The challenges and vital importance of ‘Embracing diversity’

As we come to the end of the academic year in which ‘Embracing diversity’ has been one of the chosen Mary Ward characteristics on which we have focused as a school, we have explored the challenges and vital importance of upholding diversity in both Tuesday’s assembly – in which we welcomed next year’s Year 7 students – and this week’s blog.

In a week when we mourn the death of Labour MP Jo Cox in her constituency, it is important to recognise how ‘Embracing diversity’ can present its own challenges. Ms Cox was, by any measure, an exemplary and exceptional woman whose life was dedicated to embracing diversity, by supporting and campaigning on behalf of people from different backgrounds.


The world also remembers Anne Frank this month who would have celebrated her 87th birthday had she survived the concentration camps of the Second World War. Of course, Anne didn’t reach adulthood, and yet she inspired generations of readers with her thoughts on growing up and her reflections on living in hiding during Nazi occupation. Her diary entries are full of hopes and dreams for the future, despite having been penned in captivity with an awareness of the hatred aimed at her by an invading army, simply for her faith and cultural heritage. Anne’s story provides another stark reminder of the evil effects of hatred and a lack of understanding.

That said, Anne wrote: “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart”. It is this outlook which we hope to instil in our students: to never lose sight of the goodness we do see around us, and to have a determination to protect it.
It’s easy enough to hold International Food Fairs and to testify to valuing diversity, but what we also try to do at St Mary’s School, Cambridge is to enable our students to think carefully and discern, and to talk in a nuanced way about all that is different and rich in humanity’s diversity. ‘The Other’ is always a challenging concept, but the more schools can do to nurture young adults who truly celebrate diversity, the better it will be for society as a whole.

Miss Aodain Fleming, our Deputy Head: Pastoral & Boarding, has this to say: “We believe that our school ethos is something to be lived out in all that we do; displaying to the wider community the values which we espouse. It may be hard sometimes to imagine our Year 7 students as they will grow up to be – women who will have a vital role to play in the world – but slowly and surely we see them change, mature, understand and simply ‘be’ more. Perhaps when they first start to talk about diversity and respect they don’t always understand the wider implications, for their lives or for the lives of people they may not yet have met but we hope, in time, that they will do more than just talk about ‘Embracing diversity’; they will understand the importance of doing so and genuinely embrace diversity wherever they come across it in the world beyond the school gates.

“Of course, diversity can be found all around us even within our school; our community is a microcosm of the world outside. Learning to live in harmony alongside others is a lifelong challenge that each of us faces, but it is not only ‘the right thing to do’. It also brings benefits to those who celebrate it, by enabling us to see new things, meet new people and learn about new ideas. We want our girls to be intrigued about different points of view and to engage in and debate these ideas, so that they can understand where others’ viewpoints come from.”

Nobel Prize Winner and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee is another excellent female role model committed to ‘Embracing diversity’. Never satisfied with accepting the status quo, and with a passionate determination for a better world, Leymah worked alongside women of different faiths, using non-violent demonstrations and sit-ins (taking her ideas from Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, which our students learn about in GCSE Religious Studies), to bring about change in her country, in her pursuit of a world in which she would actually wish to live. By respecting and understanding individuals from different strands of her community, Leymah was able to unite people from diverse backgrounds into working together to affect change – a substantially more positive outcome than would have been achieved by working against ‘others’ in the blindness of misunderstanding.

Organisations, too, can provide excellent support and initiatives to help communities to embrace diversity. Anjelina Nadai Lohalith will compete at the Rio Olympics this summer, representing the Refugee Olympic Athletes team, running in the 800m race. The creation of the Refugee Olympic Athletes team is a first for this international organisation that continues to work to unite nations against divisive challenges. Separated from her parents at the age of six, Anjelina fled from war and devastation and learnt to depend on herself and her natural talent. Scouted from inside a refugee camp, her invitation to represent the displaced and dispossessed people of the world truly embodies a spirit of embracing diversity.

Alongside hatred and division, such as the world has seen in recent weeks both in the UK and the US, it is essential to remember Anne Frank’s reflection:

By considering what might be achieved by engaging with others, to bring about change that may have been thought of as ‘impossible’, real change can be achieved. So we encourage our girls to dream of a better future, like Anne Frank did, and to take all opportunities available to them to make a positive change in the world, by focusing on those things which unite us, rather than mark people out as different – starting at the most basic level, with the fact that we are all human.

On Wednesday 22 June the world will celebrate that we have #MoreInCommon than that which divides us, marking what would have been Jo Cox’s birthday.


Charlotte Avery, Headmistress, St Mary’s Cambridge

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