Transparent Communications

Jan Abernathy, CCO at The Browning School, talks about the importance of different perspectives.

A Conversation with Jan Abernathy | Portrait by Sean Pressley


Jan Abernathy has always been in PR and marketing. She began her career at Dow Jones and Co. For 14 years, she was in financial news. Then as her children grew up, she started looking for schools for them and very quickly realized that an independent school was the right track for them. That also was the track for her career in independent schools.

For 13 years, including six years as a chair, she was on the board at her children’s school. It was a small school that didn’t have its own communication staff, like a lot of schools didn’t back then. So she was doing more things for the school, including interacting with the head of school. As her kids got a little bit older, she started exploring, what would it be like to work in a school?

That led to her first position at the Elisabeth Morrow School, a school for 3-year-olds through eighth grade. After six years, as the head here was preparing to move on to another school, she thought it was a good time for her to look and see what else was out there. She was fortunate enough that the Browning School had been advertising. In 2019, about six months before the greatest global pandemic since 1918, she started working there. And the rest is history.

Kelly McMurray: How big is your team? Because your presence on social media for the Browning School is really impressive. It’s consistent. The magazine is gorgeous. You’re producing a lot of content.

Jan Abernathy: I think we are producing a lot of content. I have just one person on my team. And I’ve never worked on a team that’s bigger than two people; my old school was roughly the same size. I’ve got Jeremy Katz, who’s our associate director of strategic communications, who does a phenomenal job on all of the social. The things that you see on social media, that is 100 percent him.

What we’re really trying to do is tell the story, and tell the story in a very strategic way, but also tell the story in a very branded way. One of the things that people speak about when they speak about our Instagram is, “Wow, it really looks like you. I can tell when something looks like it’s coming from the Browning School.”

We worked with a firm by the name of Generation that really helped us with some of our branding initiatives and gave us the idea of where to go. This was right before I joined Browning, and we have been able to take those assets and utilize them, further develop them, and iterate them. We bring in some of the design from the magazine and iterate it on social. We find that social is essentially what a website probably was seven or eight years ago to a school. It is the front door if families don’t want to go to your website. They can go to your Instagram.

Kelly McMurray: I totally agree. I think that’s so important that you do have that consistent branding. You know what, I look at the magazine, I look at the social, and you know it’s the Browning School. And it’s in such a saturated market. It’s really important to instantly know “That’s the Browning School.” In the messaging, too.

Jan Abernathy: Yeah. There’s probably very few markets that are more saturated than the New York City market for independent schools. Being able to stand out, particularly since we’re in a market where there are a lot of boys’ schools. We are not the only one. One of the biggest misconceptions about the Browning School is that we’re a K–8 grade school and that we don’t have a high school, but we do. So we think about that and other misconceptions, such as maybe that it’s too small or that it’s too elite. We try to really focus on thinking about how to strategically combat misperceptions, because we want people to have an accurate idea of who we are, so they can make an accurate assessment about whether or not the school is right for their child. Or as a teacher, if it’s the right employer for them.

Kelly McMurray: Right. In the past 10 years, maybe even the past two, how has your role as a communication specialist changed?

Jan Abernathy: Can you say COVID? I mean, it’s really all about COVID, right?

It is something that I’m not sure how anyone could have prepared for it. I cannot imagine being new to the industry and having that happen. If I hadn’t had a good foundation, and not only a good foundation in schools, I don’t know where I would have been. Because I had been in media (I had been a reporter with a degree in journalism), so I could, as soon as something like this happened, switch into reporter mode and ask, “What do I need to find out? What do I need to do?”

I started by taking the contact-tracing course offered by Johns Hopkins. I really needed to be able to understand and work side-by-side with our nurse to understand what she was going through. The information we were receiving from the government, whether it was two years ago, or frankly, right now, it can change on a dime. It’s confusing for people; it’s hard to keep up with the testing regimen. So who are we going to bring into the school to test? What are our requirements going to be? What are we doing with vaccines, masks, multiple sorts of things—all of those things had to be communicated.

