A Springboard for Action

Newcomers to Sidwell Friends School hear “RLS” thrown about often; it’s shorthand for a place where the community gathers for assemblies, talent shows, and, of course, Meeting for Worship. But the Robert L. Smith Meeting Room bears more than Robert Smith’s name—or his initials. It is, in a way, a representation of his essence and commitment to Sidwell Friends and Quaker values.

“I think that Bob’s legacy in a lot of ways is embodied in the Meeting Room, which is the spiritual center of the School,” said Head of School Bryan Garman. “But it’s also emblematic in the mission of the School in the sense that it is consistent with the testimony of environmental stewardship. It’s a place where we worship, but the way it’s constructed speaks to the School values as well.”

Now, thanks to a recent $2 million endowment from an anonymous donor, the values that Smith so embodied will be recognized forever through the Robert L. Smith Family Scholar Program. It is an opportunity for Sidwell Friends to honor Robert Smith’s legacy by promoting the role of Quaker values in the school community and to create a more inclusive experience for all students by reflecting the broader community.

Robert L. Smith Family Scholars will be Upper School students who demonstrate financial need, as well as academic promise; intellectual and social curiosity; a family supportive of their rigorous education; and an interest in solving problems and service to others. Their scholarships will cover their full tuition, as well as additional, non-tuition needs that will allow students to participate fully in the life of the School: book and technology fees; home internet access; School- related travel; costs related to college visits; even prom tickets and yearbooks.

“Scholarships allow Sidwell Friends to open its doors to a broader spectrum of students,” Smith said, noting that more than just those receiving the scholarships benefit from their award. “Diversity in its every dimension—including economic diversity—enriches the learning and experience of every student. We learn best and we learn most from those who bring different experiences and perspectives.”

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Like the Mari Schleuning Scholarship Fund, which also provides comprehensive scholarships to an Upper School cohort, the Robert L. Smith Family Scholar Program supports the School in achieving the goals in its strategic plan. “One of the core goals of the Strategic Plan is to ‘inspire ethical leadership’ through new programs that will explore this challenge in the Quaker tradition,” said Geoffrey Smith ’77, Robert Smith’s son and a current Sidwell Friends trustee. “These programs will become valuable resources as the School pursues new approaches to teaching anti-racism and social justice, and inspiring students to become truth-seekers and peacemakers throughout their lives.”

In promoting equity, justice, and Quaker values, the Robert L. Smith Family Scholar program evokes Smith’s earliest days at Sidwell Friends. Smith arrived at the School in 1965 and found challenges that no other head of school faced. The School’s facilities were crumbling, there was crushing debt, and salaries were low. On a larger scale, protests for civil rights and racial justice were sweeping across the country, the Vietnam War was ramping up, and the counterculture movement was challenging the ways Americans thought—all this as the Board of Trustees grappled with fully integrating the School.

“I think they were afraid to confront the issue,” Smith later wrote of his interview for the head of school position in his 1999 book A Quaker Book of Wisdom. “The Board was deeply conservative and still very tentative about integration.” After the School partially integrated in 1956 and fully integrated in 1964, with the first Black students enrolling in the Upper School, Smith presided over the graduation of the first five Black alumni in 1967.

“He was a transformational head, in the sense that he was head of school during a very turbulent time,” said Garman. “Bob had a very important impact on making sure the School was focused on questions of social justice. He knew that Quakerism brought a complexity to issues—and I think he reveled in the complexity and in the complicated nature of learning.”

Smith’s daughter echoed the sentiment. “Dad was deeply committed to reinforcing and solidifying the Quaker tradition of Sidwell Friends School,” said Katie Smith Sloan ’73. “He believed deeply in the basic humanistic Quaker precepts of valuing racial and gender equality, promoting social justice, and advocating for nonviolence. These beliefs guided his leadership as head of school.”

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During his tenure, Smith refocused Sidwell Friends on the Quaker values upon which the School was founded, while recognizing that those values can—and should—shift. “A good school is one that is constantly engaged in self-examination, in improving itself, in becoming wiser in its ability to both teach and inspire,” he wrote in A Quaker Book of Wisdom.

“Every principle of Quakerism, every interaction, every concept of justice was open to interrogation,” Garman said. “He really embodied that personal responsibility of Quakerism to find your own truth around any given issue, and that’s really part of the DNA of the School.”

“It is an honor and a privilege” to have a scholarship that bears his name, said Robert Smith. “I hope that Smith Family Scholars will take away from their experience an understanding that there is that of God in everyone, and that for Quakers this has been a springboard for action and an ideal that inspires the active pursuit of peace and social justice.”

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