Misguided Debate Over School Calendar Reveals Unexpected Lessons for Equity and Inclusion

Judith Cabelli
Age of Awareness
Published in
5 min readMar 24, 2021

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A call to dismantle racial and social inequities, starting with how we celebrate holidays in Fairfax County Public Schools

“If not you, then who? If not now, then when?” Over the past few days, my heart continually whispered these ancient words. The elected leaders of my children’s school system, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), had an opportunity to implement a more reflective school calendar that would have conveyed the importance of diversity and inclusion aligned with our countywide racial and social equity policy, One Fairfax. Everyone in the Fairfax County community would have benefited from this unrealized step toward greater equity and, quite frankly, basic inclusion. Instead, seven of our twelve School Board members did not answer this call. It was not them, it was not now.

Growing up as a student in FCPS, I longed for my district to choose to value all students. For the day when school calendar values would reflect the traditions and faiths celebrated in our diverse community. That day never happened. Rather, as a student, I worried over missed tests, assignments and lessons while celebrating important holidays with my family. During my most formative years, I was reminded yearly that the onus was on me to advocate around my holidays.

During the March 18, 2021 decisive School Board meeting, it was disheartening to hear the notion that the draft “Religious Accommodation for Employees Regulations” in tandem with what they called “Calendar D” would sufficiently address minority faith equity. It was baffling to hear School Board members focus on absenteeism when the data couldn’t possibly illustrate how many more students and staff were systemically unable to take off important holidays. It was demoralizing to hear concerns that adding any minority holidays would show favoritism when the calendar provided two weeks off during Christmas.

Most of all, this decision left me heartbroken that it will cause a delayed opportunity for our students to learn the values of diversity and equity through experience.

On one hand, I could be angry. Angry at those in power. Our elected leaders had the opportunity to implement much needed change. Instead, they induced a divisive calendar development process that is likely going to leave our community further divided by inequities and deeply seeded pain. Instead of being brave, they chose: not them, not now. As I continue to ruminate over this alienating process, the refrain whispers louder, “if not you, then who? If not now, then when?” This phrase particularly resonates as I realize I am acutely feeling my white privilege.

Following the October 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, I internalized my privilege in a profound way. That morning, for the first time in decades, I placed my Jewish star around my neck. In that moment, I faced the decision whether to disclose my Jewishness. Filled with anger and fear, it dawned on me — I had a choice whether I disclose my identity. As a mother, when I decided to tell my children about the massacre, I truly realized the depth of my privilege. Mothers of children with darker skin than mine do not have that choice. They must educate their children to keep them safe from our inequitable systems. Instead, I had a choice whether to allow my children to keep their innocence a little longer. Shrouded with white skin, I was protected by privilege.

Without a doubt, this calendar vote was personal for us in minority faith groups and our allies. Undoubtedly, some of us it hurt are people of color. But not me. No matter how hurt I am, I know to my core this was not a decision that threatened my life the way many systemic decisions affect people of color through our inequitable systems. Not even close.

While I am deeply troubled by the words and inactions of seven of our FCPS School Board members, my life and the lives of my children are not threatened.

Instead, through this process, I was gifted a glimpse of the pain mothers of children with black and brown skin may feel due to rampant racial inequities in our community. I admit, however, I cannot begin to imagine feeling daily pain coupled with fear for the safety of my children. While this specific process hurt minority faith communities who already felt disenfranchised, for me it also illuminated the urgent need for our community to work together to intentionally dismantle racial and social inequities. Our School Board leaders must be brave. They have hard work to do, starting with a deep personal reflection to confront their own role in our systemically racist society. But, this is not just about our elected leaders.

As I continue to sit with my pain, I hear the voice louder still, “if not you, then who? If not now, then when?”

It is time for me, my white friends and allies to take stock of the pain and anger we feel right now. This pain is deep, raw and so very personal. But it is not about just us. I want us to use this experience to affect positive change for all of us in our community and for our country. I hope each of us with white privilege grow through this terrible experience to learn how important it is to use our white voices and our privilege to fight for racial and social equity.

To move forward in our local Fairfax County community, the School Board must take intentional action to repair the further harm their process caused. We need community building initiatives and we need to see the School Board implement true equity advancements. I can encourage that to happen, but I can’t control it.

As the voice speaks louder, “if not you, then who? If not now, then when?” I know what I must do. As an individual, I must be introspective and I must do the hard work to take steps toward equity. Equity starts at home. I need to continue talking about equity, personal privilege and what is happening locally and in our world with my children. No, they are not too young. Yes, they can handle it and want to know. Maybe not in the form of my 10-year-old staying up past midnight for a School Board vote, but this needs to be part of daily conversations in every home. This starts with the individual work we must each do, but must be effectuated through policy changes like what the School Board could have enacted, and grow from there.

“If not you then who? If not now, then when?” I choose me. I choose now.

On a personal level, I hope this painful glimpse stays with me. I want it to fuel my recommitment to centering racial equity. I want it to serve as a reminder to wield my white privilege to advance racial and social justice. Now and always. Until we dismantle this inequitable system.

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Judith Cabelli
Age of Awareness

A passionate leader committed to housing affordability, social justice and racial equity.