This summer, English and US History teachers across all divisions revamped their curricula, by reading new books,
consulting with DEI Deans, and attending Professional Development seminars like the National Anti-Racism Teach-in.
Above are a sampling of the books read by 7th and 8th graders. Below, we dig into the Senior English class reading.
After a summer mired in traumatic events in the news and in our community’s social media––BlackatHRS, QueeratHRS, HRSProtectors––Upper School students began the academic year with a lot of confusion and pain. Interim Upper School Dean of Academics, Liz Solis, 12th Grade Dean Andy Spear, and Director of Equity and Inclusion Johára Tucker chose to face that pain head-on, in Senior meetings that honored real-talk and a commitment to change.
To frame these conversations, the Seniors read Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown, a radical self-help book that guides its readers toward understanding that change is constant and to “feel, map, assess, and learn from” that flux. Ms. Solis assigned Emergent Strategy, because she “wanted to provide a framework and common language to move towards generative conflict and look for opportunities to learn.”
Seniors first wrote reflections about the book––anonymously or signed––on a shared Padlet board. Ms. Solis opened the meeting by acknowledging the students’ responses: “Your insights were profound,” she said. “What I saw: Most folks are feeling like they’re interested in digging into Emergent Strategy to figure out how to get through the messiness, conflict, and the harm––not just this summer, not just this year, not just in the 130-year history of Head-Royce. That’s a lot to unpack, in a day, in a year. It may take a lifetime, right?”
The word “unpack” reminded Senior Dean Andy Spear of a helpful metaphor for White students new to talking about race: “White privilege is like a big backpack. If you walk into a crowded cafe wearing a backpack and knock over someone’s coffee,” he said, “you don’t blame the person for putting their cup down on the table or blame the backpack. Part of this work is identifying how big your backpack is.” He committed to learning about privilege and talking about whiteness, so he doesn’t “knock more things off more tables.”
For many of the Seniors, the book was empowering and gave them ideas for how they can shape school culture. “The idea that 'Small is good, small is all,’ was helpful,” wrote Artemisia M. ’21. “To change something on a large scale, you must first change it on a small scale."
Arun P. ’21 echoed Artemisia’s point, quoting another part of the book: “Transform yourself to transform the world.” He explained that “we tend to focus on how to shape our society's collective values and behavior, without realizing that our individual behavior has to be altered first." How students relate to one another can be a powerful culture shift.
That shift can begin with kindness, with empathy. "What resonated most with me was this idea of ‘not trying to be Frankenstein’ and not trying to change people,” said Quelam T. ’21, who also admitted she has “a tendency to try and resolve issues once they are presented, instead of comforting people when they are frustrated.” Instead, Quelam has “really thought about embracing emotions and being vulnerable."
“I was especially drawn to the book’s invitation to come together in community, build authentic relationships, and see what emerges," said Ms. Solis. “With everything our Seniors have faced, I felt it was vital to support challenging conversations and, in particular, allow seniors to ask themselves, What is my role? What do I need to take accountability for? How can I create space to hold others accountable?”
To model difficult conversations, Director of Equity and Inclusion Johára Tucker joined Liz Solis on screen. Both admitted they were struggling, personally, as women of color, and Ms. Tucker said she waffles between “being numb and hurting,” from the continuous anti-Black police violence. “How many times have I been in a room when a Black person was hurt or killed and no one mentions it? I know folks read the news,” she said. “But you don’t mention it, so I become angry or numb. When I do speak up, I’m met with guilt and shame rather than acknowledgment.”
This culture of silence and White guilt directly impacts faculty retention rates. Citing the national average, Ms. Tucker explained “a White person will stay at an independent school for five years and a BIPOC teacher, only two.” How does that feel for our students of color, who rely on teachers who look like them for mentorship and understanding? Head-Royce’s poor retention rates for BIPOC faculty and professional staff was a common theme on the summer’s BlackatHRS Instagram account. So how do we change that?
“DEI roles are made to disrupt,” Ms. Tucker told the Seniors. “Constantly disrupting by asking those uncomfortable questions, will make the School better, not just for you all as Seniors, but the 9th graders coming in, too. It’s time to shift the culture,” Ms. Tucker. “I’m in if you are.”
The conversation on Emergent Strategy will continue when the author visits the Senior class in late November. Lucky students will have the chance to ask adrienne maree brown questions on how to put her philosophy into practice.