Schools took a wide variety of stances about everything; Browning was communicating essentially every case. To me, the risk was, if we didn’t do that, people would say, “They’re hiding that there’s all these cases in 10th grade. Or they’re hiding that there’s a kid in kindergarten.” There was that whole period of time when younger kids were not eligible for the vaccine, and parents were scared that we were hiding kids having COVID. We want to try to remove at any time, any kind of mistrust of us, by being as intentional in our communications as we are. That’s the motto that I try to live by. I think it works for our school. I think it works for all schools. But I think it all depends on how you’re structured and how you’re also used to operating.

I came into this role at Browning and my role at Elisabeth Morrow as the first person doing the communications work full time. So that is a difference. You know, if I did come in, and there had been a previous leader that had a really different way of doing things, it might have been different for me. But luckily, this worked for me, and I was able to kind of surf, you know, this wave of COVID. One of the odd things about me, I guess you could say, I really enjoy crisis communications. So for me, there’s a bit of a rush, there’s a bit of an adrenaline rush. When something happens, you’ve got to get it out, you’ve got to get signed off, you’ve got to figure out what’s going on. That is something I enjoy. I enjoy figuring things out.

Another huge change in communications—and this is related to COVID—is the erosion of trust in institutions broadly, and how that filters into erosion of trust in schools. By that, I don’t just mean Browning, I mean every school everywhere. There used to be a lot of assumption of good faith. There was a lot of assumption that people who worked in schools care about my child as much as I do. That these people are trying to do the right thing by my child. I think some of that has really changed. I think people are more concerned now than ever about what their children are learning. There certainly is media that is driving a lot of that concern. What’s your kid learning in history class? Did you know this theme was in this book? Did you know this is what they teach in sexuality education? Because of all of that, I feel that if our schools are not really intentional about saying what our values are, saying what our mission is, or how our education aligns with those things, we are going to end up always reacting to something that somebody is saying about us. I think we have to be proactive and have to get out there with why we teach what we teach. That is really the key.

Kelly McMurray: That’s a really interesting point that’s come up in conversations with other people. I feel like at the higher-ed level there is a lack of trust in the communications team. You know schools are under attack right now with the question of whether college is worth it. Is liberal arts education worth it? So there’s been this shift to risk adversity in higher ed. So I feel like there’s this lack of trust in the communications team to authentically tell the stories of that school and take risks in the stories that they’re telling.

Jan Abernathy: That’s interesting. I don’t know that many people in higher ed, and I have not noticed that from my alma mater. I’m in a position that the college that I went to [Northwestern University] is also where my son goes. So now I’m able to see from a parental perspective the kinds of communications that are coming out.

I think there was so much heat, especially in the college world, around living on campus. My son would have started right during COVID in the fall of 2020. So there was a lot of tension around who got to live on campus and why. And even living on campus, you remember, a lot of kids lived at college for an entire year before they ever met a professor.

These students are not even attached to the schools. And you have parents at home writing out a check for $85,000, $70,000, or $40,000. And they’re saying, my kid could be in his bedroom doing this right now. So the whole value proposition of the residential college experience—that vanished in an instant. In fact, for our independent schools, the value proposition is that your child will be known and loved. Try to communicate that across a student’s screen when nobody was using Zoom two weeks before. So I can understand that quite naturally.

Certainly in K–12 schools, it’s concerning that many administrators are conservative by nature in terms of always wanting the prettiest picture of life at school. They always want to make things pretty. Our business is to communicate. I think that parents can see past the facade to authenticity anyway.

I can remember talking to an old colleague at Elisabeth Morrow; she was a director of advancement. I’ll never forget that she said, “Yes, I like authenticity. But I like a certain kind of authenticity.” That doesn’t work for how people are consuming media. I just don’t think it’s effective. I think I’m transparent. I try to have transparent communications, because they’re effective.

Kelly McMurray: I think it’s interesting. I did a college tour with my son in April, and we went to two very different schools. We had these tour guides, and at the end, their statements were so similar, they could have been at the same school. We were like, how much were they guided on what to say to people on the way out.

What I wanted to talk to you a lot about today is the importance of diverse perspectives. You started at the Browning School in 2019, six months later you have the pandemic, months after that you have the George Floyd murder. How are we going to talk about this? Then as a communications person, how are you sharing those stories? I would love to have you talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, what does that mean to you personally?

