David Connell
by Ellen Pierson

David Connell

Upper School Director of Service Learning David Connell decided earlier this year to step down after seventeen years. He plans to pursue opportunities teaching mindfulness and conflict resolution. This special article examines the legacy of his service to SFS.

David Connell arrived at Sidwell Friends in the fall of 1998 after serving the homeless in Boston and prisoners in the Arlington County jail. His leadership, knowledge and commitment to social justice and to all of the Quaker tenets that undergird work at SFS have enriched the service program and enabled service learning to become a way of life at Sidwell Friends.

During his time at SFS, David’s vision and initiative enabled the service program to grow and expand opportunities to include service learning throughout the curriculum and in all divisions of the School community. In addition to his primary role in the US, he has served as a resource working with faculty in all three divisions of the School to incorporate service learning into the curriculum. David has given teachers models, ideas, resources and support helping them develop an awareness of ideas they can easily incorporate into their lesson plans. Under his leadership, service and service learning became robust offerings in the curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular arenas.

The Upper School Service Learning Program involves over 500 students and 100 faculty and staff members, and David created a program that fostered local, relationship-based service opportunities that focused on the quality of relationships during students’ service work. By getting to know their service partners as individuals, students become more confident, empathic and motivated members of their communities.

David led a successful effort to institute major changes in the Upper School by increasing the community service graduation requirement from 30 to 60 hours in order to include more direct service and a greater reflection component.

David enhanced the quality of institutional relationships that SFS built with its service partners over the years. The majority of these partnerships during his tenure have lasted at least ten years or longer. These long-term relationships allow our School to be a more effective partner and to create more substantial service opportunities for our students. Some of our partners are Iona House, Rosemount Center and The Washington Home among others.

Triangular service partnerships were another feature of the program as David designed projects where SFS partnered with two different nonprofit organizations on the same project, leveraging his ability to design, staff and provide logistical support for a variety of US projects and partnerships. Our Kidpower Tuesday afternoon tutoring program is a good example. Now in its fifth year, Kidpower, a nonprofit that provides after school programs in ten DC public schools, acts as an intermediary partner by providing staff, curriculum and transportation. SFS provides tutors, facilities and staff. Finally, Barnard Elementary School provides staff and elementary school age students for the project. Other examples of triangular partnerships in which the US is involved include William Penn House, Arts for the Aging, Martha’s Table, and Big Creek People in Action.

David inspires students, colleagues and parents with his knowledge and personal example. He has developed extensive contacts with national and international human service agencies and expertly guides others toward service projects in our community as well as beyond. He created and administered annual service trips to Appalachia, Honduras, Jamaica, New Orleans and Pine Ridge Reservation that have been rewarding to all who participated.

Another goal of the Upper School service program is to provide opportunities for community and relationship building within SFS. The US Work Program where students work weekly throughout the School community supports the Quaker testimony of community. In addition, other projects enable this in substantial ways including grade level family service projects such as the Thanksgiving Pie-bake, Sophomore Casserole Bake, the FAPAC Holiday Party, All SFS Family Workcamps, and the Annual US Community Service Day.

David’s leadership, knowledge and commitment to social justice and to the Quaker testimonies have had a great impact on SFS. His service as Clerk of the Upper School Quaker Life Committee has supported the Quaker mission of the School and added depth to the service program by directly connecting it to core Friends testimonies. As Clerk, David encouraged a variety of initiatives in collaboration with the US Diversity Office and several student clubs. Some of these initiatives include: Let Your Life Speak Luncheon Speaker Series, Social Justice Town Hall Meetings, All-SFS Community Meetings for Worship and alumni speakers for Let Your Life Speak Day.

David also taught Peacemakers of the Twentieth Century, a course that focused on conflict resolution, social justice and service. The course studied these three subjects through an examination of the work of several individuals and their nonviolent movements. The course included a study of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., The Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa of Calcutta among others, focusing on the philosophy of nonviolent social action that these people pursued, the challenges they faced and their work and accomplishments.

In addition to this historical survey, students also studied techniques of conflict resolution and internal awareness and peacemaking. Students gained an understanding of how they deal with conflict in their lives, and they learned a variety of techniques that can help them cultivate internal awareness and peace.

All of David’s work has helped students as well as all members of the SFS community “let their lives speak” and live out Quaker values and testimonies. Through the service learning program they have developed skills to be active citizens and change agents that will help them continue to contribute to their communities and to the world.