Diversity in education has been a hot topic lately, but for one Norwich educator, it has been his sole focus for decades.
"It is not just about a short exercise in February every year, where we roll all of the posters back into a closet," said Leo Butler, director of diversity at Norwich Free Academy. "It is a year long activity. It is a year long dedication."
When asked what year he started working in education, Leo Butler did not skip a beat: "a long time ago."
Butler joined the faculty at Norwich Free Academy (NFA) in the early 2000s, working as a history teacher. By 2004, he had switched roles. Butler helped to create NFA's first ever office of diversity, a unique program that he has led ever since.
"The goal was simple: to make sure that all of our students here had equal access and equity to education," said Butler.
Through his work, Butler has become an integral part in cultural events both on campus and in the City of Norwich.
One of his many accomplishments was helping students at NFA host the first Haitian Flag Day for the city in 2008. He also advises the Cape Verdean and Native American Clubs at NFA, works alongside the NAACP, and is actively involved with the Norwich Rotary Community Clubs Celebrate Cultural Diversity event. Butler also works closely with NFA's MLK scholars each year.
Butler said his favorite part of his job is engaging with students on a daily basis.
“Sometimes it is just seeing the light come on in a students head, that they got it," said Butler.
Valeria Yraita is a senior at NFA. She said that people like Butler make education good.
"As a Hispanic and a Latina, there have been moments in my life where I have faced some sort of discrimination, but he has always emphasized to me, and many students, that does not define who we are," said Yraita. "He is needed in all schools, a person like him who is a motivator for students of color.”
Karen Lau is also a senior at NFA. She said that Butler is a Norwich hero and a role model.
"If Mr. Butler weren't here and if there weren't a diversity office, I wouldn't have a voice. As a sophomore, when I met Mr. Butler I didn't know how to use my voice," said Lau. “He is so passionate about breaking down the institutional barriers and the systemic racism that exists.”
The walls in Butler's office are covered with pictures of his former students and with decorations celebrating many different cultural champions. He is constantly sharing stories about various cultures with students, but he also shares personal stories. He said that when he was younger he was told not to take the SATs, that he would not be successful.
“I wanted to be that person that I didn’t have for me. Make sure it didn’t happen to another kid," said Butler.
In a field often dominated by white voices, Butler amplifies a different story.
He said that he hopes every student he interacts with walks away feeling valued.
“I hope they feel hat I respected them, I validated who they were, and I tried to affirm what special qualities they have,” said Butler.
Dr. Brian Kelly, head of school at NFA, said that Butler is constantly thinking about the students first and how NFA can better serve and educate the students.
“He has made all of us better at our jobs," said Kelly.
If people take away one thing from Butler's story, though, he said it should be about the students.
“We have an incredible group of young people who have decided to become involved, make a stand and be heard," said Butler. "As long as we have that with our young people, we will be fine.”