Jan Abernathy: What that means to me personally is having the same kind of voice at the table that my colleagues do, who may not be people of color. It is having people have some kind of fundamental understanding and respect of the fact that my experiences may be different from their experiences. And a willingness to learn and a willingness to grow in that, a willingness to understand that inequality is baked into a lot of our systems in America. And not only that—it is, in fact, baked into our schools.

I think one of the biggest things that folks who work in schools can understand is that these systems and these schools are tuition-based schools that did not spring up to educate the masses.

Sometimes there’s a different origin story; maybe there was a gap right in the education market. Some of your newer schools will talk about something like there was no place in this community to educate gifted children. Or parents wanted more of a say in their children’s education, and that’s why we have this cooperative school or whatever. But the reality is, an awful lot of the schools are founded on the backs of elitism. It’s not to say that we’re elite today, but how do you transform that elitism into some kind of meritocracy? And we should be talking about that. We should be talking about the reason that we have some of these pain points and we have some of these frictions is that we set up a system that is sort of exclusive. Then we’re saying to people, why aren’t you fitting into the exclusive system? Why don’t you know all of the things that people who have worked in the schools for generations, or have gone to the schools for generations, know?

It’s interesting, I’ve heard of more small liberal arts colleges since I’ve worked in independent schools than I ever heard of before. I went to Northwestern. I went to a Big 10 school. My son went to an independent school in New York, and he goes to Northwestern. The vast majority of people go to public schools in this country, just like his classmates there did. They’d ask him, “Why did you go to private school?” They think of it like Gossip Girl and all of the things that young people would have seen about independent schools. Our schools can exist in a bubble, but it’s not healthy. It’s not good for us. It doesn’t make our institutions better, right?

Or we can say, “Hey, isn’t it wonderful that we’re in a place in time where we can take something that has an elitist country club atmosphere and open it up to more people, which is ultimately what’s going to make it better?” Instead of thinking about diversity and inclusion as taking away from something, how can we make it additive? How can we make the schools more reflect the United States as well as the world. Prepare our children for being in that kind of environment, which is what they’re going to be in, in college, and if not in college, what they will be in the workforce. I think schools have so much growing to do in this area.

The George Floyd murder certainly was an eye-opener for many people. And then, of course, the “Black at” experience for a lot of schools that I’ve written about was equally big because people were stunned. Many schools felt, “Hey, we opened the door.” Some schools thought, “We’re better than many other schools—after all, in some parts of the country, private schools were segregated.” But then to find out that there was so much more work that folks had to do was initially disheartening to a lot of people. But then schools thought, “Hey, how can we dig into this?”

I have to praise John Botti, who is our head of school. I think that Browning has done an incredible job in this with both our outreach to Black alums, which then turned into the Panther Mentors, an alum group, and the fact that two of those men are now on our board of trustees. I think we have acted beyond all deliberate speed. We have acted speedily to sort of address some of these things in our own community. It makes me very proud to work at the school.

Kelly McMurray: I think that there’s this movement to safeness and having things be happy in school communications. Though some of our clients really hit it head on. Winsor magazine had one of the graduates share her story as one of the first Black girls at the school. It was painful. It was really what her experience was like with three other girls, but it was so important, and I just think it was brave of the school to tell that story.

Jan Abernathy: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, shout-out as well to my friends at Lakeside School in Seattle, because they did an amazing job with an entire magazine that was about what it was like to be Black at Lakeside.

That school has an archivist, and so they really have good historical records. They have even written about the community that surrounded the school and how it was founded with restrictive covenants, so minorities couldn’t live there. How many people even know what the words “restrictive covenants” mean, right? Or know what the word “redling” means, and what it means when your school is located in that kind of area? If I’m talking to a school that’s in Virginia, let’s say, and you’re telling me your school was founded in 1965, I’m going to immediately ask if it was  founded as a “seg school”—a school designed to keep Blacks out after the laws changed to require integration. And it’s interesting how many people have no idea of whether or not that’s true.

You know, when I came to Browning, one of the first things that I said was, “So who can tell me about the experience of the first Black alums?” Because I knew they weren’t going there 100 years ago, you know. Our school had to have integrated during my lifetime, and in fact, it was within my lifetime. Those are stories that some of our alums are waiting to tell. And why is their story less legitimate than the story of other alums who want to talk about how great their experience was?

