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When words matter

In Beijing this year, Timothy LeDuc became the first openly non-binary athlete to compete in the Winter Olympics. The American figure skater uses they/them pronouns and was one of a record number of athletes at the Olympics who are openly part of the LGBTQ+ community. While this inclusive progress is encouraging, Timothy LeDuc was still misgendered on air — in spite of extensive good-faith efforts by the hosts on NBC to be respectful. There is still work to be done. 

At Success Academy, we strive to model kindness and inclusiveness in all areas of our work — from the curriculum that we teach, to the training that we require and the forums we provide for feedback and open discussion. To this end, we are proud that all staff members now have the option to add their pronouns to Workday, Slack, Zoom, and Gmail. We are committed to DE&I and recognize that gender identity is important to our employees, and the correct use of pronouns can help colleagues feel seen and respected. 

We connected with Westley Mildenhall, SA 3-12 Math Content Design Specialist, to hear their perspective on why pronouns matter, and on the importance of fostering inclusive environments in our schools and our workplaces. 

By: Westley Mildenhall (they/them)

Whenever I meet new people, part of my mind is occupied by stress that someone will refer to me in the third person incorrectly before I get the chance to tell them I use they/them pronouns. I spent my first two days at a previous job building up the courage to ask my manager if I could speak to everyone together briefly. What I wanted to be a quick “FYI I use they/them pronouns” turned into a formal announcement, and my coworkers felt obligated to reply. So when I see a form that has a field for pronouns, or receive an email where someone’s pronouns are listed in their signature, I feel a sense of relief. Relief that I have an opportunity to state or display my pronouns, instead of having to create that opportunity for myself. That is why it is so important to me that SA has added a pronoun field to the platforms with which we communicate every day. 

Using the correct name and pronouns for individuals is both a basic sign of respect, and a fundamental step in fighting transphobia. If a community has a culture of assuming pronouns based on an individual’s appearance — you look masculine, so I will refer to you as “he” — that culture is supporting stereotypes about binary genders. Implicit biases like this can grow to become discrimination and violence against marginalized groups. If instead a community has a culture of asking for and sharing pronouns, that culture is challenging the incorrect belief that we can assume someone’s gender based on observable traits. 

To learn more about the Pyramid of Transphobia click here. For The pyramid of hate in general, see the Anti Defamation League.


One of the best things about working at Success Academy is its dynamic environment. The circle of people we collaborate with on a daily basis continues to expand as new team members join, we take on new roles and responsibilities, and we become involved in cross-team endeavors that connect us with new collaborators. Throughout all this, we’re introduced to people on Zoom, through email chains, or in Slack channels. Having the ability to decide to display pronouns on these technology platforms is important to me because it means when someone interacts with me, they are able to see how to refer to me, and vice versa. It gives us an easy way to challenge our implicit biases by finding out about a person’s pronouns directly from them.

 A common question about displaying pronouns is whether doing so should be mandatory, and I support SA’s decision to make it optional. When sharing pronouns is mandatory, a person who either is not sure of their pronouns or is not comfortable being out in this environment is trapped in a catch-22. They can state a pronoun that will mean outing themselves, or a pronoun that will mean misgendering themselves. Like many things, sharing pronouns is nuanced, but at the end of the day having the option to do so is significant progress. I ask anyone who feels confused or overwhelmed by pronouns and gender to remember: you don’t need to understand somebody’s identity to respect them. 

Everyone who works at Success Academy knows that little things can make a big difference. We are meticulous in everything that we do, from the details of a classroom setup to maximize learning, to the specific numbers we choose to use in a scholar’s math task. Something as simple as greeting our scholars at the door each morning can change how they view school and learning. And who knows: your simple choice to display your pronouns might make a trans or gender-nonconforming person decide it is safe for them to share theirs. It has happened to me, after all. 



Written by Success Academy March 3, 2022

Subjects: DEI

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