Reflecting on the Experiences of People of Color in Independent Schools

This year will mark my eighteenth year attending the National Association of Independent School’s annual People of Color Conference (POCC). The conference is in Nashville, Tennessee, and the theme is Equitable Schools and Inclusive Communities: Harmony, Discord, and the Notes in Between. I am eager to learn, with the other 6,400 educators and students in attendance, how we can find common voices in times of discord. Joining me at the conference are Priyanthi Alahendra, Jay Franklin, Jabali Stewart, and Ray Wilson (Administrative Group); Anna Belknap and Cecily Metzger (Lower School); Michael Heald (Middle School); Maria Mathiesen, Kelsey Medrano, emily warren, and Jim Sargent (Upper School); and six Upper School students.
As I was preparing this week for the trip to POCC, I was reminded of a difficult time in my tenure at Bush. In February 2015—the winter of my first year as Head of School—an anonymous letter was sent to a Bush Trustee expressing disappointment with the Board that I was selected as the school’s ninth Head. The author felt that parents wouldn’t speak up “for fear of blowback in making it an issue of race rather than competence”, adding that the promotion of people of color in leadership positions to “make it appear progressive is working against the interests of the school”.
The letter was not only hurtful and factually inaccurate, but it sought to co-opt the school’s values by intimating that diversity and inclusion were new ideals, and not aligned with our mission. Upon sharing the letter with the Board, the Trustees unanimously denounced the sentiments expressed, and supported me and my family, thus avoiding what could have been a crisis in the middle of my first year. They understood that this voice was not representative of our community.
The letter is a powerful reminder of how people of color experience independent schools differently than their white peers. It was not the first mis-characterization, false assumption, or questioning of credentials I had experienced because of my race since beginning my career in education in 1992. It was also not my last. I recall thinking that if, as the leader of the school, I could be made to feel that I didn’t belong, I could only imagine how our students, parents/guardians, and faculty of color might feel.
We know that successful schools foster environments in which students of diverse backgrounds and talents learn from and with others who speak with different voices and have unique experiences. We can only prepare students to solve the big problems they will confront in the future if they collaborate with teachers and peers who will challenge them to think differently and act courageously. Our mission calls on us to do this work—to spark in students of diverse backgrounds and talents a passion for learning, accomplishment, and contribution to their communities.
I know that there is still critical work to do within independent schools generally, and at Bush specifically, to ensure that we become a truly inclusive community, one in which all of Bush’s students, whether white, Jewish, Latinx, gender non-conforming, Muslim, etc., can participate fully without others questioning their right to be here. Our founder believed in developing strong, educated women leaders at a time when society marginalized them and tried to silence their voices. Helen’s leadership created the opportunity for their voices to be heard. I am committed to supporting inclusivity at Bush so that we create smarter, kinder, and more thoughtful places in which every student is valued, seen, and heard. There is no place for misogyny, racism, xenophobia, transphobia, or bigotry at The Bush School. We must move beyond discordant threats to unite our voices in harmony.
Sincerely,
Percy L. Abram, Ph.D.
Head of School

Bending Towards Justice in Independent Education

On Monday, I had the honor to walk alongside 35 members of The Bush School community–parents, teachers, staff, administrators, Trustees, alumnae/i, students and Friends of Bush–from Garfield High School to the Jackson Federal Building in Seattle’s annual MLK March. The march, now in its 35th year, honors the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would have celebrated his 88th birthday on Sunday. The theme of this year’s march was “Stop the Hate! Come Together” and was open to “everyone who honors the goals and methods of Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Dr. King’s goal of securing racial equality through peaceful, nonviolent resistance is almost universally accepted today, and Dr. King remains one of the most admired figures in American history. In 2011, Dr. King boasted a 95% favorability rating, with over two-thirds of respondents indicating that they thought highly—rated 4 or 5 on a five-point scale–of the slain civil rights leader. Clearly, the country’s feelings toward Dr. King have evolved over time. Largely beloved and revered by Americans today, in 1966, only 37% of Americans had a favorable opinion of Dr. King, and 44% held a strongly unfavorable opinion him. Why has Dr. King’s message grown more resonant with the passage of time?  Continue reading “Bending Towards Justice in Independent Education”

Giving Space for Civil Discourse

One of the casualties of a culture that demands immediate feedback is the loss of time to pause, reflect, deliberate and respond thoughtfully. Most of us have fallen victim to the sensation of stopping a colleague, friend, or spouse as we pass them in the hall and commenting, “I sent you an e-mail about an hour ago…” While we will let this phrase hang in the air as if it were merely a declarative statement, a part of us wishes and expects them to have read our e-mail and responded. This expectation denies us the opportunity to be careful and measured in our responses and causes us to respond in a way we might not otherwise, and may not represent our most civil selves.  Continue reading “Giving Space for Civil Discourse”

Selma: Our Past and Present March Toward Freedom

selmaParamount Pictures released the movie Selma, by first-time director Ava DuVernay, on December 24. The movie tells the story of the social forces, political obstacles, as well as the strategic and tactical planning efforts that lead to the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in March 1965. In the months prior to the march, and with the support of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was engaged in a voting rights campaign in southern states to register blacks to vote. The ability of SNCC and SCLC to mobilize African-American volunteers, King’s political acumen, and the media’s coverage of the vitriolic reactions to segregation by local whites and the city’s police officers—including the events of March 7, 1965 which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday”—brought sufficient pressure to bear on President Lyndon Johnson to push for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The movie reminds the audience of the immense sacrifices African-American men, women, and children made to secure the right to vote. Enfranchisement, they believed, carried with it the promise of full participation in our democracy and legal recognition of their rights as citizens. Selma’s release, at the end of 2014, was timely. Our nation watched as a series of protests—some of which were marred by senseless acts violence and destruction of property—dominated the news following the grand jury decisions to not prosecute officers involved in the deaths of unarmed black men. The protests generated lively discourse at home and schools about race in our country, the relationship between police and the communities they serve, unconscious bias, the grand jury system, and our collective humanity. These conversations continue in the hallways of our Upper School among teachers and students, and through moderated talks with student groups like our Student Awareness Council.

Selma is a powerful and resonant reflection on our recent past, and an important reminder that the struggle for justice, equality, and for some mere visibility is long and arduous, but ultimately worthwhile; the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice. In re-telling the story of the brave yet ordinary individuals who marched, sat, protested, and endured threats of economic insecurity and physical harm, Ms. DuVernay underscores the message that the power to change the course of history is within all of us. The past century is replete with examples of everyday folks using nonviolent, civil disobedience to raise our consciousness, galvanize our spirits, and call us to action, whether in Selma, Atlanta, Oxford, Kiev, Delhi, Beijing, St. Louis, or Paris.

Screen Shot 2015-01-13 at 9.55.52 AMThis year, The Bush School will be joining thousands of Seattleites at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Rally and March Monday, January 19, to walk in support of human rights for all. We hope that you will join us—look for The Bush School banner, and those wearing Bush apparel on the northeast corner of 23rd and Jefferson—on Monday as we share in the tradition of Selma and honor Dr. King and the countless others who blazed the path on the long march to freedom.

Percy

P.S. I have attached links to resources you may use to talk with your children about race and Ferguson (or http://bit.ly/1xkJKXd).