Kelly McMurray: One of the things that I think is interesting is that within the first few pages of Buzzer magazine, you have the diversity statement for the Browning School. There’s a really strong stance in support of diversity by publishing that in the magazine, in the first few pages. So when you’re thinking about diversity, equity, inclusion as a comms person at Browning, how are you approaching it? What stories are you looking for? Who are you finding to tell those stories?

Jan Abernathy: The stories that we are always looking for are just kind of the broadest representation of our faculty, of our alums, of our current students—we want to know it all. We also want to know stories about alums who may not be in the most traditional paths that people might take into the law, finance, real estate, all of your kind of top New York jobs. What else are people doing? I think stories about young alums are key. Obviously you want the stories of alums to reflect very highly on your school. But what ends up happening is you may get into a certain professional focus; we may get into narrow ideas of what success looks like.

I think what’s interesting is that sometimes when you don’t hear the stories, or you have lost connection with a set of alums for a variety of reasons, you miss stories that are current and so relevant.

We reached out to our Black alums shortly after George Floyd’s murder, and we had a focus group and we recognized that one of those alums was working at Pfizer and had worked as a virologist on developing the COVID-19 vaccine. And at that time, all of the vaccines didn’t yet exist. You couldn’t have paid for that kind of story, and it was something that was just dropped in our lap.

Sometimes we lose track of people. People see the stories in the magazine, they see the types of class notes that are in the magazine, and they are thinking there’s not really a place for them. So is there a place for those kinds of stories. Because it’s very easy to lose alumni and lose the students who aren’t the typical. I definitely encourage looking beyond the alumni who are in the “rah rah, amen corner.” God bless them, you’re always gonna have that. But there’s a whole lot of other people who went to the school. So I’m just looking for things that are interesting. I’m looking for things that are relevant, and they can come from anywhere.

Kelly McMurray: Right. That’s interesting.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is when we look at where a school is and where a school aspires to be, how do we communicate that specifically through, like, admissions materials. How do you represent people fairly?

Some projects that I’ve worked on, there were some students who were cast for photo shoots. What place does that put those students in? Say somebody comes to them from leadership and they’re like, “Okay, we’re working on our viewbook, our admissions material, and we want you to be in this piece.” Does that put that student in an uncomfortable place? What if they don’t want to do it? How do we find those voices from the student body and in the community to come forth to tell their stories?

Jan Abernathy: I think this is something that schools really struggle with. We happen to be fortunate at Browning, in K–12, all of our students are fully photographable.

There’s still people who are doing photography where they’re essentially staging the kids. This is a particular kind of diversity thing. Like, hey, we want to show we have all kinds of kids. So what we’re going to do is literally line up all kinds of kids and tell them to laugh, and we’re going to take the picture. Fewer people are doing that, and that used to be something that was really common, as we saw from the “Black at” accounts. That was one of the main things kids were slamming. They were saying, you know, “At the school they pulled me out of class and put me in the cafeteria and said, ‘Sit next to this kid.’ I would never sit next to [that kid]. And they took our pictures.”

That, again, goes back to the authenticity, because honestly, when you talk about admission materials, and you talk about the aspiration versus reality, I should be able to get to most of that aspiration through the pictures that we’re taking. At Browning, we say we are all about relationships. We bring in a professional photographer a couple of times a year. And if I’m talking about relationships, the photographer should be able to walk into any classroom and really see a teacher engaging one-on-one, or one-on-two with some boys. But if I’m talking about relationships and it’s really hard to get pictures of the teachers unless they’re at the front of the room, maybe I shouldn’t be talking about relationships.

You should be able to get authenticity through candids. I really do believe that. If you can’t, then look at your messaging and look at your positioning, through pictures. Then you are trying to advance a narrative that’s not completely there. That’s a place, actually, to have some conversations with your leadership. You know, we say that we’re doing progressive education, for example, or we’re saying we’re doing, you know, collaborative work, but yet every time I enter a classroom, it’s always the “sage on the stage.” So what’s going on there? Let’s talk about it. It’s easy for leadership to think that we have that level of control. And it will be easy to convince people that it’s not how it really is, but it’s how we’re picturing it to be. You don’t want to sell people anything that they’re not going to see on a tour, right? Because they’re going to come in on the tour. And if it’s always the teacher in the front of the classroom, or kids are always doing worksheets, and you’re selling a different kind of education, it’s not gonna work for you.

