On Thursday, December 4, the Sewickley Series presented a documentary film American Promise that traces the educational journey of two black boys, from Kindergarten through their matriculation to college. In exploring the sometimes wrenching path these boys followed at an independent school in New York City, the filmmakers (whose eldest son is one of the two boys who are the subject of the film) open their home and their lives to the scrutiny of the outside world and by doing so raise a series of important questions, questions that are important not just for independent schools like Sewickley Academy but questions that are important for us as a nation. In the aftermath of Ferguson, MO, the Eric Garner case in New York City, and the recent conclusions of a federal investigation into the wrongful death of a 12-year-old child at the hands of police in Cleveland, OH, there is an urgency to our thinking about race and how our various points of view inform the way we see and experience the world.
During the post-film question-and-answer session, an audience member commented that she had on occasion received communications from her sons’ school about boisterous and inappropriate behavior of the kind the boys in the film were also accused of engaging in. The mom asked, “…wasn’t it possible that, instead of the determining factor being race, it could be that the report of behavior issues was really a function of gender?” The filmmaker, Michele Stephenson, replied that the research is very clear: black boys are much more likely to be singled out for behavioral issues than other children and, in fact, that black boys are far more likely to be suspended from Kindergarten than other children. These comments were affirmed by another panelist, Dr. Todd Allen, professor of communication studies and visual arts at Grove City College, who also serves on his local public school district board.
The parent in the audience, who was white, continued to press her point, to which Stephenson answered, “[sic] you have the privilege of being white, of not having to wonder whether your children are being singled out for their race.”
The idea of white privilege seems to me, especially at a school like Sewickley Academy, which is predominantly white, to be an issue worthy of significant exploration. To what extent do white people, myself included, benefit from the invisible privilege conferred upon us by our race? In her groundbreaking work in this field, Peggy McIntosh, professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, in 1988 (yes, that is more than 25 years ago!) articulated an idea of white and male privilege in an article that was then widely circulated. A précis of the article, focusing on white privilege, can be found here. For the May 2014 issue of The New Yorker magazine, Peggy McIntosh was interviewed about white privilege, highlighting that, even 25-plus years later, this is an issue with which we as a society (and I really mean white people) have yet to deal with adequately.
What is interesting in this brief article is that McIntosh makes it clear that we are all, regardless of our race or gender, subject to systemic influences that frame both our experiences and how we process them. No one exists outside such systemic influences, and therefore, we all have a vested interest in understanding and, in many cases, challenging these influences.
McIntosh is also a founder of the SEED project (Seeking Educational Equity & Diversity), an effort to empower educators to undertake equity and inclusion work in their classrooms. The SEED project describes itself this way:
The National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum™ is the nation’s largest peer-led leadership development project. It engages public and private school teachers, college faculty, parents, and community leaders from all subject areas, grade levels, and geographic locations to create gender fair, multiculturally equitable, socioeconomically aware, and globally informed education.
SEED work invites the engagement of ideas, experiences, and identity. Participants develop ways of understanding complex relations between self and systems with regard to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability/disability, and other lived cultural experiences. Everyone who takes part in SEED becomes engaged in diversity work in both familiar and unfamiliar ways.
This coming year, Sewickley Academy will be sending its first cohort of faculty and staff for SEED training. This is an exciting next step in our ongoing effort to live the words of our Mission and Core Values. While we know that conversations around race, equity, and inclusion can sometimes be difficult and challenging, we also know that if we are to serve our students and our community, we must be willing to engage more robustly in these conversations. All that is required is a willingness to listen, to share, to reflect, to question unexamined assumptions, and ultimately to be changed.
At Sewickley Academy, we know we are not perfect, and that is one of our strengths. I have long said that we cannot rest on our laurels, and even though in the area of equity and inclusion we have much to be proud of (our 25-year-old Summerbridge program; our being one of the founding schools that established FAME; our investment in a director of diversity; our sending students and faculty to the NAIS People of Color Conference each year; and our board-adopted and affirmed commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion), we also know there are many ways in which we still fall short in delivering on the promises we make to our community.
I am grateful that this Sewickley Series event provided yet another opportunity for us to examine our practices and reaffirm our willingness to ensure that, in large ways and small, we honor every child and every family at our school, through our curriculum and through our pedagogy and through our co-curricular programming (e.g. Responsive Classroom in the Lower School and Developmental Designs in the Middle School). We have some important foundations laid, but it does not take much to see that there is more we can contribute to making this country one that truly delivers on the promises of the Declaration of Independence, one that is able to honor the “check” that Martin Luther King said in 1963 had been returned marked “insufficient funds.” In 2014, we have the resources to honor that check, and we must, and Sewickley Academy must do its part.
In January, please look for information regarding additional screenings of American Promise, which I anticipate will be scheduled for February and March and will be followed by opportunity for discussion. These conversations, we hope, will provide a way for parents, faculty, and staff to reflect on their personal experiences and the experiences of other members of our community. Each of us brings a unique and valued identity to our community. One of the questions we will want to consider is how our identities intersect with the identities of others and the extent to which our community may or may not support the different identities that contribute to who we are. We will look to schedule screenings of the film at a variety of times to allow as many members of our community to attend. I hope you will be able to join us for one of these events. In the meantime, may this holiday season provide each of us an opportunity to join together with friends and loved ones in appreciation of the many blessings we all share.