The Art of Equity, Justice, and Community Work

“Unless you’re a dead king of England, chances are you’re not represented in art,” Cat Dawson ’04 said at the opening talk for the Upper School’s 2021 Equity, Justice, and Community (EJC) Day. Dawson—the managing partner of Diver Collective, a software development and digital strategy company; a research affiliate in the Department of Art at Smith College; and a consultant in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space—opened the EJC day with a short crash course in who is included and who is excluded from the traditional Western art canon. Included? Dead kings of England. Excluded? That’s a long list.

Dawson, whose pronouns are they/them, talked about their journey from a Sidwell Friends lifer to their current position on the Board of Trustees, and how the lessons of equity they learned at Sidwell Friends has influenced them. Dawson then presented a series of artwork to show how often those excluded from the canon—queer people and people of color in particular—use art to, in their words, “hide in plain sight.” “Who’s left out of the canon,” Dawson said, “can be a powerful way to understand privilege.”

Dawson also commended the current students for their commitment to EJC work, noting that while such work was done on campus when they attended, it wasn’t present at the same level it is now. “You all show me up,” they said. “And when you’re my age, the students then will show you up. I hope so, anyway.”

The day then split into participants’ choices among 22 student-led sessions. Students grappled with questions of race, gender, sexuality, and class in workshops that were both theoretical and personal, including “Breaking Down Black Identity,” “Intersectionality and Inclusion Within the Climate Movement,” “Positive Masculinity: Defining Masculinity,” and “Quaking In Our Boots,” a session that asked students to examine what it means to attend Sidwell Friends in terms of privilege, access, and power.

Of course, the work of EJC Day doesn’t end on EJC Day—it is an ongoing commitment central to the mission and ethos of Sidwell Friends. Though this year’s EJC Day was virtual, the students’ commitment to the work that lies ahead is very real.

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