Hopes for A New Beginning on Founder’s Day

The following message was sent to the Sidwell Friends community on April 21, 2021.


Dear Friends,

Today is Founder’s Day, and I open the day with this query: Which seeds will we water? Here is a video message for our students and community.

Yesterday’s landmark verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial provides an opportunity for reflection, one that comes amid persistent racist violence. I continue to hold George Floyd’s family, and all victims of brutality, in the Light and hope that the guilty verdict provides a moment of solace on the long road to justice. As citizens and members of a Friends community, I hope we have arrived at a crossroads at which we will create meaningful law enforcement reform and deepen the dialogue about racial injustice. This moment must mark a new beginning.

As the trial closed, I wondered how we might make sense of this moment and was reminded of a recent visit to Denise Coffin’s kindergarten class, where I learned some important lessons. The students were discussing their “community carrots,” the orange construction-paper cutouts that Denise uses to teach about Quaker testimonies. I was impressed to hear these tiny philosophers talking about their “equality carrot”—if you gnaw on it long enough, it apparently gives you superpowers to make the world just and fair.

Just as we began to appreciate this beautiful and innocent insight, another student identified an unforeseen challenge: What happens when we have eaten the whole carrot? Would no one else be able to obtain the superpowers of justice? We needed to ensure that there would be a lifetime supply. There was only one solution: We needed to grow a whole garden of community carrots.

“Where do carrots come from?” I asked.

“Seeds,” they replied.

“And what do seeds need to grow?”

“Water!”

“That’s right,” I said. “You know, a famous person named the Buddha said that we all have seeds inside us that we need to take care of. And if we water the seeds of goodness—seeds like equality and community and kindness—what do you think will happen?”

“They will grow.”

“That’s right. And if we water the seeds of selfishness or unkindness what will happen?”

“They will grow, too.”

Which seeds will we water? What will we choose to cultivate as we process the Chauvin trial?

Even as we peek around the corner of the pandemic, we have seen people embrace violence with brazen predictability. Mass shootings have once again grabbed the headlines: Sikhs, Asian Americans, and students have had their lives capriciously truncated. The Chauvin trial resurfaced last summer’s trauma and a painful national history. Even with a guilty verdict, justice has been so long deferred that it continues to be denied. We witness this truth in the recent murders of Daunte Wright (Minneapolis), Dominique Williams and James Lionel Johnson (Takoma Park), and a 13-year-old Latino named Adam Toledo (Chicago). How much longer will we tolerate such reckless disregard for human life?

In the meantime, nativists have racialized COVID-19 and stoked the long-burning flames of anti-Asian racism. Shaped by white supremacist theories of social Darwinism and eugenics, anti-Asian sentiment focused first on Chinese American men, who, even as they built the transcontinental railroad, were emasculated and portrayed as inhuman and unassimilable. This portrayal, as well as the interests of working-class whites, promoted the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This legislation provided the exclusionary framework that that has since restricted Latin American, Muslim, and non-white immigrants more broadly. These histories, as well as that of Native Americans, are inextricably linked and have been used to construct and justify a false racial hierarchy. How long will we tolerate policies built on such injustice?

Sidwell Friends has an obligation to create an inclusive community, to inspire students to work for equity, and to give them the intellectual tools and spiritual resilience they need to excel in all areas of human endeavor. The current turbulence calls us to still the waters and help our children contemplate questions of equity and justice. Our efforts to do so raise more questions than answers, but I present the following possibilities and observations for consideration.

  • Racism hurts everyone. It is hard to improve upon the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “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.” Discuss this quote with your children and consider how we as a people and a planet can subsist if we fail to accept its underlying premise. Explore how racism is both grounded in and recreates powerful falsehoods that distort our humanity and compel us to live in a morally corrupt delusion. How can we honor our different histories and still find unity?
     
  • Seek self-knowledge. The fundamental goal of a liberal arts education, articulated by the great teacher Socrates, is to know thyself. Acquiring self-knowledge requires courage, honesty, reflection, and a willingness to reckon with what we discover, especially if it is unappealing. How have deeply held ideals, political and economic structures, violence, and concepts of racial (and other) hierarchies shaped how you understand yourself and society? What difficult changes might you be willing to make after considering this query? What changes might the School make? What questions are your children posing about injustice and how can you engage these queries to develop their moral intelligence? How can we practice anti-racism?
     
  • Seek and provide support. The emotional weight of the Chauvin verdict, police brutality, hate crimes, and targeted immigration policies falls unequally on various members of our community. Individuals process trauma differently, regardless of their identities. How can we support one another in this trying time? How can we seek the assistance we need? How can we use this divisive moment to strengthen the bonds of community, demonstrating honesty and grace as we do so?
     
  • Affirm nonviolence. How can we live the spirit of the MLK quote that the Black Student Union printed on the back of their 30th anniversary t-shirt: “Hate can’t drive out hate, only love can do that”? Please join us for the BSU Show, which will be rescheduled for May 1. Discuss this MLK quote and other questions raised at the performance with your family. Read the Quaker peace testimony, perhaps the most inspiring piece of writing in the Friends canon. Discuss Gandhi, King, and César Chávez to demonstrate that creative nonviolence requires discipline and courage, that its utility extends beyond race. Consider nonviolent actions you might take as a family: Attend a peaceful protest; write letters to politicians or to a victim’s family; plant a peace garden; read an author who offers a perspective contrary to yours on a controversial issue.
     
  • Familiarize yourself with and support the School’s EJC Strategic Action Plan. The plan recognizes that intellectual and human excellence are inextricably linked and seeks to deepen the sense of community that is integral to the Sidwell Friends experience. The plan now includes the following initiatives:
     
    • Re-examining our processes. Our plan provides a responsive framework that elevates the student experience, creates a reflective culture, and extends the reach of our EJC efforts.
       
    • Advancing cross-cultural understanding and assessing curricula. We plan soon to announce our appointment of the Supervía Chair in Spanish and Latin American Studies. In addition, we will continue to raise funds for the Faculty Chair in African and African American Studies and to explore the establishment of a teaching chair in Asian American Studies.
       
    • Addressing anti-Asian racism. On April 27, the 38th annual John Fisher Zeidman ’79 Lecture in Chinese Studies will be delivered by Erika Lee, whose presentation is titled, “The Long History of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States and What We Can Do About It.” She will also speak to students in grades 7 through 12 on April 28. In addition, we are working with student groups and parents on programming for Asian American Pacific Islander heritage month in May. Children’s author and illustrator Grace Lin will work with students in grades preK-6. Please also join us for an interview with Mei Xu, former Sidwell Friends parent, leader, and entrepreneur, on May 12. Mei will be interviewed by Sidwell Friends parent Lesli Foster

This past year has been a time of tremendous loss and pain. Perhaps we would be justified in watering the seeds of anger, anxiety, and resentment, but as our kindergarteners know, we reap what we sow. What might happen if we instead cultivate compassion, grace, and peace? As we edge impatiently toward the end of the pandemic—weary from worry and stunned by the pace of change—we must imagine new models and opportunities for human flourishing. Our students are longing for a better world. Now more than ever, we need teachers like Denise, educators who interrupt conventions and raise consciousness, teach students to care, and plant seeds of peace and understanding that will germinate in hearts and minds and blossom through action. Peace, reflection, and compassion—these are the superpowers of a Quaker education, when properly watered.

In peace and with gratitude,

Bryan

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