JOHNSTON, Iowa– Months after accepting a promotion at Des Moines Public Schools, Louis Fountain was encouraged to apply to be Johnston Community School District’s first Director of Equity, Inclusion and Belonging.
Originally this role was not on Fountain’s radar. That is until he learned about the troubled history of minority students in the district.
“I’m here to make sure all students are successful, but making sure the kids that don’t have a voice, have one,” Fountain said.
According to the Iowa Department of Education, over the last 20 years Johnston’s minority population exploded, growing by more than 500 percent. The largest increase was in black students.
Johnston now joins every other district in the metro, with the exception of Southeast Polk, who have some form of diversity and inclusion officer.
There were no equity directors roaming the halls when Johnston resident, Larry Twitty, was a student. Twitty still remembers the inappropriate jokes and names he heard from his classmates.
“When I went to Johnston Community Schools, a lot of times you would experience a lot of teasing, a lot of bullying, basically for not being white,” Twitty said.
An experience he said was shared by many minority students in the district.
“I would see some people of ethnic descent have their feelings so hurt that they would actually denounce their ethnic heritage,” Twitty said. “And if they had lighter skin, they would try their best to fit in more with the white people at their school rather than living in their own culture.”
When Twitty became a father, he said he was nervous about enrolling his children into the district. However, he believes this new equity and inclusion position will create a better experience for his kids.
“If they do this role right, they can plant certain seeds, so that this community has an opportunity to develop a true appreciation not only for diversity but for inclusivity,” Twitty said.
Prior to Fountain’s first day in Johnston in May, a small group of parents voiced concerns at a school board meeting stating that Fountain’s previous Facebook posts were more racially divisive than inclusive. Fountain found a silver lining in the midst of backlash.
“The best thing that happened to me coming into this position, with so much kind of turmoil, is that I had an opportunity just to bring people together,” Fountain said. “I didn’t shy away from people that didn’t understand this role or that didn’t want this role.”
Fountain has a clear picture on how to track tangible results for a Director of Equity, Inclusion and Belonging.
“Do our students feel like this is now a more inclusive environment, have complaints gone down dealing with racism, or do all our kids with disabilities have access to everything they need,” Fountain said.
He plans to achieve these goals with a three tier system: students, staff and community. The new Director of Equity, Inclusion and Belonging stresses creating a more inclusive environment, isn’t a solo project.
“When you’re dealing with systems you didn’t create, you can’t really tear it down and build it up by yourself, it takes a community,” Fountain said. “I came in to enhance what they already had. They’re doing a phenomenal job in certain aspects, in certain aspects they just need a little help and support.”