This year brings change. After twenty-five successful years as Thacher’s head of school, our beloved Mr. Mulligan is stepping down. As such, a new head of school on the way. Thacher also has a new head of the horse department, a new Fisher Fellow, as well as new faculty members. Thacher also announced the creation of a new administrative position: Director of Diversity and Inclusion. Mr. Balano has come from St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco to Thacher to help us develop programs and raise more awareness about different perspectives and cultures.
Mr. Balano was born in San Francisco, but moved with his family to San Anselmo in Marin County when he was young. Marin County is culturally homogenous compared to San Francisco’s diversity. He said, “Although I had a loving family, mostly caring teachers and good friends, there was a cultural disconnect at school and in my community. As a multiracial kid [Mr. Balano is Filipino, Latino and white] living in San Anselmo, there were very few people that looked like me. Nearly all my classmates were European American. I had no teachers or coaches of color until college. The curriculum back then was such that there was little to no diversity. Back then we didn’t have the decades of research that we now have that demonstrates the value of culturally responsive school communities and curricula.” These experiences would eventually play a role in his career path.
Fast forward to college, when Mr. Balano took an ethnic studies course taught by a man named Walter Turner. In addition to being an academic, Professor Turner was very active in social and racial justice movements. For Mr. Balano, this was a turning point as Professor Turner was his first mentor and teacher of color. He was also the first person to expose him to a curriculum and history of people of color. As Mr. Balano said, “He sparked something in me with regards to identity, racial consciousness, and the desire to become an educator. Prior to meeting Walter, I had felt a distance from my education. It was impactful to have a role model of color and to see myself appropriately reflected in the curriculum. Walter was instrumental in my trajectory into racial justice and education. To this day, he is a mentor and a friend.”
After college, Mr. Balano’s teaching odyssey began. “I taught in English language programs at San Francisco State and Dominican University. I also taught at and helped open a language academy in South Korea, and later was an instructor at the Center for North American Studies in Spain. When I returned to the US from Spain in 2000, I started working at St. Ignatius.” He worked there for almost 17 years. At first, he was a full-time English teacher and then moved to administration as academic support director. Then, in 2010, Mr. Balano became the school’s first equity and inclusion director. From there, with a strong support network, he led efforts to help St. Ignatius become more diverse and inclusive. In his time as director of equity and inclusion, the school achieved its goals in its strategic plan, including those focusing on admissions and curriculum. The percentage of students of color rose from 38% in 2009 to 53% today, and St. Ignatius is now the first Jesuit high school in the US to have an Ethnic Studies graduation requirement. Also, in his role as the National Chair of the Jesuit Schools Network (JSN) Diversity Directors, Balano supported JSN diversity directors across the country with professional development and their efforts to develop and implement equity and inclusion strategic plans at their respective schools.
But last year he decided it was time for a new challenge. “There are a lot of really good, dedicated people at SI and we were making positive change. But seventeen years is a long time, and I felt it was time for a new chapter for me and my son, Marcus. Both of us are thrilled to be here at Thacher.” Mr. Balano believes that an important step in creating inclusive communities is normalizing difficult discussions. “When there is a challenging conversion that needs to be had, in many communities people will shut down and avoid the difficult topic. Then, things begin to bubble under the surface; people start making assumptions. Misunderstandings or sometimes resentment can build up. By creating a system of communication, with established dialogue principles, healthy and important conversations about diversity and inclusion become easier.”
The fact that we have a new job for diversity and inclusion shows that Thacher is a making a commitment to create an environment where students are welcome and feel like they can be themselves.
This new position speaks to how Thacher is making a step in the right direction.
As far as plans go, Mr. Balano has said that he will spend much of his first year, “Listening, observing, asking questions, and becoming familiar with the community.” He said he is also gathering data, and, in collaboration with leadership, plans to craft a diversity and inclusion strategic plan by next year. “I look forward to working with all our community members to continue Thacher’s efforts to provide an environment where all students can blossom to their full potential, and develop into socially conscious, empathetic leaders for the ‘greatest good.’”