Let Your Life Speak Morning Takes the Global Stage

By now, the entire Sidwell Friends community—like the entire world—is used to change. For Let Your Life Speak morning, celebrated as part of Founder’s Day on April 21, alumni, students, faculty, and staff not only showcased their adaptiveness, but embraced it as 33 alumni spoke to Upper Schoolers on the theme of “leveraging change."

“We have a tendency to resist change because it involves risk,” said Mason Berry ’00, a naval aviator. “When we’re resistant to change, we become reactive to it. Leveraging change means seeking out changes that cause you to grow.”

And grow is exactly what Let Your Life Speak did. While the 2020 session shifted from in-person to virtual, the Alumni Engagement office knew this year’s program would almost certainly be virtual from the start of planning. That provided opportunities.

“While campus visits will always be important for alumni, embracing technology this year has provided opportunities for more alumni to speak in small, group settings with students,” said Sarah Duda, the assistant director of alumni engagement. “Inviting alumni to virtually participate in the Let Your Life Speak morning truly opened the door for some alumni to participate this year when traveling to campus wouldn’t be possible in a typical year, either due to distance, schedules, or a host of other factors. We were delighted to see alumni join us from across the U.S. with minimal disruption to their busy schedules.”

“Being based in Dakar, I only make it to DC once or twice a year,” said Nate Heller ’94, who joined Let Your Life Speak Morning during what was his afternoon. “I was excited to speak at the event because I remember what it was like to be a high school student. If I have any advice, it’s that I really benefited from taking my time to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do, and not worrying too much about how my path compared to those of others.  Sometimes at a competitive place like Sidwell one can get trapped in the competition and assume that the things you are competing over are the only things out there, when actually there are options you had no idea existed.”

Heller, who is the co-founder and COO of PEG Africa, a business that uses microcredit to sell solar home systems to off-grid households,  spoke about his career path, which included a stint in the Peace Corps, and why he viewed for-profit businesses as a way to create economic change.

“We believe that if you do something as a charity it can be really easy to see the people who are benefiting from what you’re doing as just beneficiaries,” he said. “If you do it as a company and are making money from the people who are buying your products, you’re accountable to them. If they’re not happy with your products, they’ll stop buying them and you’ll go out of business—as you should.”

Grace Dammann ’65, a physician with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, spoke on the importance of listening to her heart over her head. Her mantra of “just say yes” led her to beginning medical school at 30, becoming a physician, and eventually opening a step-down unit for HIV/AIDS patients in San Francisco in the early 1980s. In three years, she and her team signed over 1,200 death certificates as the pandemic ravaged the community. “It was a really tough thing to do, but we loved it,” she said. “We got to just be with people. We could not offer them much except ourselves, which is the greatest gift you can be told you have to give.”

She also spoke of lessons learned outside her career, particularly one that resulted after a car accident on the Golden Gate Bridge left her in a coma for 48 days and in the hospital for over a year. “One of the many things I learned in that time was to be totally in the moment,” she said. “The first bath I had in four and a half months felt like I’d gone to heaven. Nothing felt as good as that water on my back.”

Allison Vise ’09, a senior resident physician in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said that the best, most authentic change happens when you are living their passions. “When your passion is real, that shows through,” she said. “Follow up on things you love, that are exciting and interesting to you.”

After the Upper Schoolers finished their two morning sessions, the Middle Schoolers joined them for the keynote discussion between author and journalist Anand Giridharadas ’99 and writer, activist, comedian, and podcast host Baratunde Thurston ’95. During the discussion, moderated by Horizon editors Emily Fagell ’21, Abbey Kim ’21, and Eleanor Walsh ’21, the two alumni noted how much of their respective careers were influenced by storytelling and how Sidwell Friends taught them to examine not only the stories themselves, but who was left out of the telling.

“We’ve had 1,000 Tom Hanks movies about World War II and the American white hero,” said Thurston. “I don’t believe we’ve had any major stories about women who held the country together that whole time. We inherit these myths from our past—and double down on them—and there are all these compelling, heroic stories we don’t know.”

“Families and cities and whole countries have stories and meta-stories that they tell about themselves, or about other people,” said Giridharadas. “The story that America is where the American Dream occurs is powerful, but it’s mostly not true. There is a massive challenge in this country in telling a new story that is true, that is inclusive, that doesn’t erase and marginalize all kinds of people, and that is inspiring to people. We have to create a story about ourselves that meets that criteria. If we don’t, we create a lot of space for the bad guys to create their own story about being replaced.”

Though the two did not cross paths at Sidwell Friends, they discussed their similar experiences as being students of color at the School in the 1990s. Both had run-ins with the administration—episodes that they now look back on with a kind of fondness. When Giridharadas was editor of Horizon, for example, the administration spiked a story on a widespread cheating scandal. In protest, Giridharadas elected to run an entirely blank front page. The administration wasn’t happy, but the page ran anyway.

“We had fights,” Giridharadas said of that story and others. “But there was this recognition that fighting was what we were supposed to do. And now I do it on larger stages.”

Thurston agreed, mentioning a Black Student Union production he was involved in. “We put on a play about how racist Sidwell was—but Sidwell let us put on a play about how racist Sidwell was!” he said. “Not a lot of schools would let that happen.”

While many of the Let Your Life Speak participants spoke about career success, the overarching theme was that your life will never truly be defined by the nameplate on your desk or the title on your business card, and that “knowing” what career path you’ll take can actually limit you.

“It’s perfectly fine not to know what you want to do with your life,” said Heller near the end of one of his sessions. “I thought a lot of the things I felt in high school were set in stone, and that there were limits to what I could accomplish—and that’s not true. You have no idea how amazing life can be if you’re open to it.”

 

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