Unafraid

“When I hear that word it feels terrible. It’s like someone just wiped away my family’s whole history.”

Earlier this month, the Student Diversity Leadership Council (SDLC) led an unusual Upper School faculty meeting. The students asked faculty to share thoughts about use of the “N-word” in our culture and at St. Luke’s. They asked us to think about its origins and whether different people should be able to use the word.

Some parents will be stunned to hear that language is used on the Hilltop, but your children will likely confirm it happens…a lot. Daily for many Upper School kids, and at least weekly for most. They might be quick to reassure you that “it doesn’t mean the same thing as it did when you were young.” It’s used in a “friendly” way, often by students of color, but not exclusively by them. It does not carry the same awful weight it once did.

The quotation at top is from a St. Luke’s student of color. It tells a different story. This young woman feels every ugly ounce of the word.

On Thursday, the SDLC will lead the N-word conversations with Upper School students during an extended “fishbowl” Meditation period. On January 30th, students and faculty will have deep, important, sometimes difficult conversations at our 3rd annual Social Justice Leadership Summit. Previous participants have found that this experience gives them both understanding and confidence to engage in discussions of differences and injustices (real and perceived) that most of us find so scary or sensitive that we avoid having them.

These are courageous events. Not just for the students and teachers who participate, but for St. Luke’s. We don’t have to have these hard conversations. We could just outlaw the N-word and move on. Talking is awkward. It also stirs up resentment. Several parents tell me they are offended by these conversations. Their children feel guilty even though they are not racist. “Don’t we have better things to spend time on?”

My answer is: No. There is nothing more valuable than teaching our children to think, debate, and learn from one another. Racial, religious, economic and gender biases and prejudices exist. While each of us wishes that were not so, we do our children a disservice by pretending otherwise. Our intent, our mission, calls us to teach our children to tune into issues beyond their own bubbles. Connect, contemplate, discuss, disagree, debate. Respect and learn from views different from your own, even as you perhaps deepen your own convictions and try to persuade others to your point of view. If we can’t talk about challenges, we certainly can’t solve problems.

The Atlantic published a thought-provoking piece highlighting what happens when students are unwilling—or unable—to engage in civil debate about matters close to the heart:

…I see some of these well-intentioned young people undermining the First Amendment; spitting on people with whom they disagree; using stigma and “call out” culture rather than persuasion against non-bigoted speech; physically intimidating members of the press; bullying students who disagree with them; shredding newspapers because they disagree with an article; and calling for dissent to be punished. They don’t understand why this is both counterproductive and wrongheaded.

We want more for our students. They will draw upon the courage of their convictions. They will embrace civil debate and tough conversations as a privilege and an obligation. They will be served well by their St. Luke’s experiences and the fact that we don’t shy away from uncomfortable topics.

They will be unafraid to go forth and make a difference in the world.

P.S. If you’ve not yet done so, please watch Jim Foley’s brilliant Meditation on hip hop and the power of language.  Jim educates, entertains, and ultimately persuades listeners that the history behind words matters.

Time Well Spent

Here we go. Tomorrow we head out for winter break. Some will travel, some will staycation. I hope all of us will relax.

The arrival of 2016 marks a new year of life. As we sip our champagne or sparkling cider, we’ll reflect: Where has the time gone? Are we spending our precious hours wisely?

I began reflecting early (actually, I’m not sure I can stop reflecting), and was rewarded by research affirming St. Luke’s investment in Diversity and exploration of Mindfulness.

Diversity Makes You Brighter reinforces St. Luke’s commitment to a genuinely inclusive, respectful, school environment for all. No easy task, but worth every awkward, messy, moment and difficult conversation. Worth the frustrations and pain that are part and parcel of this work.  As the professors who authored the piece observe:

Diversity improves the way people think. By disrupting conformity, racial and ethnic diversity prompts people to scrutinize facts, think more deeply and develop their own opinions. Our findings show that such diversity actually benefits everyone, minorities and majority alike…Ethnic diversity is like fresh air: It benefits everybody who experiences it.

On the Mindful front, the Harvard Business Review has me eager to ramp up St. Luke’s early work in this area. How Meditation Benefits CEOs features executives who meditate to hone leadership skills. The author references expanding research suggesting “meditation sharpens skills like attention, memory, and emotional intelligence.”

Mindfulness can literally change your brain, cites a multitude of studies indicating  meditators “demonstrate superior performance on tests of self-regulation, resisting distractions and making correct answers more often than non-meditators.” They also learn from past experience which improves decision-making. The authors continue:

These findings are just the beginning of the story. Neuroscientists have also shown that practicing mindfulness affects brain areas related to perception, body awareness, pain tolerance, emotion regulation, introspection, complex thinking, and sense of self. While more research is needed to document these changes over time and to understand underlying mechanisms, the converging evidence is compelling.

Are we spending our precious hours wisely? Yes, I say gratefully, we are.

Happy Holidays St. Luke’s.

Diversity: Messy, Imperfect, Essential

“The problems we face in the world are very complicated. Any one of us can get stuck. If we’re in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place.”

Scott Page, a professor of complex systems, political science and economics at the University of Michigan, in an interview with the New York Times, illuminates why our diversity initiatives at St. Luke’s are so critical.

Diversity is not a matter of opinion, or a political posture. It is deep within the DNA of our school and central to our mission. As we wrap up this year’s theme of Building an Inclusive Community, it’s important to note that our work in this area is certainly not done. Unless our world changes drastically, we will never be finished teaching and learning about diversity.

Our focus on diversity and inclusion (the atmosphere that makes diversity possible) is not a sign that St. Luke’s has a “problem.” It does not mean that our families are racist. Quite the contrary, the fact that we spend valuable time focused on developing our students’ compassion, respect and appreciation for all is a sign of a healthy community—one that understands the deep benefits of its diversity work.

