LAWRENCEVILLE, New Jersey — Making sure everyone feels included in a Catholic school doesn’t always come automatically; it sometimes takes work.

That’s what students and administrators found out more than five years ago at Notre Dame Catholic High School in Lawrenceville, when they began addressing, and finding solutions to, why some students of color felt they were on the school’s periphery.

In the fall of 2016, a group of Black students spoke with the school’s faculty about ways they frequently experienced blatant or unintentional racism at the school. The seed for that uncomfortable conversation was planted a few months before, during a retreat the previous spring for the school’s African American Club, when a guest speaker urged students to think about — and take steps toward — achieving justice and unity at school.

The students — who were asked to come up with goals to work toward this — came up with a short but hardly simple list. They wanted faculty members to know what it was like to be students of color at the school; they also wanted to get more involved in student life and be school leaders.

The guest speaker, Dwayne Proctor, chairman of the board of trustees for the NAACP Foundation, ended up being a friend and mentor to the student group over the next five years as they worked to meet these goals. At the time, he was based in New Jersey working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. He is currently president and CEO of Missouri Foundation for Health.

Eileen Marx, Notre Dame’s theology teacher who became the faculty moderator for the school’s African American Club in 2015, knew as a white woman that it was important to have a person of color advise the group. And now, when other schools ask for advice in starting up diversity groups, that is her first recommendation.

“If you have nobody that looks like the students, you need to find somebody; there are a lot of Dr. Proctors out there who want to help,” she said, adding that schools also should look to get parents involved.

Marx said Proctor was key to the group’s success because he “believed in these kids so much … and told them how courageous they were to share these issues.”

Notre Dame’s efforts to address inequities came about through a lot of collaboration between students, teachers and administrators. For all of them, it meant looking at something that needed improvement and going about the work of it very carefully and intentionally.

The students got the process in motion by speaking with faculty members at the 2016 faculty meeting about their experience as a minority group at the school. As Marx put it: The students weren’t looking for the faculty to fix their problems. Mainly, they wanted to be heard.

Not long after that session, the students renamed the African American Club to the Shades Club to reflect a broader diversity and include all interested students.

School faculty members became more aware — since it was pointed out to them — of incidents happening at the school, but they were even more alerted to it later when a racial word was written on a school’s bathroom wall.

Ken Jennings, the school’s president since 2018, said his experience with diversity and inclusion at Notre Dame started his first week on the job when he met with parents upset by that incident. Jennings, and the school’s new principal, Joanna Barlow, listened to the hurt, anger and frustration.

What they started doing in response falls under the full umbrella of education. Barlow described it as educating the entire school community — students, parents, coaches and teachers — about microaggressions, racism and prejudice and striving for more compassion and empathy which goes back to the Mercy core values from the school’s founding by the Sisters of Mercy.

Each year, she said the school has added more educational opportunities in assemblies and town halls. She said these discussions can be uncomfortable and “not always pretty,” but are so important.

Jennings described the school’s efforts as a process of “learning, relearning, making mistakes, trying to get better and obviously to hear the students” using the U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” as a framework.

The school developed a new strategic plan that emphasized diversity inclusion. It formed a diversity committee on its school board and appointed Charisse Smith as its chair who became the first African American member of the school’s board of governors.

Notre Dame also appointed a school coordinator of social service, diversity and inclusion, Ellieen Ingbritsen, known as “Dr. Ing” at the school, who became a point person for students and teachers on diversity issues.

Ingbritsen, who taught at Notre Dame 25 years ago, said coming back to the school was a special part of a personal and professional journey. She said when she attended Catholic school in the late ’60s and early ’70s, she was the only Black student. “So coming here to serve this wonderful effort,” she said, “is a testimony to what we say: ‘We’ve come this far by faith.'”

She told Catholic News Service that what the student group did years ago in sharing their experiences with faculty members was a catalyst for a movement in the whole school.

The job now is to continue “the work of justice,” she said, adding that when incidents come up, the important thing is to consider how to respond as a Catholic Christian community.

Smith, a Notre Dame graduate on the school board, echoed that view, noting that the work isn’t easy and remains ongoing. “How we deal with that conflict and what tools the Catholic Church has to deal with those conflicts is really important,” she said.

To come to a place of healing also means not just speaking words, but acting on them, which she said the Shades Club has done.

Marx, faculty moderator for Shades until 2021, agreed that the student group moved the school along, but said they were able to make real inroads because they had the backing of the school’s administrators.

She stressed that the group was never meant to be a political one but has always been grounded in faith coming from the perspective of how faith calls people to act and all of their group meetings and events include prayer.

One year after the group addressed the school’s faculty, they met another goal they had set to be school leaders by initiating and running a now annual school charity project called Hoops for Hope.

Looking back, Marx pointed out that the students, years before the bishops’ pastoral on racism came out, reflected much of its message, stressing the importance of being heard as a first step toward healing.

They were the “prophets that we needed,” she said of the students, adding that they prompted a change in attitude in the school when they invited other students to retreats and other events and began having broader conversations on issues of race.

As word of the Shades Club grew, particularly after a more nationwide reckoning of racism with 2020 protests after the death of George Floyd, Marx got calls from other school leaders about how to start similar discussions or diversity groups.

Recently, when a neighboring school leader asked her views on the Shades Club over the next five to 10 years, Marx was quick to reply that she hoped the group “would no longer be necessary because students of color would be serving as school leaders of many different clubs and teams and offensive and painful racist comments would truly be a thing of the past.”