Three years ago, I stopped attending SRI’s Winter Meeting. The decision was not an easy one, but rather one that was at once complex and simple.
I was in my first year as Head of my “new school”, and deeply engaged in conversations with my colleague, the director of diversity at the time, about how to support our school in deepening and expanding our already strong commitment to equity and justice. We talked at length about the dilemmas inherent in “doing diversity” work in schools and realized soon that we shared a vision of our school as a place where conversations about race and privilege, about access and experience were not limited to certain “special” days on the calendar. We agreed, for example, that the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday should be meaningfully acknowledged in our school, but not as a once-a-year call to consciousness. It should be an extension of our daily lives, punctuated by memorable and significant experiences. As that first fall proceeded, it became clear to me where I needed to be over the MLK Day; it was here, at my school, with my colleagues and students. Though it was my final year as SRI Board President and I knew that missing Winter Meeting would be difficult, it became impossible to imagine being away from school for MLK Day.
Our hope was to continue to develop within our community the sense that the holidays and special occasions of MLK Day, World AIDS Day, Black History Month, Women’s History Month, or discrete and official commemorations of marginalized people were not the only times we would hold close the ideals of celebrating and honoring diversity. These beliefs were alive within the school, as was the goal of being a consciously equitable school, and intentionally teaching the interrelatedness of service and justice. Special days could be highlights and ways of publicly recommitting to an already strong commitment to these ideals, but the bigger idea was to make progress-year by year, day by day, on connecting our best intentions to thoughtful and increasingly consistent action, even on “regular” days.
Over the past three years, the shape and structure of our work has shifted in a couple of ways. We have broadened the base and reach of our efforts by creating a committee of teachers and staff members dedicated to helping us place and keep equity and social justice in the center of our school. A Coordinator of Equity and Social Justice leads the team. Together, this team plays a central role in working with school leadership, posing important institutional questions, supporting our student affinity and alliance groups, planning programs and guiding the work of the school thoughtfully and collaboratively.
Watkinson is part of SPHERE, a consortium of Independent Schools in the region committed to working toward and sustaining equity in multiple dimensions. SPHERE connects thirteen area schools through ongoing dialogue among and between schools, regular meetings of diversity practitioners and heads of schools, and joint meetings that bring together both groups. The leadership of the consortium is shared and the position of Board President rotates among the heads of school. This year, leadership of SPHERE resides with Watkinson, and became an opportunity for us to continue to explore authentic ways to promote and support the kind of work we’ve been striving for. We were in a position to convene these discussions, to ask our colleagues across these schools their thoughts and opinions about where and how we would best use our time together. We undertook a common text as a staring point for our meetings. Two weeks ago, at the first joint meeting of heads and diversity leaders, we examined two case studies (one dealing with a complicated racial incident and one centered on supporting transgender youth in well-intentioned, but inexperienced communities) from real school practice, to probe and discuss.
As a result of the confluence of our ongoing focus on supporting student voice, our affinity groups and clubs centered on diversity and uniting through difference, and our role as the hub for SPHERE, Watkinson students were eager to create a new experience. The “Students of Color Summit” was added to the calendar this year. The day was intentionally de-coupled from MLK Day, Black History Month or any officially designated time in the calendar, to take place in the late fall.
We are earnestly grappling with the challenge of drawing attention to issues of equity and social justice in heightened ways, while not “tokenizing” the very real and persistent questions about diversity that are a part of daily life. We are working at living up to our responsibility to balance talk with action, and the acknowledged power of a single “special” day with the subtle, yet no less pressing demands of the other 364 days in the year, and the hope and optimism we want to impart to young people with our own daily concerns and disappointments.
It is no small thing to consider how to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day in schools. Since “MLK Day” became a national holiday in 1983, and was first observed in 1986, it was intended to be a national day of service. There is an inherent imperative for thoughtful schools if we are truly to act in honor of this intention. We must equally serve our students by educating them about and in a context of social justice, while we also work to create an authentic and earnest framework to support their early experiences with the notion of service itself. To tend to either without the other is to risk over-intellectualizing that which requires us to use our hands and hearts, or simply doing good without the edge and power provided by a deep call to action to make our world better for every one of us, no matter what.
How do we embody and enact this critical work more consistently?
We have embarked on a journey to do better – to unearth, connect, address important issues and be courageous in our efforts to be an equitable place to live and learn. This commitment has reshaped the way we approach the MLK Day, but perhaps even more importantly, the aspirations we have to be a school where the MLK Day does not stand alone as a single isolated occasion where we focus on justice. Rather than merely convening an assembly to commemorate Dr. King and his legacy, we have tried to avoid the “jump cut” to suddenly paying attention to issues of race and class, access, justice, and service by connecting Dr. King’s vision and dream, his legacy of justice and service to even our most regular days.
In a month or so, we will embark upon a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in The Sun, a Pulitzer-price winning play centering on the hopes of an African American family to attain the American Dream of owning a home, and the struggles they encounter. It is a popular piece, a masterwork that is routinely studied in high schools. Our theatre director, with the help and support of colleagues, school leadership, and her Professional Learning Group, has decided to cast the show entirely with students of color, as it was written. There will be one role for a White student. The move feels risky in the best ways and has us working hard to navigate important questions that have and will inevitably arise. At the same time, it seems like the next logical step in drawing together our espoused beliefs with our enacted reality, and another opportunity to continue the dialogue about race, but in real time, on regular days.
This past year, SRI’s Winter Meeting was moved to the first weekend of November, filling the plum time slot vacated by the Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum. Ecstatic to be free of the conflict between being here at school and being back home at SRI, I set my sights on returning to Fall Meeting. And that was the plan, until I realized that that was the weekend of that long-awaited, long-planned Students of Color Summit. Again, the choice was clear, and I missed Winter…or rather Fall Meeting. I am looking to next November with high hopes of being in that room with my SRI colleagues.
Here’s to the power of regular days.
Right before signing off on this blog post as final, I received the following update from Heather Ley, the Coordinator for Equity, Social Justice and Multiculturalism at Watkinson. This is evidence that we continue to grow organizationally, and are supporting students to lead within our community:
I wanted to share that things are shifting in a very cool way on our campus, and it is all about student voice. As a result of MLK Day, students have brought United Through Difference back to life – on their terms. A group of students from different backgrounds felt the need for a club that is concerned about Social Justice that can be a bridge for all students – so it is in addition to our very strong affinity groups – a place to come together, share and learn about being allies.
In addition to this, kids are abuzz with ideas for workshops that they want to present on social justice day. They are getting in touch with faculty and beginning to plan.
It is just very interesting how things are organically developing!
Teri Schrader is the Head of Watkinson School, Hartford, Connecticut. You can contact her at email@example.com.