Centering the Decentered: Developing Individuals in Community for Racial Justice in San Francisco with the Magis Center for Equity and Inclusion
By: Gabrielle Villadolid (C’21)
July 1, 2022
Operating for more than 30 years in Saint Ignatius College Preparatory (SI), a private Jesuit high school located in San Francisco’s Sunset District, the Magis Center for Equity and Inclusion provides a longstanding support system to all member groups and departments of the school community. The center offers academic, sociocultural, and college preparatory programming, including resources and opportunities for SI students historically underrepresented in higher education. It also consults on and advocates for issues of equity and inclusion. Virtual interviews with SI administrators and Magis’ faculty, parents, and alumni reveal how three salient aspects of the center—safe space, community support, and an identity-based approach to social justice—address marginalized needs and experiences within the school community, provoking an urgent call for racial justice.
Reflection and the Call to Research
The coronavirus outbreak redirected the trajectory for conducting in-person international Catholic education and social justice research. In addition to restricting our 2020 Education and Social Justice Research Project cohort’s ability to travel and meet face to face, the global COVID-19 crisis revealed the need to pivot our research to focus on pressing social issues exacerbated by the pandemic. The topic of racial injustice particularly rose to the forefront of the American consciousness, as a rise in both racial killings and inequities during 2020 sparked the resurgence of movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Stop Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Hate across the United States. Calling for reforms across education and other societal sectors, the current U.S. racial justice awakening encouraged Americans to listen, reflect, and take action.
Following the ongoing societal discourse, this research addresses the need to focus on racial justice in Jesuit education. After relocating to my hometown in the Bay Area to finish my last years of college in quarantine, the unforeseen COVID-related delays landed me back at square one of the research process. However, these setbacks turned out to be blessings, as I had the meaningful opportunity to work with the Magis Center for Equity and Inclusion. Operating as the diversity and inclusion office of my Jesuit alma mater, Saint Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco (SF), the Magis Center has long engaged in social justice programming with persons of marginalized backgrounds in the private school community.
In light of recent calls for social and racial justice in the United States, this research explores how Magis and its recent alumni community conceptualize the center’s current descriptors, “equity” and “inclusion.” Additionally, this research delves into the meanings of the Magis Center’s physical space and the way the center advances racial justice.
History and Context
The Magis Center traces its roots back to the early 1970s as part of SI’s response to the call to re-evaluate its Jesuit identity and mission within the context of its times. As the global social activism of the 1960s left many Jesuit educators pondering the direction of their efforts, the Jesuit Educational Association (JEA) for Jesuit high schools and colleges in North America disbanded in 1970 to form separate associations. The newly formed Jesuit Secondary Education Association (JSEA) was a precursor of the contemporary Jesuit Schools Network (JSN), which is composed of 64 American Jesuit high schools today. JSEA ignited a wave of change as Jesuit secondary schools across the nation rallied around the association’s renewed, dynamic commitment to “go beyond the criteria of academic excellence...to the far more challenging task of bringing about a true metanoia [fundamental change in character] in students.” Inspired to help students cultivate compassionate attitudes toward the oppressed, impoverished, and victims of societal injustice, SI established what would become SI’s requisite community service program and a Black Student Union, the school’s first of many student affinity groups, in 1972. Additionally, the school committed to supporting its Black students by recruiting key faculty to enhance SI’s education for students of color.
Among these new hires was Steve Phelps, a former recreation director in predominantly Black SF neighborhoods, who previously advocated for his students’ acceptance into SI and their need for more culturally-affirming services. In 1973, Phelps founded the Magis Center’s predecessor, a summer school diversity program called SI Uplift. Designed to encourage middle schoolers of all racial backgrounds from underrepresented neighborhoods to attend SI through offering summer school programming in their seventh and eighth-grade years, SI Uplift constituted the future Magis Middle School program. After the program’s aims diverged in the 1980s, it was once again resurrected in 1995 and officially renamed Magis in the new millennium.
