On October 20, 2017, a group of Fenn faculty and staff attended the Annual Diversity Conference offered by the Association of Independent Schools in New England (AISNE). Entitled “From the Global to the Local,” the conference assembled an audience of people invested in creating and sustaining diverse, inclusive, and equitable communities within independent schools. During the opening ceremony, The Fenn School was recognized for working diligently at institutionalizing diversity and for its upcoming hosting of AISNE’s Middle School Student Diversity Conference on November 18.
Nontombi Naomi Tutu, race and gender justice activist and daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, delivered a powerful opening keynote address titled "Truth and Reconciliation: Healing Wounds." More than 10 diverse breakout sessions followed, including a workshop by Fenn educator John Sharon on “The Intersectionality of Disability and Identity Formation.” Sharon’s workshop explored identity through the lens of disability by examining issues such as implicit bias, ability privilege and ableism. It also shared practical tools and suggestions that would enable diversity practitioners to help others overcome these challenges.
Adam Foss, Former Assistant District Attorney in Boston and fierce advocate for the role of the prosecutor in ending mass incarceration, delivered the afternoon keynote address. The conference closed with a screening and discussion of Fox Searchlight Pictures’ highly-acclaimed film “STEP.” A documentary chronicling the senior year of a girls’ high school step dance team from inner-city Baltimore, “STEP” earned the 2017 Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award for Inspirational Filmmaking and the American Film Institute’s Audience Award for Best Feature.
Conference observations from Fenn faculty and staff included:
Tete Cobblah, Director of Diversity and Fine Arts Coordinator - Apart from the insightful and always refreshing workshops, I was struck by the question of privilege and the role that fate or destiny may play in our circumstances as human beings. Adam Foss emphasized the transformative and seemingly awe-inspiring roles that teachers and educators have to manage the path for children to a successful and productive end. His challenge to us to know our students and their backgrounds, to affirm their identities and life circumstances, and to give them tools to succeed as confident and responsible students, was profoundly moving and weighty. The more I attend these conferences, the more I remain convinced that it takes a special person to become a teacher and that our roles to reshape this world lie often in our goodwill and need to mend.
Jennifer Youk See, Assistant Director of Diversity - Naomi Tutu’s keynote address described the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa and the lessons that could be gleaned from the process that the South African people went through on their way to a democracy. While describing the process, Naomi highlighted the importance of truth telling and everyone being aware of what was going on in the hearings; they were a part of everyday dialogue. She reflected on the fact that when we say with certainty, "I can never be that person," we are most in danger of being that person. Rising out of everything was an importance of seeing all sides of history - "We cannot, as South Africans, claim to be the country of Nelson Mandela without claiming that we are also the country of Eugene DeKock." We cannot pick and choose our story/history.
One workshop that I attended discussed racial trauma and how living in a racist society is violent and has a physical impact on the body. The presenter, Dr. Aaliyah El-Amin, discussed the psychological and physical effects of trauma, highlighting the unseen experience that many of our students of color face on a daily basis. She spoke about how we, as educators, could be attentive to it, and what we might be able to do to promote healing within our students. We discussed how to frame teachable moments and noted that we cannot engage in these conversations without backlash if folks in the conversation are not adequately informed or educated.
John Sharon, Chair of Social Studies Department - Naomi Tutu was challenging and inspiring all at once. Her personal stories about forgiveness, coupled with her emphasis on the fact that all of us are capable of perpetrating evil against our fellow human beings, gave me a renewed commitment to the important work of diversity. To quote GK Chesterton, “What’s wrong with the world? I am.” And what’s the solution to what’s wrong with the world? I am.
I was also struck by the fact that, in light of recent events in Charlottesville and elsewhere, we need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in our country too. We need to find a way to face our past head on, to give ourselves permission to love those who are different from ourselves, and to find common ground.
Bouchra Danielkebir, Diversity and Teaching Intern - Having attended a few AISNE conferences during my high school career, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed with the content of this diversity conference. Naomi Tutu shared her journey as a social justice advocate, and her message about challenging our students and nurturing critical consequences was profound. I wish the conference was longer or spanned a few days because there were so many interesting workshop options to choose from, all facilitated by renowned leaders in the field of education and education leadership. I was very humbled to share space with such a diverse group of educators, genuinely concerned with dismantling systems of oppression at their institutions, inciting change, and sustaining diversity. I loved it!
Rob Wasielewski, Assistant Director of Admissions - Naomi Tutu delivered a powerful keynote that challenged how we, as educators, teach history. Central to her argument was the idea that what we hide — in our curriculum and through our choice of texts to read and questions to ask — teaches students just as much, if not more, than what we explicitly teach. Too often we teach history, particularly U.S. history, as something to be proud of. We cannot pick and choose our history to simply tell nice stories, though, as this opens the door for us to return to a place of bigotry and racism.
Marilyn Schmalenberger, Admissions Assistant - A personal observer of the TRC process in South Africa due to kinship, Rev. Naomi Tutu shared lessons that she had learned:
- Evil and awesomeness are present in everyone
- You cannot choose your history or story
- What we teach about our story lays the foundation for whether we choose evil or awesomeness
Tutu’s most memorable quotes included:
“History is taught to teach us our past so we learn from our mistakes; the goal of learning history is NOT to teach us to be proud of our society/nation. If we view history as the latter, we lose the opportunity to change.”
“Be honest about where we are and how we got there; no reconciliation can occur unless we tell the truth.”
Adam Foss, a former assistant state prosecutor, shared his own personal story and how his work caused him to believe that we must start a new civil rights movement in which all races must find the truth in how race affects their culture, daily lives and wellbeing and then teach this to others (especially children). He advocates for a system of restorative justice rather than incarceration.
- “The White Privilege in Schools” workshop reflected on how teachers work to develop anti-racist classrooms. The group discussion raised an interesting question about what a school would look like if teachers let go of white privilege to become anti-racist versus using white privilege to become anti-racist.
- The Transgender workshop was led by two males who shared their own experience. Will Malloy, an 8thgrade student in a local private school, shared challenges he encountered during his transition. These included: the name change (i.e. selecting a new name of your own making/choosing as opposed to your birth name), learning to view and accept how others perceive your new gender, and managing feelings of isolation during the experience. He shared that connecting with other transgender people is vitally important in learning what to expect and in understanding how your life will change after the transition is completed. Will also related what measures he found particularly helpful and supportive from his school during his own experience:
- Acknowledging his new name and correct use of pronouns
- Having a fair and legal policy in place before having a transgender student, so that everyone knows how to deal with issues prior to there being a need. This relieves transgender students - who are already stressed from the transition - from taking on the burden of decisions like locker rooms, bathrooms, etc.
- Refraining from “outing” any students to anyone, including parents, other students or teachers, without the express permission of the student.
- Educating the community to prevent meanness or questioning caused by lack of understanding.