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School Opening Update -- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Free Union (7.30.20)

Friends,

“That’s not fair!” To anyone who has spent any amount of time with kids, there is perhaps no more familiar refrain. To the adults called upon to adjudicate the ever-growing list of these fairness violations, the acuity with which children spot such things can grow tiresome, so much so that we might even find ourselves employing a not-so-inspired axiom we once (maybe more) heard from our own parents and swore we'd never repeat ourselves: “Well, life isn’t fair.” Stepping back from that hackneyed wisdom, though, one can’t help but wonder whether this might be another of those opportunities for us grown-ups to learn something important from that fresh, unjaded, clear-eyed perspective of our children, in this case to continue noticing and protesting against unfairness instead of slowly acquiescing and resigning to life not being fair.

An updated mission for Free Union Country School drafted by our faculty and staff way back in 2019 commits our school community not only to cultivating curiosity and inspiring in each child a love of learning, but also just as important to understanding and pursuing fairness, practicing kindness, and equipping for solution-oriented citizenship. The consequences of unfairness evidenced by events and circumstances these last several months—including Black persons being killed or harmed just for being Black around the wrong non-Black person, as well as the disproportional health & economic impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color—cast a glaring light onto the importance of the fair, kind, and actively solution-oriented components of our school’s mission. Committed though we think of ourselves to fairness, kindness, and citizenship, though, the relative homogeneity and insularity of our school community could reasonably prompt the question, “should we not be doing more?”

Although these notions, concepts, and realities have become politicized, I will encourage and even challenge us all to rise above the caricatures that are today’s political versions of these issues, and to instead open our hearts, minds, and ears to learn about, teach, model, and practice the pursuit of fairness for all. The decks are indeed often stacked against black, indigenous, immigrants, and people of color; BIPOC are treated not just differently but often unfairly; and hard-working, ingenious, charismatic, loving, wonderful young people are hindered and harmed by systems, institutional practices, and people that are patently unfair. And while this could feel like a distant concern for our kind and amicable little community, I would argue that as a community of means and an independent school that by its very existence contributes in some ways to the systemic disparities that disproportionately impact certain communities, we are at once obligated in the interest of fairness to act against racism, and impoverished by any of our failures to do so.

Understanding racism is a personal journey for everyone, accelerated, delayed, or stunted by the color of one’s skin, the circumstances of one’s life, and one’s openness to processing complex, emotionally difficult, and maybe threatening phenomena. Most of us with lighter skin are born with a blindfold when it comes to these dynamics, and only through actively learning, listening, and joining in action can that blindfold be lifted. Those whose skin color or life circumstances provide no such blindfold have no choice but to encounter and navigate the sometimes insidious and other times bludgeoning impacts of racism. In my own experiences working in diverse communities, I have witnessed those impacts directly, in theaters, in stores, in otherwise ordinary conversations with white friends whose blindfolds were never lifted and whose speech not infrequently reflects their blindnesses, in housing opportunities, in access to food, on streets, in neighborhoods, and yes, in schools, too. It is most certainly real, and the lack of fairness can be utterly incapacitating.

Free Union Country School is on a journey of its own. Whether by virtue of geography, demography, or accessibility, there is considerable room for growth in our understanding and realization of racial diversity, equity, and inclusion. We do have blocks to build upon, including established recommendations from the school’s Diversity Committee; a committed, open-minded, cosmopolitan faculty who already work with the children on these issues and are eager to stride forward; a rich library collection that through intentional and intelligent effort spans a multicultural diaspora; and healthy working relationships with organizations in Charlottesville that work to counteract the impacts of racist systems, like the Barrett Learning Center and Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville.

Clearly, though, we can do more, we can learn more, we can listen more, we can grow more, we can model more, we can support more, we can join more. And for the sake of our children, for the sake of other people's children, for the sake of our society, and for the sake of our own betterment, I would argue we should. On the road ahead, we will encourage and facilitate a process of learning, listening, understanding, and acting. Together in the coming year, we will strive to advance our collective cultural competency, and a subset of us will evaluate all of the school’s policies, procedures, and publications to ensure they are welcoming and fair to anyone who might join our school. As we reflect and learn, and then take steps to remove barriers to more widespread access to our school community, not only are we living out our mission in a more authentic and complete way, but also we stand to offer all children in the Free Union Country School a better, richer, more representative education, and groom them to be able to apprehend the world not with blinders but in all its splendid and imperfect technicolor.

For those of you eager to start these conversations and efforts sooner than later but unsure where or how to start, we offer an incomplete but accessible list of resources below. Meanwhile, we look forward to the opportunities to explore, learn, discuss, and mobilize more in our classrooms in the context of each of our theme-based units in the coming school year, and to making these next important next steps together with you all.

Onward,
Eric

Resources

A couple of graphics for understanding some key terms and concepts we'll explore more this year:

Credit: Tony Ruth (Twitter @lunchbreath)

Some Books for Adults (which, should you choose, may be purchased at a black-owned bookstore)

Resources for sharing and talking with your kids:

Books:

Podcasts:

Articles:

Websites:

  • The 1619 Project, an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery, aiming to reframe this country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative
  • undefined, an initiative to nurture resilience in children of color; nurture inclusive, empathetic children of all stripes; raise kids who think critically about racial inequity; and support a movement of kid and adult racial justice advocates for all children
  • Project READY: Reimagining Equity & Access for Diverse Youth

Some resources for educators:

More anti-racism resources worth exploring