Magis Center programming evolved over the years in its scope and responsibilities. As its Middle School program assisted generations of families in their journeys to private Jesuit secondary education, the Magis High School program continued to serve matriculated Magis Middle School students as well as other high schoolers and families who fulfilled any of three Magis identity traits: first-generation college-bound, low-income background, or historically underserved persons of color (POC) in higher education. The High School program availed students access to additional programs and resources for mentorship, college preparation, identity formation, and sociocultural support alongside their academic journeys.
The past decade brought a wave of change to the Magis Center and its community with the termination of the Magis Middle School program in 2017 and the center’s merging with the Office of Equity and Inclusion to further expand Magis’ purview.
In its current form, the Magis Center for Equity and Inclusion engages and serves SI community groups in various ways.
This research transpired thanks to the strength and support of my high school and Magis networks. My older sister introduced me to Magis during my first weeks of freshman year. Even though Magis identity-specific programs were offered to me as a Filipino-American, I did not actively participate in them during high school. However, by forming connections and friendships with active Magis faculty and peers through past classes and extracurriculars, I cultivated a familiarity and fondness for the center. My standpoint allowed me to learn more deeply about fellow community members’ experiences after entering into this project as a first-time college researcher. These aspects of my positionality, or my worldview and location as a researcher in relation to my study and its social and political context, shaped many facets of my research process as well as challenges that I faced.
Due to the pandemic, my research started later in April 2021. Nevertheless, I was able to receive quick approval with the help of Magis’ current director and my former AP Statistics teacher, Director Maricel Hernandez.
Following a vertical case study model, I utilized our connections to reach out to SI administrators, Magis faculty, Magis parents, and recent Magis-identifying alumni from the classes of 2017 to2020 with varying levels of program involvement and conducted 20 virtual interviews in the span of about a month. The following sections detail three main findings on Magis Center programming from these interviews: themes of cultural environment and safe space, community support, and identity-based approach to social justice.
Cultural Environment and Safe Space
School environment and culture give meaning to the Magis Center’s physical space, which plays an important role in Magis’ equity and inclusion efforts in the larger private school community. The Magis Center space (comprising its office and outside tabling area) is nestled in one corner of the Student Activities Center, a busy student area set in the heart of the campus where students stop by during breaks, study, and socialize.
Similar to its surrounding area, the Magis space was likewise recognized as another important daily academic and social support space. Before classes, during breaks, and after school hours, Magis community members visited the center for academic purposes, to receive tutoring, attend weekly college workshops, and utilize the space to complete schoolwork. Interviewees equally emphasized its social and recreational use as they reported frequenting the center multiple times throughout the day or week to meet up and connect with friends or colleagues, as well as rest between classes and extracurriculars.
However, analyzing Magis through the lens of school culture allows a deeper rendering of what the Magis space offers and how it contributes to bringing about equity and inclusion. The majority of interviewees pointed out the predominantly white “feeling” of the school environment or dominant culture, within which norms for student life differed from the Magis-identifying experience of being first-generation college-bound, from a low-income background, and/or an underrepresented student of color. Consequently, Magis students and families often experienced difficulties with feeling comfortable or included in the majority-white private school community. This contextualizes and moreover emphasizes the salient view that the Magis Center area is a “safe space” or “affinity space” on campus for the Magis community (interview with Chad Evans, assistant principal for formation, April 16, 2021).
The center’s provision of a safe space is integral to its equity and inclusion efforts as it accommodates Magis members’ difficulties and needs being outside of the majority culture. Magis members reported seeking counsel, company, or leisure time in the center as often as they did because it felt easier, more comfortable, and more trustworthy to do so in the Magis space. Providing a tangible place of belonging also strengthened Magis bonds – interviewees characterized the space in terms of the community’s closeness by referring to the center as a “home” on campus where “family” came together. Finally, the center’s safe space was imperative to advancing racial justice as Magis members utilized the center to converse about social and racial issues, allowing themselves and other community members to affirm one another and process common hardships such as loneliness, invalidation, and confusion about one’s identity, as well as experiences as young minorities in a predominantly white environment. Sharing that she had been unable to process microaggressions expressed during class or directed at her until later in life due to these hardships, Magis graduate Sonya Ni shared that the Magis Center was “kind of just like a family environment…kind of like having a group of people to talk to, feel comfortable with, and see that you’re not alone in these experiences” (interview, April 20, 2021).
