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Shawanna James-Coles: An Education on Belonging

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Addressing questions around the complexities of diversity, equity and inclusion is a primary responsibility of Shawana James-Coles, Immaculata doctorate in education student and director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Lower Merion School District. In fact, everywhere James-Coles has worked, she has been able to open dialogs about diversity-related topics and help bridge the knowledge gap.

“We’re more alike in this world than we think,” says James-Coles, emphasizing that people should focus on their commonalities not their differences.

She had a chance to illustrate this approach while reading a book to a third-grade class focused on belonging. Recognizing the value elementary school students place on being part of a family or team, she illustrated how easy it is for students to find commonalities and friendships in various groups.

“I instructed them, ‘if you have a cat, stand over there,’” James-Coles said. “If you have a dog, stand over here. If your favorite color is pink, stand over here.” Soon, the students realized that they belonged to multiple groups and inclusion wasn’t that difficult. “Then at the end, I would ask them, ‘Did you know that your friend had a cat? Did you know that her favorite color is pink?’”

Further illustrating how youngsters can be more inclusive in their actions, she asked students to role-play being a new student who didn’t know anyone at the school and asked others for ideas on how to welcome and engage the new students. To make the new students feel like they belonged, the students suggested introducing themselves and inviting them to sit with them during lunch. She quickly pointed out that these ideas came from third graders interested in making someone different feel like they belonged.

However, while these stories apply to elementary school students, James-Coles also works with parents, faculty and staff to address the building blocks of belonging, which are diversity, equity and inclusion.

“You have to have all of three pieces [diversity, equity and inclusion], so you feel like you belong,” she explained.

In fact, helping people feel like they belong has been her life’s work. Prior to working at Lower Merion School District, James-Coles was the director of diversity, equity, inclusion and education for the Centennial School District, where she held several additional positions, including elementary school principal. She began her education profession working for the School District of Philadelphia for 20 years where she taught kindergarten, and eventually served as a school principal.

When James-Coles moved from an urban school district to a suburban one, she found the transition a little challenging– much like a student moving to a new school. Although that may be normal for most employees, she discovered while conducting research for her Ed.D. dissertation, that some women of color have a harder time moving to an administrator position within a suburban school.

The topic of her dissertation, “Women of Color Administrators’ Perceptions of Belonging as it Relates to Retention in Suburban School Districts,” was selected to help other women who may follow a similar career path. She understands how it feels to not belong because at one point in her career, she was the only female and the only woman of color working at an administrative level.

Immaculata’s education faculty members have been encouraging and supportive of James-Coles’ dissertation topic and realize that it’s an area of education that needs to be addressed. She believes that she is not only getting an education but is also educating others. Having the faculty recognize and value her experiences is one of the main reasons why she is thriving in the Ed.D. program.

Long-serving education professor, Joe Corabi, Ed.D., is someone who values her experience.

“One day he told me, ‘I can tell the thought-process you put into this,’” James-Coles said of a presentation that she gave for Corabi’s class. She explained that because of her background and nearly 30 years of experience in education, he noticed that her perspective was different from her younger classmates.

“I’ve been in an urban setting. I’ve been in a suburban setting, so I’ve been in multiple educational environments. So, sometimes when I say things, it’s based on that experience, and he recognized that,” she said.

However, her educational journey has not been without its challenges. In 2021, James-Coles was diagnosed with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. She was able to continue working full time while also taking classes while undergoing treatment, but it was often a struggle in and out of the classroom.

James-Coles is grateful that her mother stressed the importance of education. For this reason, she and her brother, who is also pursuing his Ed.D. at Immaculata, plan to graduate at the same time. Her sister is also currently enrolled in a doctorate program. The power of education that her parents instilled in her, and that the faculty at Immaculata further developed, gives her the impetus to dig deeper into the topics that are important to her.

During her research, she has learned the difference between fitting in and belonging. “When you fit in…you’re assimilating, and when you belong, you show up authentically,” she pointed out. “I fit in…I fit in at a lot of places, but do I feel like I belong?” she asked.

The questions that James-Coles raises are important, not just for the elementary school children but also for her coworkers, classmates and the larger community. She not only asks the questions–she also answers them with a clarity.


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