Opening Eyes

This week I turn my space over to Dr. Stephanie Bramlett, St. Luke’s Director of Diversity & Student Life…

“Does my office always look like this?”

This was my first thought as I walked into my office on Monday morning. The brightly colored handouts strewn about the floor, post-it notes plastered to every surface, and hastily scribbled ideas on the dry-erase board, made it look like creative genius had exploded.  As I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and sipped my coffee—I smiled.  It has been a busy month at St. Luke’s.

The St. Luke’s community works hard to ensure all members are able to be themselves— regardless of race, gender, financial aid status, family structure, or learning difference.  This is how we envision our school.  This busy January, it was clear our students have the courage and character to do the hard work of building an inclusive community.

A few weeks ago, the Student Diversity Leadership Council led a meeting to train faculty on how to facilitate difficult conversations.  Faculty used these skills in an upper school conversation about the “N-Word”  The objective of the conversation was not to police language or tell people what to think, but rather to open an honest dialogue about the intent and impact of language.

In the last week of January, our 9th graders participated in J-Term, a five day long project-based learning experience themed, “Our Shrinking World.”  The 9th graders’ task was to design a community service project that tackled a local manifestation of a global social injustice.  Our whole community was invited to attend an exhibition where the 9th grade project groups pitched their service idea and the whole community voted on which service project we would do.

During the exhibition of project ideas, students enthusiastically called me over to explain the social injustice they had studied and tell me about their plan for restoring justice.  The two winning projects were from the Poverty and Gender Equity groups. The Gender Equity group’s service idea was to engage the whole upper school in a conversation about gender equity.  Our children are eager to talk about social justice issues and we are committed to finding the time and space for them to have these conversations.  

Social Justice Leadership Summit 2016

Social Justice Leadership Summit 2016

On January 31st, the third annual SLS Social Justice Leadership Summit and Ally Workshop boasted a record number of participants.  Forty-four students and nine faculty facilitators gathered for a day of learning about  race, class, gender, ability, religion, and other social and core identities.  In an epic fourteen-hour day, we shared perspectives, learned from one another, and brainstormed ideas for making SLS an even more inclusive community.

Sophomore, Kate Stamoulis comments, “I had never been a part of something so meaningful, and I can definitely say that it was indeed life changing.  I feel as though I have really found a passion for social justice, and it has opened my eyes to so many things about our world.”

We are teaching students how to articulate their perspectives and how listen to someone else’s perspective.  We are asking them to become scholars of their own epistemology and to think about why they think what they think.  In conversations about our differences, we are teaching students how to find common ground and shared understandings.  

In Mark Davis’s Unafraid blog, he said “There is nothing more valuable than teaching our children to think, debate, and learn from one another.”  Seeing our students’ eagerness to dive into tough issues and make a difference in their world…put that smile on my face.

 

 

 

SJLS: A Student Perspective

My thanks to Colette Juran ’17 who answered our call for a student perspective on the Social Justice Leadership Summit. Well done Colette…

On April 16th 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama, confined by law enforcement for protesting peacefully. From that very jail cell, Dr. King wrote a monumental letter discussing the urgent state of racial injustice that engulfed Alabama’s largest city. Within this letter exists a quote that skillfully distills any social justice movement into a single sentence, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” 52 years later at the St. Luke’s Social Justice Leadership Summit (SJLS), I, Colette Juran, received that very quote on a small, pink slip of paper. Although initially I did not fully appreciate it, as the day unfolded the quote’s truth became apparent to me. Fact of the matter is, although some people like to believe humanity has progressed past it, inequality is still prevalent in our society today and it will likely be that way for a very long time.  This inequality, however, should not be viewed as a daunting certainty of life, but a challenge for humanity to consider the balance of privilege in society and collectively better itself. From that day, I learned that it doesn’t matter whether a person who has privilege wants to participate in social justice movements, what really matters is what one does with that privilege, as current events have warned sometimes apathy can have terrible consequences. Upon understanding this challenge, my experience at SJLS inspired me to impact the world around me more than I could have ever hoped.

As it was my second year attending the Social Justice Leadership Summit, I had some insight into how the day was going to develop. I didn’t know exactly what events would occur or what topics we would discuss, but it was evident that everyone was undoubtedly going to face a healthy measure of discomfort. The idea of being entirely honest about one’s life, opinions, and experiences may seem immensely terrifying, but it was entirely necessary. Differences can never be changed if they are not acknowledged and progress can never be achieved if everyone refuses to make the first move. As Dr. King teaches us, this uncertainty and slight awkwardness is immeasurably better than ignorance and inaction.