Kelly McMurray: I think that is so important. At 2communiqué, one change that we’ve made since 2020 is to be more intentional about the photographers that we’re hiring. I think there’s such a connection between photographer and subject. There was a group of photo editors who launched, and it’s a really wonderful resource to find BIPOC photographers.

We’re rethinking some of the shoots that we’ve directed in the past and asking, “Why is that Black student framed in the central focus in that one particular photo?”

I was talking to Alonso Nichols, the chief photographer at Tufts, and his experience. He’s there, he knows the school, he knows the student base, but he also said to me that he knows the shots that people are looking for. Even as a photographer of color he’s out with a lens trying to find connections. So I’ve just been thinking about it a lot as we work with schools to create real communications, you know?

Jan Abernathy: Absolutely.

I’ll tell you a story from when I was at Elisabeth Morrow and we used to do much of our photography in-house. My associate, who was Black, was a really excellent photographer. The shots that he was getting, particularly kids of color, were unlike any shots that we had gotten before. The school had never used a photographer of color. And the light bulb went off in my head.

BIPOC photographers can understand all of the technical attributes needed to get a good shot of people. It varies by what their skin tone is, and their hair color is, and all of those kinds of things, right? Hollywood actresses say they only want certain kinds of makeup artists to work with, or certain lighting directors to light them on set. Viola Davis talks about this all the time. People will get that lighting wrong because they’re simply not used to working with certain complexions. When I worked at Elisabeth Morrow, one of the first things a parent came to me and said was, “Hey, can I tell you something? It turns out that a bunch of the Black parents were always unhappy with how the pictures came out, because of the background and because they weren’t lit properly.” But nobody had brought it to the attention of the school because the parents were intimidated to do so. But it was easily fixable. You just use another background and you’d light people differently, but you have to be aware, right? You have to be aware that not all people are going to be lit the same. Not all people look the same.

I just think of the variety of shots we need, and I always require that we’re going to have in our stable of a bunch of photographers at least one BIPOC person. We have a wonderful person, a photographer who is Asian, and he does a phenomenal job no matter who he is photographing. The pictures of everybody look good, not just certain people look good. And I think, why not? Why shouldn’t any communications person look at a wide variety of vendors, because you’re always going to get something a little bit different. Just widen the pool.

Kelly McMurray: Exactly.

So I have to read something. I was looking on your LinkedIn, because in one of your recent posts you asked for people to contribute to an article about diversity and boards due to underrepresentation. People can feel marginalized when asked onto boards just to diversify. I wonder: Is that happening in the communication sector?

Jan Abernathy: In terms of people getting hired to diversify the communications departments?

Kelly McMurray: How can we break boundaries to represent different perspectives? I think about how you have been such a voice over the past couple of years, and it’s been amazing. I think a lot of people have learned from what you’ve been sharing. But you already have a full-time job. So I am looking at the sensitivity of not expecting too much. In our communications community, it’s primarily white, aged 30 to 40. So how do we authentically bring different voices into the community? For example, I was at a conference recently, and out of 125 people, 100 were white and between the ages of 30 and 40.

Jan Abernathy: Yeah, very narrow. It’s very narrow boundaries. You’re right, you miss stories like that. You just miss a whole way to communicate. You miss sensitivities. You miss all of those things. And I agree with you, there are very, very few, certainly at least in this market, very few communicators of color, period. Then fewer still who are actually Black communicators.

I’m not completely sure why that is, except that I think that for my job, a lot of people have come to that job out of teaching, or they’ve come out of people who have gone to independent schools. I always encourage my colleagues at Browning to move away from job descriptions that say independent school experience is preferred, right? If you’ve been teaching for 10 years, but you’re teaching in a public district, you’re still a teacher, right? You know how to do it. So some of these things are elitist and exclusionary, because we feel that we’re in this bubble, and the only people who can communicate about this bubble are people who have experienced this bubble, which is also so limiting, right?

