“I can’t breathe.”
I cannot get Eric Garner’s dying words out of my head. As everyone knows, those three words have become a symbol of the struggle to make sense of Mr. Garner’s death. In the aftermath of his death, “I can’t breathe” also became a rallying cry for those who wanted to express the feelings of black people who, perceiving an unjust policing and legal system in America, felt (and feel) stifled and fearful for their lives. “I can’t breathe” also means “I feel trapped, isolated, unable to do anything positive about my second-class position in America.”
I have also heard people use “I can’t breathe” in a mocking fashion, to discredit the belief that Eric Garner was a victim of police brutality. In this version, people say, sarcastically, “If he could say those words, then obviously he could breathe.” In that view, the police not only needed to use deadly force to subdue Mr. Garner and protect themselves, but sympathy for Garner comes from a place of reverse discrimination and political correctness. Even if intended as a joke, such a statement feels callous at best, and makes it even harder for people with differing perspectives to talk it over in an atmosphere of mutual trust and safety.
Starting with the first word (“Building”) of our school year theme, we have acknowledged that we have important work to do, together. Building an inclusive community requires creating building blocks, the foundation for having difficult but trusting conversations. Sometimes that means finding areas of widely shared agreement, such as the fact that, though tragic, Mr. Garner’s death should not lead to anger at ALL police officers. No story has only one side. Acknowledging that can enable people to express more emotional perspectives such as fear, anger, and confusion.
On our hilltop, during the three weeks between Thanksgiving and the December break, I watched and listened as St. Luke’s students, faculty and parents tried to express their opinions and feelings about race and the best ways for St. Luke’s to build an inclusive school community. This was entirely appropriate, as we have named “Building an Inclusive Community” as our school-year theme and those three weeks saw the national reactions to grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island as well as the horrific shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
I kept asking myself: What is the proper role of a school—St. Luke’s specifically—in responding to such historic, painful events?
I watched and listened to students and adults who felt scared, isolated and diminished by what had occurred. I witnessed others who felt galvanized to action, or at least to frank and deep conversations. I saw others, black and white, who preferred not to enter the conversation. Their fears included feeling even more exposed as an outsider in a majority culture, or being accused of either racism or political correctness. I myself felt many of these very fears, and was not-so-subtly accused of some of these tendencies. If that made me feel a little gun-shy about entering the conversation, I can only imagine how others felt.
What, indeed, should St. Luke’s do to explore, understand and express what it means to have an inclusive community? How can we create respectful and safe space for students, for faculty, and for parents to listen to and learn from each other on this urgent, thorny topic? How can we honor people whose ideas differ from our own? And, most important, how can we make everyone feel they are full members of the St. Luke’s community?
One answer to these tough questions is to speak up, or Speak Out, as several brave students did during an Upper School gathering just before break and then again at today’s Meditation (see video below). Another is to invite inspiring and unifying speakers like Wes Moore onto our campus and into our hearts. And then there is St. Luke’s Social Justice Leadership Summit. I can’t say enough about this event led by Director of Diversity Dr. Stephanie Bramlett and Director of Academic Technology Grant Russell. I’ll quote myself from last year’s post about this summit: I did not know what to expect when I signed on to attend the summit, or even when I walked in. But I walked away with something special – in my head and in my heart. I saw adults and adolescents engaged in ways moving and profound, creating a memory both beautiful and uplifting. In more than thirty years as an educator, I have never participated in an event that built as much trust, or inspired as much faith and hope as the SJLS.
While I lay claim to few definitive answers, one thing I know for sure: talking, compassion and respect are the building blocks for our inclusive community. When we nurture these skills and values in our children, we honor our mission of lifelong learning and social responsibility.
As we head into this Martin Luther King holiday weekend, I leave you with these words from Dr. King:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Recommended Reading: St. Luke’s Sports Information Specialist, Zach Peace, wrote a thoughtful piece about sports and MLK: St. Luke’s Sports Zone