Community Tensions with Space and Cultural Environment
Contrasting community perceptions of Magis’ equity and inclusion work is evidenced in complex tensions between the Magis space and its surrounding cultural environment. These manifested particularly in interviewees’ observations of how some non-Magis or specifically some white community members interacted with or perceived the inclusivity or exclusivity of the Magis Center as an affinity space within SI’s predominantly white environment. On the more positive end, interviewees expressed that the center was a welcoming social space for anyone to walk in and have a conversation. Interviewees pointed out that some non-Magis students in every class find their main social community by hanging out in the center and supporting Magis programming alongside their friends.
However, confusion and tensions arose around how some non-affiliated members understood and reacted to Magis as a safe space mainly used by Magis-identifying persons. Interviewees neutrally shared that unaffiliated persons tended to avoid or were reluctant to interact with the Magis space out of lacking a social or affinity-based connection to the center, or out of acknowledgment that the space and its resources were not primarily intended for them. On the more negative end, interviewees observed that some unaffiliated members held stigmatizing perceptions of the center, such as the belief that it was an exclusive space for Black, brown, and low-income students or was self-segregating. These tensions were bolstered by interviewees’ neutral and negative impressions that there was a general skepticism or lack of knowledge surrounding Magis’ space and programs. Taken altogether, these complex views of the Magis space mirrored and framed interviewees’ further discussions on how Magis’ equity and inclusion efforts were received in the greater community. Former Magis student Jovita Ramirez reflected, “I feel like, throughout the four years, an issue always came up of how the Magis Center was viewed as outside of that [Magis] community… There just was never an easy approach, I guess, from the outside looking in, but from the inside looking out, it was like, it’s as simple as having a conversation” (interview, April 25, 2021).
Despite these tensions, Magis places the value of community at the heart of its equity and inclusion programming. When discussing Magis’ core beliefs, interviewees conveyed that the center represented the values of inclusion, support, community belonging, and family.
“Going through the program and being a part of everything, you learn that ‘Magis’ really means family, which means that, you know, everyone’s supported, everyone’s loved, everyone’s invited, and I feel like that’s also connected to equity and inclusion of just everyone belongs… I know whenever I had a problem, whether it be academic, emotional, whatever, it’s always like, come to the center, find help, someone’ll help” (interview with Charlie Mejia, Magis ’18 student, April 19, 2021).
The prominence of community support in promoting equity and inclusion could not be understated as it ameliorated Magis-identifying faculty, students, and families’ underserved needs throughout crucial stages in their SI journeys. Initially, Magis functioned as a key support structure at the beginning of their SI careers. Being introduced to Magis through a friend or family member and/or joining the community as newcomers helped ease Magis members’ transitions into an environment with few people who came from their middle schools, looked like them, or shared similar experiences. Magis’ community support was likewise pivotal for Magis students’ and their families’ successful preparation for and acceptance into college.
Many Magis-identified students who were first-generation college-bound (in which their parents did not complete a four-year college or university degree) were getting ready for college on their own, or were without access to necessary prep courses and materials, relied on the Magis College Advising program to stay on top of the rigorous college preparation process alongside peers who already had access to resources and support models. For some Magis families, the College Advising program was their primary or sole means for receiving help on entrance exam study; application writing; financial aid and scholarship registration; and/or college touring in accessible, timely, and less overwhelming ways.
While lesser-known, Magis’ community support encouraged equity and inclusion via incorporating the needs and contributions of Magis parents. The merits of parental involvement flowed both ways—through its African American and Latino Parent Association (AALPA) and Saint Ignatius Parents Asian Club (SIPAC), Magis parent affinity group programming not only provided avenues for underserved parents to be heard and assist other families, but also supplied an indispensable feedback loop that improved the way Magis advocated for its students’ needs. Former AALPA co-president and alumni parent Carla Bello worked hard to reach out to Magis parents and ensure they were aware of the various avenues they could use to support their children’s education. She explained, “I wasn’t one as a parent to just basically drop off my child at school, not for these very formative, important years, and SI was a place that allowed or gave parents lots of space to be involved” (interview, April 13, 2021).