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Colette (far left bottom) with fellow SJLS attendees.

 

These principles greatly influenced the activities that we were involved with, such as a debate on everyday scenarios of discrimination and the construction of a paper chains corresponding to our own individual privileges. Originally, those activities seemed quite intimidating to me as they involve on a lot of ideas that I don’t typically think about in my day-to-day life. For example, one of the questions for the paper chain activity required us to add a link to our chains if our race or ethnicity was positively depicted in the media. As a white female, my race’s portrayal in the media was never something I’ve had to think about as the majority of shows on television feature a primarily white cast. This may seem like a trivial concern, but our discussion later on showed for a young person of color being exposed to role models in the media, that aren’t just a caricature of racial stereotypes, is a vital role in development. Additionally, a large part of SJLS was thinking about our own impact on the community in which we live, learn, and grow. Therefore, a long period of time in the afternoon was dedicated to devising plans to progress the St. Luke’s Community. Ideas from a middle school buddy program to a social justice leadership day were organized; however, the bulk of the efforts were focused around modifying school curriculum to be more inclusive. In the upcoming months, interested attendees of SJLS will meet with department heads and administration across the school to achieve that very purpose.

Beyond completing various social justice oriented activities and creating several actions plans to educate the St. Luke’s community, SJLS provided me with a real example of the people affected by various adversities: my peers.  At around nine o’ clock on Saturday night, some of the most emotional and impactful moments I’ve witnessed in my six years as a St. Luke’s student occurred at the closing event, the social justice sharing session. This event was an opportunity for people to share material relating to social justice through any method or media. Some presented poetry, videos, or music, but for most this was an occasion to speak directly about the hardships and morals provided by their own lives, with of course much crying. As each person talked, they unmasked a part of themselves that is usually concealed such as mental illness or sexuality with the utmost honesty. I cannot share the nature of what was spoken about, as they were all extremely personal, but I can conclude that I am proud of everyone that even did so much as to flash the ASL hand symbol for “I love you” to reassure someone during a difficult moment.

The sad fact of life is that in the modern era very few people stop and take time to consider the lives of others. Most people are too consumed in their own issues to realize that the people they pass in the hallways are not just extras in their biopic, but they have lives as full as their own. Although it is impossible to remember every passing face, it is not only possible, but also imperative to recognize that we all experience life differently, with different stories, different thoughts, and different opportunities. These differences, however, should not segregate us, as only bigotry and hate can motive that, but should be honestly spoken about, as that is the first step to making social change. These life philosophies of speaking openly from the heart, considering the experiences of others, and actively working towards a better future for humanity, should not be reserved to one summit. Ideally, they should be applied to the St. Luke’s community as a whole, because if I’ve learned anything from SJLS it is that life is infinitely better when it is not attempted alone and in the dark.

Above & Beyond in Action

Preserve and Innovate. Shame on us if we choose one over the other. We have a dual need. So we hold preservation and innovation in our two hands. In one hand we hold what is essential, proven, and timeless about school—that “personal element” we all value so highly. And in the other, a culture of collaboration and innovation that enables us to be a school of the future, and in fact remain a school in the future.

This opening from my State of the School presentation comes back to me often. And with it, questions.  Are we continuously examining our structure, our teaching methods, and our assumptions? Are we asking ourselves, is this the best way to teach today?

Three January initiatives fill me with gratitude for the extraordinary faculty who enable me to answer those questions with an emphatic yes.

 

The first January, or J-Term, just came to a close for our ninth grade.  J-Term began, as Liz Perry outlined in our On the Horizon video, as a question: How would we teach if we didn’t have the traditional confines of set class periods, separate subjects and tests? In response, a talented group of teachers came together and launched an eight-day, immersive learning adventure. Students worked in teams on an array of human rights issues (homelessness, illiteracy, clean water, women’s rights—to name a few). They employed design-thinking, learned how to create a plan of action, interviewed experts and conducted extensive research on and off campus.  

As important as the knowledge gained, new levels of freedom and responsibility drove deeper understanding, self-directed teamwork, and commitment to action. In Liz Perry’s words, “We wanted to stretch their comfort zones…Discomfort is growth.” Read more about J-Term.