It’s also limiting, because one of the things you see if you’re a person who’s come from a different kind of environment, you might say the way that we’re describing financial aid is really harmful, is really exclusionary, or it makes people feel bad about themselves in a way. There’s just so much more of an opportunity for examining the ways in which we communicate with families. They may not be as inclusive as we think they are.

Communicators can’t be a place where they think DIB professionals are supposed to be doing it all. I think that the communicator has got to be right there on the ground examining everything, questioning everything—is this as inclusive as it can be?

When we talk about clubs, when we talk about the Parents Association, we’re gonna talk like, “Does this feel exclusionary?” Let’s look at the events. Are they expensive? Our admissions folks across the board are doing a very good job of mitigating this and looking at some of this to attract more diverse families. But I still think there’s so much, we have so much room to grow. And particularly, if we’re talking about socioeconomics, we just have so much more room to grow in terms of making people that are middle-class people who may need some tuition assistance, feel that these schools are their schools also, and not the vestige of schools for different kinds of people.

Kelly McMurray: That’s so interesting. About 10 years ago, we worked with a group where they had a report for a program for kids from Boston to go to an independent school on the weekends, and it was going to donors, as well as prospective families. The language made me uncomfortable because it was a piece going to donors, as well as prospective families, and making the students a statistic. I felt you have to separate these audiences, you have to talk about school in a different way. But recently we have worked with a coalition in New York, and all the framing has moved away from deficit- to asset-framed language. So the pieces being communicated can, and should, go to both audiences.

Jan Abernathy: Exactly. I think that’s quite right. And I think that advancement professionals really have to look at how things can be more inclusive. You have to. Because you have to think about things if you say that you’re dedicated to inclusion.

It’s one thing to put a diversity statement in the magazine, it’s one thing to have people working in the DIB office. It’s another thing to really challenge, to really examine and explore traditions and functions and ways of doing your magazine or communicating about things on social media, with an eye toward equity. That’s different because that also gets challenging.

We created a magazine for a major anniversary of my old school. Typically, the magazine cover was like a single student doing something. I said to them, “Look, I know you’re not going to say this to me, and maybe you didn’t even notice this, but I want you to be aware, this is a big anniversary for the school, there’s gonna be a Black kid on the cover, do you think you’re gonna get pushback?”

It was fine then, but people now talk about woke this or woke that or whatever. That sensitivity is there. Is it because people still have an idea of what an “X” school student looks like? And we’re stretching those boundaries, but people still have that experience, and when it’s too different from what they believe, you should be prepared for blowback.

Kelly McMurray: That’s interesting. I was thinking about being very intentional and thoughtful with language. Recently I was looking at an independent school’s admission page, and they had three archetypal students. And when I delved into the Q&A with a student, I had to ask, why was the girl asked what makes her brave? And why was the Black student asked about something he was grateful for? And yet the white student wasn’t asked either of those questions.

Jan Abernathy: Yeah, exactly. I completely agree. I think it’s really hard. And I think that’s why, you know, more than one person should be looking at things. Even just where you place things on your website, how you highlight, say, heritage months, what you comment on in the news and what you don’t comment on in the news. These are all things that we’re in the process of developing a rubric for at Browning, which I think is going to be very helpful.

But these are also places where this job has become much more strategic, because you still have to make on-the-ground decisions as things happen. So you have to have a framework and a structure for thinking about how you’re going to think about that type of communication.

But I agree, you’re absolutely right. You’ll see profiles, you know, female faculty, let’s say, that they might not be asking you the same questions that you ask the male faculty, and because the thing is, so much of this is just ingrained, right? So much of this is automatic. This is how we do things as human beings. And it’s one of the good things that good DEI work does is help you break those patterns, it helps you notice. Five years ago, you might not have noticed that the girl was asked about bravery, or the Black student was asked about gratitude. So that’s exactly what it does. It helps us to notice the inequality, and then it’s up to us what we could do to fix that. But it’s the noticing that’s actually really powerful.

Kelly McMurray: This past spring, I was at the CASE Editors Forum, and there was a really amazing issue of Hamilton magazine. The all-white staff realized that they were not equipped to do an issue on race. So they reached out to alumni Evidge Jean-François to be a guest editor. The issue is phenomenal. If you look at your comms team, and you don’t have a diverse group, whether you know, it’s in a gender, age, race, how does that team then work to diversify perspectives in their communications?

