National Issues, Local Impact

“If we come away with the idea that this is easy to solve, we haven’t done it right,” says Robbie Gross, Sidwell Friends’ assistant principal for academic affairs.

Sitting in on one session of “Metropolitan Policy and the DMV,” an Upper School class taught by Gross and Director of Equity, Justice, and Community Natalie Randolph ’98, certainly proves they’re doing it right. In the class, students examine the Capital Region’s challenges, how they’ve been addressed in the past, and how they might be solved more equitably in the future. In one session, special guests Kanti Srikanth, the deputy executive director at Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and Bryan Hayes, a transportation planner at MWCG, Zoomed into the class to talk about what may, on the surface, look like a pretty boring problem: transportation. The day’s activity proved that getting from one place to another is about much more than which route to use or whether to drive or take the Metro. Because the city can be unaffordable for many in the DC workforce, commuting and transportation issues offer a glimpse into the area’s economic and racial climate.

That’s the grand idea behind the class, says Randolph. “When the School was talking about establishing a Center for Ethical Leadership, I thought it would be cool to get the kids to learn about this region in a way where they’re thinking about problems and how to solve them,” she says. “We want the School to be a better steward for our community, and in order to do that, our kids need to understand the current issues in the community.”

In one role-playing activity, students were in charge of deciding whether and how to expand a four-lane highway into an eight-lane highway that connects the inner and outer suburbs to DC’s core; to offset costs for the project, the four new lanes would all be toll lanes. The students played the roles of representatives from the city, the inner suburbs, the outer suburbs, the environmental community, and a “multi-modalism” perspective, which focused on people who use more than one way to commute (driving to a Metro station and then taking a train, for example). The students then had to arrive at a solution that all five groups found agreeable.

The potential snags arose almost immediately. A student representing the outer suburbs pointed out that businesses that have warehouses in the outer suburbs and truck their goods into the city would face a rise in the cost of doing business if they had to pay tolls; moreover, low-income residents would face increased costs to come into the District for work. A student representative for the city, however, argued that more people coming into the city by car wasn’t a good idea: It would mean an increase in the demand for parking and more wear and tear on the city’s streets, which the money from the toll lanes might not cover. The student representative from the inner suburbs, meanwhile, reasoned that widening highways comes at the cost of land in low-income areas, meaning a reduction in affordable housing close to the city. The student in the multi-modal role made a case for finding more ways for people to access public transportation rather than rely solely on cars, particularly since the current train system doesn’t reach the outer suburbs. The student representing the environment agreed, maintaining that money spent on the highway would better be spent on getting more cars off the road through investment in public transportation. A robust public transit system, the student said, would reduce the need for the new lanes in the first place.

After each representative made their case, the students started bargaining and offering up compromises. Eventually, the plan allowed commercial vehicles and carpoolers to use the toll lanes for free, while charging non-commercial traffic and single drivers had to pay, and the plan earmarked some of the toll money to support public transportation. Instead of widening the highway to eight lanes, the students compromised on widening it to five, with two of the lanes alternating—travelling into the city during the morning rush and out for the evening commute. They also decided to entice businesses to encourage their employees to use public transportation by offering tax incentives to companies that subsidized employees’ use of public transportation.

Was everyone perfectly happy with the solution? No. But achieving consensus is part of the point of the class, Gross says. Each student recognizes that, while equitable solutions may not be perfect, they’re something to strive for. Discussing large ideas in a local context means that students can see with their own eyes how the DC area is a microcosm of the intersections among class, race, infrastructure, governance, and more.

“The class represents one way we might envision connecting our academic program with the goal of inspiring ethical leadership among our students,” Gross says. “It centers the student experience in the class on exploring local problems and what equitable policy tools they might use to solve them.”

 “It’s less about getting the ‘right answer’ and more about how this stuff is complicated,” Randolph adds. As she tells the students: “The purpose of this class is not for you to just learn all the rote information. The purpose of this class is that you hopefully go off to college and then come back and save the world.”

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