Back when we were all together on campus I rejoiced at the beauty of our incredibly rich, diverse student body, families, faculty and staff. It warmed my heart. But then there is the outside world, and I would be missing the most obvious opportunity if I did not comment on the sad, frightening and disturbing place we find ourselves in as a nation right now. I feel compelled to reflect, acknowledge and with the help of others to offer at least some hope and a path forward for our students and community.
I was in New York City fewer than six weeks ago. It was a ghost town with empty streets, people wearing masks and keeping physical distance. That experience, so typical of the global COVID-19 pandemic has, as you know, shifted dramatically in just one week since George Floyd senselessly died, the latest victim in a long string of deaths of an unarmed black man or woman at the hands of the police.
Last night I watched with horror as demonstrators clashed with police all over the country. I paid particularly close attention as Union Square in Manhattan came into focus. It happens to be only a few blocks from my son Nicolas’ apartment. We all know the dreadfulness of what unfolded in Minneapolis – all eight minutes and forty-six seconds – to be the catalyst at the epicenter of the current national and global uproar. It escalated further and further over the weekend, and now has no end in sight.
COVID-19, astonishingly, has faded into the background as hundreds of thousands of people in 75+ major cities in the US are demonstrating, responding to and taking a stance against injustice, racism and inequality. Pent-up grief, frustration and anger are erupting. In just 1 week, empty streets have been replaced with protesters, police and the National Guard in full force, peaceful demonstrations, song, riots and looting, fires and destruction, violence, rubber bullets, pepper spray, curfews, and sheer madness.
Like you, I’ve watched the news and become beyond uneasy in my heart. I have looked into the eyes of my children with both sorrow and hope and, for brief moments, a sense of resignation and despair. I have turned to the elders in my circle of family and friends, as we ask ourselves, “What is next? Where will we go from here? What can we do to help?” I have seen worry and fear in my children’s eyes, and I know many of you have in yours. Monica and I are beyond relieved to have our children right here with us at home, and not out there on their own.
All parents have aspirations for their children. We want them to be safe and protected, and we want them to experience successful and happy lives. This takes me back to a powerful and eye-opening gathering more than twenty years ago at Collegiate School in New York City, a K-12 all-boys school. Parents engaged one another in conversation about aspirations as well as fears regarding their children. All parents had similar hopes and dreams. Yet Black parents’ fears were radically different, and not surprisingly included potentially scary encounters with police. There was fear their sons would be mistaken for a threat, harmed physically or worse simply going to and from school. Lessons of how to act if confronted were simply part of growing up.
On several occasions administrators from Collegiate had to go to the police station to verify that Black students picked up for truancy when public schools were in session were in fact part of our community and on vacation.
Likewise, rookie police officers at my previous school in West Hartford, Connecticut more than once confronted one of our African American students who might have had a practice or a game in the area. The officer questioned what the student was doing there, a place with relatively few people of color. The message was that the student did not fit in, belong or was welcome. I had a great relationship with the police chief who to his credit came to our school to personally apologize to our Black students.
As a biracial individual with a black father and white mother, having lived for many years in Germany and Denmark, married to an African American woman, trying to shield and protect our own children, I live and have lived race every day. It is indeed heartbreaking to witness the racial chaos we find ourselves in. Within our own diverse community, we want to acknowledge that some in our midst may be disproportionally more deeply affected or impacted given past experiences and history. I ask all of us to be mindful of how our students, families and colleagues process this trauma. It is our promise to be there, to embrace, to listen and to help healing begin.
I know we can all commit to providing spaces for kindness, silence and humanity. Our very vision, mission and core values are based on equity and justice, cultural and global competency, embracing diversity and inclusivity, the ability to hold multiple realities, kindness and personal growth. Our commitment to the United Nations’ 17 Global Sustainable Development Goals include reducing inequality and advocating for peace and justice-strong institutions. Thus, our very DNA at Whittle includes the desire to make our world more inclusive and fair.
I have great faith in our students and faculty. Their daily work promises a better future, new beginnings and a more just society. But there is a long road and hard work ahead of us. We can use our individual and collective power to do our part to disrupt racism, oppression, violence, and inequity in our own spheres of influence, as small or big as they may be. Here I share an interesting resource about Being Antiracist from the National Museum of African American History and Culture that may be helpful to many of us.
Saturday Space X astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on the Falcon 9 Rocket made history by heading out on the first US space voyage since 2011. Despite the momentous accomplishment the launch faded into the background, drowned out by the demonstrations and the pandemic. Unfortunately, the mass demonstrations will likely result in many more COVID-19 cases. Hurley and Behnken will spend up to 110 days in space before they return to earth. The irony that does not escape me is that Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are far, far away from the demonstrations and the global pandemic but may well be safer than any of us right now. We can only guess at what the world has in store for us when they return to earth in 110 days; what the astronauts will see, what the new normal will be. My hope is that the world will be a little better, a little safer, a little healthier and a place of slightly more justice.
In Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he states, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Let us do our part to help create justice everywhere.
Best wishes, with both sadness and hope,
Head of School