Jan Abernathy: I think people are looking at a couple of interesting ways of doing that.

I’ve heard of some schools that are almost starting to put together, and maybe doing this on a more casual basis, kind of a reader’s group or an advisory group to work on their magazine. Where you may have students, alums, whatever, getting more diversity.

Obviously the comms professionals are setting the editorial calendar and doing what they need to do. But an advisory team is having some input over cover story ideas, over content, that kind of thing. I think that’s an interesting model, but it’s not a particularly efficient model. But again, as my colleagues in DEIB would say, there’s a lot of times where DEIB is going to run counter to efficiency, right?

When we think about hiring, as a good example, most schools, if they had a hiring pool that was completely male, and completely white, they would keep that search open until they got a more diverse pool, right? Yet if you have a full pool and have enough people to choose from, then the efficient thing to do is choose one of them, and put that in the role. But it’s not the right thing to do, or it’s actually not the best thing to do for your organization.

What’s also great is that now you also see more schools saying administrators and not just student-facing professionals have to have this kind of training. And honestly, I think that it’s important that you sit somebody who is an external affairs person at a school in front of some kind of diversity training and make them actually do it. That is going to be very valuable because it leads them to ask him the kinds of questions that you just asked, because everybody who wants to communicate on behalf of an institution should be curious. I assume that is something that attracts people to this job. So DEIB training can make you curious about more things. Let’s make you actually question the way you’ve always done things. Question the way you were raised. Question who you thought was important.

We’re having great, robust, fun conversations about what the Browning School is and who we highlight. And isn’t that fun and exciting? I want to come to school and have fun and excitement every day in my job. I think that I can have that. But that means having a really expansive view of what a Browning boy is, what the Browning School means to its families. This is so much better than a hidebound, or deficit perspective that suggests that in order to protect reputation we must do a certain kind of thing. But the non–risk taking and the comfort and safety that comes with just doing things that are completely on brand is boring. Sometimes you need to do things that are a little bit off-kilter, and they become on brand in two or three years or six months. People have short memories.

Kelly McMurray: I love that. And I think it goes back to that trust. Trusting your colleagues to have those conversations.

Jan Abernathy: Exactly. I think as communicators, that’s what we need to do. I presume we all get out into our schools, we’re all talking to our colleagues, we want to see what is new and fresh and different. We should seek critique. I should be able to say to people, “Hey, what do you think of the last Buzzer magazine? Do you think there’s something that we could be doing better?”

We get a lot of feedback on our Instagram because people like Instagram. It’s a little bit of a gauge, right? But you’ve got to take the critique and the criticism on and just go, OK, I hadn’t thought about that, maybe we’ll change that, maybe we’ll do something different the next time. A lot of people say here’s the magazine, here’s what it does. Our magazine functions, not only for alums, not only for donors, but also for admissions, because we don’t use a viewbook because everybody’s online. So the Buzzer has to stay really current, right? We can’t just live in the past in our magazine.

I look at the higher-ed magazines—they have to have content, real content, that I’m interested in. As our schools diversify, you’re going to see that kind of content talking about more diverse populations, because they’re here in a way that they didn’t exist, you know, 40 or 50 years ago. I also think it’s really interesting to the students to see stories when you’re talking about the roots and the history of many of our schools becoming more integrated. That stuff was going on in their parents’ lifetimes. Kids may just be thinking, “Oh, classrooms looked this way 100 years ago.” No, they did not, and why didn’t they?

Let’s have a conversation about that. I also think that expands understanding around when people say, well, there was systemic racism, or this thing was not fair. When you can attach it to your own life to an experience and say, “Well, my school would look totally different 30 years ago, or 40 years ago,” it just increases the understanding.

Kelly McMurray: Yeah, and I think one thing for me working now, the independent school sector, you really understand how there’s so much choice now for education. Finding the right path for your child and what that school is and what you were saying about it, it’s about inclusion, not exclusion.

Jan Abernathy: That’s really the path forward. Kids don’t want an exclusionary structure. I’m sure you see it in your son, and I see it in my kids. They want to welcome everyone to the party and want to understand their peers without boundaries and preconceptions, in a way that was definitely not true in my generation. I think that’s really a startling change, and I can’t wait to see where it takes our society.