Meet Matt Balano

A Q&A with Thacher’s first director of diversity and inclusion.
In September, Thacher welcomed its first director of diversity and inclusion, Matt Balano. Matt and his son Marcus, a freshman, were previously in the Bay Area, where Matt had established himself as a leader in fostering equity and inclusion in independent schools. Now that he has had a few months to settle in, we thought it would be a good time to learn a little more about him and his work.

Tell us about your role?

My official title is director of diversity and inclusion and assistant dean of students. I work with the administrative team to help Thacher fulfill its mission with respect to equity, diversity, and inclusion. I’m also teaching two sections of sophomore English and just wrapped up a hip-hop literature xBlock elective. In the spring my xBlock course will switch to a class on identity consciousness and development. And in May, as part of the MayHem—Thacher's experimental four-day elective program—four colleagues and I will offer “From Heroes and Holidays to Equity Literacy: A Toad's Guide to Social Justice." I also advise sophomore boys and am the faculty advisor to United Cultures of Thacher (UCT) and the Multi-Ethnic Student Union (MESU).

What were you doing before Thacher?

M: For the past 17 years I was working at Saint Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco. I started working there as a full-time English teacher in 2001, and in 2007 I moved into administration as academic support director. Then, in 2009, we did a search for a director of diversity and inclusion and I was fortunate enough to get the position.

Until last July, I served as the national chair for the Jesuit Schools Network’s (JSN) Diversity Directors. And for a number of years I served as the Events Committee Chair for the Northern California chapter of People of Color in Independent Schools (PoCIS). Though I have left those positions behind, I have retained my board membership with World Trust Educational Services, a non-profit committed to social and racial justice through education, dialog, and film. From 2001 to last year, I also worked in various capacities with Magis, a St. Ignatius-sponsored middle school enrichment program that supports first-generation college-bound students and families from under-served communities in San Francisco. “Magis” is a Latin term, used by the Jesuits, literally meaning “the more.”  The program supported our students in doing more for themselves, their families and their communities. Magis’ goal was to prepare our students for the rigors of a college preparatory experience, and then place our 8th graders in a college prep high school. Our success rate exceeded 95 percent annually, with many attending SI, and the rest attending the many great prep schools in San Francisco.

What did you see in Thacher that made you want to come here to work with us?

Initially, the thing that first drew me to Thacher was its mission statement. Its call to educate the next generation to be leaders serving “the greatest good” is powerful. In a society and world that is increasingly becoming self-centered, it’s rare to find a school whose primary educational objective focuses on serving something bigger than ourselves. So the mission was the initial attraction and once I did a little research on Thacher and met the community while going through the interview process, it became pretty evident that Thacher is a special place.  It didn’t take long to see how thoughtful, committed, and passionate the faculty is. And I really appreciated that the students were part of the interview process.

After seventeen productive years at SI, I felt ready for a new challenge. I thought it would be a good fit for my freshman son, Marcus, and me. He was excited about the possibility of attending Thacher after his interview and visiting. So, fast forward and here we are. It’s definitely so far, so good. We are really looking forward to continuing to get to know the community and becoming productive contributors.

What was your impression of the faculty orientation camping trip?

It was a great way to build community with my new colleagues and to become immersed in the outdoors component of Thacher culture. Prior to the trip, I was a little nervous. Historically, I'm not a big camper. Going on a camping trip 5-plus hours away in the Sierras with a group of new colleagues for an orientation was most definitely a new experience, but it turned out to be really enriching and a good exercise in stretching myself out of my comfort zone. Overall, I thought the whole experience was pretty awesome. Jeff Hooper and Bob St. George, our veteran faculty leaders on the trip, were outstanding, and I love my fellow Thacher rookies—they are all really talented, generous and fun.

What have you been working on at Thacher?

I began with—and I continue to do—a lot of listening, observing, asking questions and gathering data—both qualitative and quantitative. The goal is to better understand the great work already in place, identify the gaps, and listen to our community’s hopes, challenges, and vision. In the spring we will administer a climate survey to all stakeholders: faculty, students, administration, staff, trustees, alumni, and parents. From there, once we analyze the data, we will have a better sense of the strengths and areas of growth for our community with regards to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Then we can start to map out a comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategic plan.

At the same time, we’ve been actively working towards short-term goals by raising awareness and developing a common language and framework through a variety of “entry points.” At the start of the year, I facilitated a diversity, equity and inclusion professional development session for faculty and staff, and later delivered “intro to equity and inclusion” presentations to the freshman and sophomore classes. We also had an affinity group leadership retreat, where—in addition to learning leadership strategies—students explored how affinity groups can be integral components in creating diverse and inclusive school communities. On a few occasions, we’ve had prominent academics, artists and activists visit campus who have called us to think deeply about our roles and responsibilities in global citizenry and what it means to be committed to justice. I am excited to join my colleagues on the Diversity Council, on the Gender Identity Task Force, and in recruitment and hiring. Lastly, a small group of colleagues and I are currently developing a “MayHem” course (an experimental program in May where small groups of faculty lead four-day interactive courses that enhance our mission), which will provide students an introduction and foundation to equity literacy and leadership. Lots more going on, but that is the gist.

What broader trends do you see in the work of equity and inclusion and what should our community know about them?

Well, I think the terms themselves are becoming more and more defined and important. For years, many organizations incorrectly used the terms, “diversity,” “equity” and “inclusion” interchangeably. We are now approaching the work and applying the terms with greater intentionality. It's important to delineate the three terms. It's possible to be a very diverse community and not be inclusive. The term, “diversity” focuses on numerical representation, while “inclusion” focuses on the practice—how are you welcoming everybody into a community? How are you providing opportunities for everybody to blossom to their full potential? Equity focuses on the distribution—both historically and contemporarily—of access and resources. By putting an intentional focus on all three of these notions, we can better identify areas of growth and look at how we can promote systemic change while honoring and respecting the communal and cultural aspects that make a community special and unique.

The scope of the work extends to and through all areas of a community. In many organizations, the approach 20 years ago was, if we enroll a diverse student population and offer multicultural celebrations, we have arrived. We now understand it to be much more complex and nuanced.

Any final thoughts?

It’s exciting to be at Thacher and to think of the journey ahead. Throughout my interview process and over these past few months that my son and I have been here, it has been apparent that Thacher is committed to leaning into the enriching, rewarding, and challenging work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I look forward to learning, building, and collaborating with this community.

Learn more about diversity and inclusion at Thacher. 

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Notice of nondiscriminatory policy as to students: The Thacher School admits students of any race, color, national, and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the School. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national, and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admission policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other School-administered programs.