. The fourth and fifth grades were always my sweet spot.”
Twenty-four years after leaving Milton, Johnson marvels at the preponderance of teaching and learning options now available to teachers and students. The internet, which was just becoming mainstream in the 1990s, has opened up a wealth of new avenues. Through Google Classroom, students can access homework assignments, correspond with her, and find supplementary resources (videos, articles, etc.) that support their classwork.
Johnson makes certain, however, to incorporate balance in each day. “You have to be mindful, like with anything, to make sure that you’re not overdoing it with technology,” she says, “and that you’re weaving into the day traditional books and artwork with crayons and markers and actual paper. Instead of ‘I can do that on Adobe,’ I will often say, ‘No, let’s close the iPads, I’m going to read a story to you while you listen or draw.’ They love that. They actually do love to unplug.”
Johnson is also pleased to see that as greater sensitivity to learning differences has emerged over the past several decades, these differences have become very much a part of the conversation. “If a student has been diagnosed with dyslexia, or they need extra time, we have a team of specialists who work with the homeroom teachers and parents,” she says. “That’s an amazing difference. We’ll teach kids the way they learn best, whether it’s visually or auditorily or kinesthetically.”
And students have become advocates for themselves, she says. “They know those resources are there for them and they’re not afraid to speak up. There’s no stigma attached, which is empowering for the students. They come to school excited because they know that if they sense a roadblock at all, we’re going to figure out a way to make things work for them so they can flourish, move forward, and feel empowered.”
The increased focus on cultural sensitivities—on diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ)—has also been wonderful to see, Johnson says. “All of last summer’s reading books had themes woven in throughout about standing up against bias, about standing together, and about teamwork and solidarity. All these messages that are so positive and are woven through the DEIJ curriculum across the campus—starting as young as kindergarten—are huge.”
Advances in awareness of learning and cultural differences—as well as the emergence of new teaching methods and tools over the past several decades—are not all that has changed, says Johnson. “Twenty-four years later, having all those years as a teacher and tutor working one-on-one with kids, I’m a very different person. Also, now being a mom, I’m often looking at my students through the lens of a mom. I have that hat on all the time as I teach.”
What hasn’t changed is her enthusiasm for the work and the curiosity and exuberance of her students. “I have a lot of energy, but teaching is energizing me even more than I thought it would,” she says. “When I come in in the morning, the kids are so sweet. It’s a lot of give and take. You know you’re helping to make their day and they are making your day. It just puts a smile on my face.”