 

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 11.19.34 AMSt. Luke’s first Hackathon also took place in January. Center for Leadership Director Jim Foley and Upper School Science Chair Michael Mitchell were the mad scientists behind this creativity-packed weekend. Jim’s blog, including a video from our Marketing & Communications team, captures the Hackathon magic better than I ever could. Suffice it to say, young minds expanded and a new SLS tradition was hacked.

 

Dr. Stephanie Bramlett, Director of Diversity and Upper School Student Life, and Grant Russell, Director of Academic Technology, launched St. Luke’s second annual Social Justice Leadership Summit. As I said last year, this summit creates a lifetime experience. This year’s attendance doubled and nearly all of last year’s attendees returned. The word is out: St. Luke’s Social Justice Leadership Summit is not to be missed. Read more about the SJLS.

If I can persuade an attendee or two to share their personal thoughts, I will feature their voices right here next week.

My deep gratitude to the Above & Beyond teachers who put heart and soul into creating exceptional experiences for our students.

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

Peace On Earth

Last night I came across this “Remembering Sandy Hook Victims” article. I admit, it’s a struggle to focus on the faces of the children. I don’t want to feel that mix of anguish and sorrow moving through my gut again. The re-realization that this actually happened.

I look at their toothless smiles. I read the stories about what they loved (horses, dancing, arm-wrestling, dolls). I read again about the teachers and administrators who leapt in front of bullets. I can’t change what happened, but I can remember them.

Recently a video of Samaria Rice appeared in my email. She describes the night her 12-year old son, Tamir, was shot dead. Though the circumstances are completely different from Sandy Hook, I feel the same obligation to bear witness. This should not have happened. I need to hear and feel this woman’s grief and anger. I need to remember, in the words of Dr. King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Peace on earth. Sometimes it feels like a wish we bring out during the holidays—like ornaments soon wrapped up and stuck back on the closet shelf. How do we change that? How do we make kindness, respect, and justice for all a tangible, reachable goal?

In a few weeks, our ninth grade will begin St. Luke’s first January Term (J-Term). This will be an eight-day cycle when regular classes will suspend and students will study one domestic or world problem, collaborate on solutions, and present their findings and ideas at a symposium. While still in eighth grade, students were asked what topic they’d most like to explore. Their collective answer: human rights. Students at this age are ripe for asking big questions—Why is there unfairness in the world? What can I do about it? We want to fan that flame and show our young people that they can use their hearts and minds to change the world.

Later in January, St. Luke’s will hold our second annual Social Justice Summit. Student and faculty participants will engage in activities and examine case studies that deepen our awareness, strengthen our capacity and commitment to oppose injustice, and foster trusting relationships across the perceived barriers of race, ethnicity, religion, identity, gender, age and power. When we intentionally strengthen our students’ (and our own) capacity and commitment to oppose injustice, we demonstrate a St. Luke’s tenet—developing good people is as important as developing great scholars.

Lyndon B. Johnson said, “Peace is a journey of a thousand miles and it must be taken one step at a time.”  St. Luke’s does not have all the answers, and we’ll certainly uncover areas of disagreement and misunderstanding even as we seek to understand each other better. But I know we’re walking the right path. Our Center for Leadership encourages students to find your voice and make a difference. Imagine the difference every community could make by teaching children to respect all people— not because it’s good manners or politically correct—but because it will bring peace on earth.

 

Social Justice Leadership Summit: A Lifetime Experience.

Social Justice Leadership Summit Attendees

Social Justice Leadership Summit Attendees

We laughed.  We cried.  We (well, some of us) danced.

We shared.  We trusted.  We learned…together…some important and difficult things.

None of us will forget that day, or stop feeling grateful for what we learned about ourselves, about each other, and about social justice issues such as those related to race, religion, sexual identity and other cultural identifiers.

By “us,” I mean the twenty-five students and ten faculty members who attended last Saturday’s Social Justice Leadership Summit (SJLS) in the St. Luke’s Commons.  Skillfully and sensitively led by Stephanie Bramlett, who was ably supported by Grant Russell, the summit brought participants together around activities and case studies that deepened our awareness, strengthened our capacity and commitment to oppose injustice, and fostered trusting relationships across the perceived barriers of race, ethnicity, religion, identity, gender, age and power.

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.

Special thanks to Dr. Bramlett and Mr. Russell, and to every student and faculty member who participated in what will become a much anticipated annual event.