Most importantly, having Magis as a constant safe space and community support system was instrumental for many Magis members to overcome the compounded day-to-day struggles of their underrepresented identifiers and high school routine. It helped them survive and succeed in their SI careers. As a new parent to private Jesuit education and as a Black mother raising a Black son, current AALPA co-president Christina Solomon spoke to the gravity of having the Magis Center’s support: “Not having the Magis, I don’t know—one, I don’t know how long we would have been there, and two, I don’t know how successful we would have been, you know, because it’s easy to feel isolated and alone, even though no one necessarily did anything and the environment is welcoming… the Magis Center is probably the heartbeat to why many Black and brown families are able to navigate that, and I just wish that it would have more exposure so families really knew” (interview, April 29, 2021).
Identity and Social Justice
Social justice is central to Magis’ Jesuit identity as it defines the way Magis tackles its missions to serve underrepresented student needs and to develop persons with and for others. Community rhetoric articulates this approach as interviewees shared that Magis and its programs symbolized the belief of “doing more” or “going above and beyond” to “better oneself for the sake of oneself and one’s community” (multiple interviewees, April 2021). Some members interpreted this in a self-empowering way, explaining that Magis encouraged its students to go beyond the stereotypes and hardships of one’s marginalized identifiers and pursue one’s self-definition of greatness. Conversely, other members underlined the latter aspect of empowering one’s community, stating that Magis was about going above and beyond to serve or make a positive impact on others, especially those at the margins. Magis College Advisor Anna Maria Vaccaro explains how the Magis Center motto, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” encapsulates these meanings: “…It is easier to ‘can’t stop’ when we together ‘won’t stop’ for meeting that goal, not only for us to be the greater but for our community, whether they’re Magis or not, to be the greater as well” (interview, April 22, 2021).
One of the most profound ways in which Magis instilled these social justice beliefs and fostered equity and inclusion is through the identity formation of Magis students. Over half of Magis interviewees attributed part of their own or other members’ personal or professional development as minorities to Magis’ foundation of education; tools; and diverse support network of mentors, colleagues, and friends. As Magis helped to shape the mindsets, values, and persons they embody today, alumni realized Magis’ social justice beliefs in their own lives as they felt encouraged to speak up about equity and inclusion issues in their college communities and/or become supportive allies and organizers to racial justice movements and POC peers.
"Looking back, you know, it happened four years ago and was just a friendship group to me, but I don't think without [Magis] that I would have had the courage, or the understanding, or the experience, or even the knowledge to speak on the issues today and even lead a protest in my local community, which is really powerful" (interview with Kaela Lee, Magis '17 student, April 21, 2021).
"[These times have] kind of re-clarified my role or my position where it's like, I've gone through a lot of these struggles that Magis students have faced socially, in college apps, all that stuff, so if anyone ever needs help or assistance, it's like, oh, I should help them because there's people in front of me that helped me" (interview with Edward Hagape, Magis '20 student, April 11, 2021).
"I can't even begin to name everybody because everyone's just been so engaged and up in arms...Magis means a lot to me with everything going on in the world, because it shows just how rampant these types of communities are needed to develop individuals who can go out and then provide that kind of support to other people" (interview with Henry Davis, Magis '17 student, April 17, 2021).
Magis faculty and administrator interviewees also deemed their motivations for supporting equity, inclusion, and racial justice as inseparable from their identities. While the majority of faculty and administrators positively described their experiences of equity and inclusion work as important, joyful, and rewarding, all voiced negative aspects as well. Interviewees of both groups named its emotionally exhausting and/or challenging nature. They cited the sheer amount of work; its complexity; its characteristic of personally challenging one’s own identity and privilege; and its entailing of continuous learning and catch-up work, especially for persons uneducated on equity, inclusion, and racial topics, as reasons for this. An administrator shared the challenge of coming up with quick answers or solutions and responding to strong sentiment on racial issues without past education on racial topics and with little time in their schedules to devote to catching up, amounting to experiences of frustration and slow change.