Does this work sometimes feel uncomfortable? Boring? Annoying? Accusatory? It may. These are things we need to talk about. With each other. With people outside the community.

Because diversity not only makes us better people—it also makes us smarter and more successful.

Data supports the cognitive benefits of diversity: Research done with college freshmen and high school seniors examined how students’ experience with diversity in college improves their critical thinking.

The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2014 study shows that students who are enrolled at campuses with stronger acceptance of diversity tend to realize greater benefits from interacting with other races and ethnicities. Among these benefits are diversity-related skills, such as “ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective or openness to having their own views challenged.”

The business world has also embraced diversity and its direct ties to corporate success. From a recent Forbes article: “The business case for diversity has never been more front and center than it is now…and why not? Basic economic theory suggests that consumers will correct for a company’s lack of diversity by simply not spending money there—making slow-to-change organizations extinct.” The writer goes on to point out: “Perhaps most exciting, top workplaces are approaching diversity problems with a more forthright, open tone. A long recognized best place to work, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ diversity division is led by Maria Castañón Moats who proclaims on their company webpage, ‘At PwC, we believe in confronting the hard realities—and then doing something about it.’ Then there’s a Clorox corporate blog post which aptly rationalizes, ‘…If you cannot answer the diversity question clearly and favorably when it is asked in the recruiting process, young people are going to choose to work elsewhere.’  These examples represent a more resolute stance compared to the old days of corporations simply valuing difference or promoting a tolerant environment.

Research fully supports the need for diversity and inclusion, but the research doesn’t say that it is easy. Diversity work is bumpy, uncomfortable, messy and imperfect. But we have to talk about it—honest conversations help us move forward.

These are times that, more than ever, we need to remember our school’s mission to increase our students’ knowledge, compassion and ability to thrive in the world.

How could we be St. Luke’s without a passion for and dedication to diversity?

 

Building & Breathing

“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

The Beauty of Difference – A Student Perspective

Senior Kai Burton

Senior Kai Burton

As a  follow up to last week’s guest post by Stephanie Bramlett, please read this personal quote from SLS Senior Kai Burton. Kai attended the December 2013 NAIS People of Color Conference and Student Diversity Leadership Conference.

 

 

 

 

 

Attending the SDLC last year was one of the most pivotal moments in my

life. It was the very first time I realized how large and beautifully different the

private school world is. I didn’t feel like I was a part of a minority, but rather, part of

something bigger than race, ethnicity, socio-economics, gender, sexual orientation,

religion, etc. When I was there, those things didn’t matter. Knowing that no one

there was the same was comforting to me.”

 

Kai hit upon a key belief those of us committed to diversity and inclusion share: It’s a large and beautifully different world. Schools that pursue and celebrate those differences better prepare students for the future and deliver a richness of experience not otherwise possible. My deepest thanks to Kai and Dr. Bramlett for eloquently widening my lens.

Connecting to the King Legacy

It is my pleasure to turn this space over to Dr. Stephanie Bramlett, St. Luke’s Director of Diversity & Student Life. – Mark

Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.

                               – Martin Luther King, Jr. March for Integrated Schools, April 18, 1959.

As we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week, I am compelled to consider how his legacy connects to our mission of creating life-long learners and a sense of social responsibility.  We urge our students to always be curious about the experiences of others and to make our community a better and more just place for all.

Recently, ten of us from St. Luke’s– four seniors and six faculty– had the opportunity to learn more about the paths to diversity at the 26th National Association of Independent Schools’ People of Color Conference (PoCC) and 20th Student Diversity Leadership Conference. More than 3,000 adults and 1,500 students from independent schools all over the country came together in National Harbor, Maryland, for several days of eye-opening speakers, workshops, discussions and anti-bias training.

As a first time attendee of PoCC, I was nearly overwhelmed by the sheer number of people at the conference. I’m certainly no stranger to being the only person of color in the room, but being in a room full of educators of color is an experience that I have only had a few times in my life and each of them has been memorable.

There is something incredibly powerful about being in a space where you see others who look like you.  The experience of seeing yourself reflected in your community is a subtle, but powerful reminder that you, too, are a part of the community, have a voice in the community, and belong in the community.  If this type of affirmation is necessary for adults (and it is), it is absolutely critical for our children.

Although PoCC focuses specifically on the experiences of racial and ethnic minorities, it encourages attendees to consider the diversity of all social identities within their community.  Our community includes people with many different personal identities and experiences.  The SLS mosaic of race, class, sexual orientation, ability, religion, and perspective makes our community unique…something that should be both acknowledged and celebrated.

We’ve already begun some of this work.  Earlier this month, we hosted Christine Savini, Principal Consultant for Diversity Directions, a national organization for supporting independent schools through their “multicultural evolution.”  Christine spoke to our administrative team, department chairs, and trustees about the relationship between an inclusive environment and educational excellence.  On February 1, St. Luke’s will host our first Social Justice Leadership Summit

The diversity in our community is vibrant and we are committed to preserving its brilliance and energy.  In order to do so, we must be intentional about creating and maintaining an inclusive community.  Our multicultural community should be reflected everywhere– from our faculty and students through our curriculum. Our entire community becomes stronger and the education improves for everyone when all individuals feel that they belong to it and have a stake in it.

Dr. Stephanie Bramlett

Dr. Stephanie Bramlett

To borrow from Dr. King, our own little Hilltop community can help create a finer world to live in.

*This year, student attendees included: AJ Bandoo ’14, Kai Burton ’14, Nijah Wilson ’14, and Amber Calhoune ’14.  Faculty attendees were: Mark Davis, Stephanie Bramlett, Troy Haynie, Blake Bueckman, Amber Berry, and Mirna Goldberger.