Magis faculty members’ experiences of emotional exhaustion and difficulty were expressed as inevitable parts of their jobs while primarily working and advocating at the margins of the dominant culture. All administrators and a few faculty spoke about hearing some coworkers question Magis or POC members’ perspectives on equity and inclusion work, such as toward Magis’ space and programs; the institution’s responsibility to address some racial issues; and POC members’ expressing dissatisfaction with the school’s progress on equity and inclusion in view of institutional strides already taken to create cultural programs, diversify departments and curriculums, etc. Non-POC and POC Magis faculty additionally had received criticism; labels such as being too forward, angry, or aggressive; colder treatment; and rumors doubting their professionalism from other adult community members after being associated with Magis’ work or after calling out and supporting events discussing racial injustices that occurred within American society or the school community.
This is not uncommon as recent studies exploring the professional experiences of racial justice-oriented teachers of color (TOC) affirm that TOC are often met with pushback, little support, and/or racism in the form of racial colorblindness, microaggressions, or bias from colleagues when implementing culturally responsive teaching and confronting racial issues within their schools. Conversely, a Magis faculty member discerned that some questioning toward equity, inclusion, and racial justice work did not reflect the belief that it was unimportant, but reflected what other administrators and faculty observed was a lack of grasping the consequential meaning of Magis’ needs-based programs and advocacy to many community members whose historical, racial, social, and emotional realities diverge from and are underrepresented within their predominant cultural landscape. Finally, interviewees from both groups described the need to actively and collaboratively work toward equity and inclusion through explicit and implicit means, such as systemically building relationships, interactions, and feelings of safety; inclusiveness/belonging; and solidarity/mutual support with, for, and among community members at the cultural margins.
Nevertheless, interviewed faculty and administrators took identity-based approaches toward tackling these complications as they tied Magis’ or their own motives for engaging in equity, inclusion, and racial justice efforts at SI back to the school’s Catholic and Jesuit identity or their personal callings to give back to the underrepresented communities they identified with. In light of the current racial justice awakening in America, more than 70% of administrators, faculty, and parent interviewees pointed out that Magis occupied an essential role in the larger school community, not only in aiding the school’s addressing of equity, inclusion, and racial justice issues on a larger scale, but also in educating and challenging the greater institution to work on these issues together as a Jesuit community. Magis support faculty and Assistant Director of Community Service & Social Justice Tamara Setiady expressed, “My hope is that our school and the formation we do with adults in faculty, as well as parents and donors, builds more recognition and acknowledgment of the way that the Magis Center is who we are as a Catholic and Jesuit school and that supporting the Magis Center is only going to build a more inclusive and dynamic education for everybody at SI, not just students of color, faculty of color, or families of color” (interview, April 14, 2021).
"Can't Stop, Won't Stop" for Racial Justice
The Magis Center for Equity and Inclusion centers its core values of community and social justice by serving SI families with marginalized backgrounds and advising on equity and inclusion-related issues. Meeting its students’ needs for identity formation and more, Magis uplifts the decentered and develops individuals with an orientation toward social and racial justice. Magis alumni carry these values with them in their futures and have acted upon them in the midst of the global pandemic and in American racial justice movements. Despite experiencing tensions within its cultural environment and hardships associated with equity, inclusion, and racial justice work, Magis has emerged as a Jesuit cornerstone of the Saint Ignatius community as it leads and assists in promoting Jesuit engagement with the most challenging issues of our times.
In a conversation with social researcher Brené Brown, Me Too founder and renowned activist Tarana Burke declares that authentic antiracist work demands engaging with Black humanity at levels of both the head and the heart. As a Jesuit-instructed social justice research fellow, I endeavored to adapt and balance this approach while conducting this project with Magis. During difficult moments, I found perseverance in support from my ESJ cohort and a small gut feeling deep down that this research was already written—I simply needed to engage with the humanity of the devoted Jesuit educators, parents, classmates, and friends. Their stories express present needs, perspectives, and themes that can shed light on some potential best practices and growth areas for supporting the educational experiences of underrepresented first-generation, low income, and/or students and families of color. They reflect the complex challenges of working on equity and inclusion as an Ignatian community, as well as the enduring identity-based values and motivations that inform why Magis continues to “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” for racial justice.
The views expressed in this student research are those of the author(s) and not of the Berkley Center or Georgetown University.