Lessons Learned in Atlanta | January 13, 2017

Lessons Learned in Atlanta

Last month I attended a conference in Atlanta with three other faculty and staff and six MBS students. On the first night, we all went out to dinner at a restaurant selected by Mr. Vassall. The restaurant, featuring authentic southern food, was packed with students from around the country. The mood was festive thanks, in large part, to a piano player who played a variety of songs, all of which were familiar to us. Taj, being Taj, made friends with the piano man, and then proceeded to get students from various tables to get up and sing a few numbers. Because it was Natalie Pruitt's birthday, the piano man and the entire room sang happy birthday to her as cake was brought out from the kitchen. It was a memorable and celebratory night and a perfect way to start the People of Color Conference. The PoCC is an annual conference that brings students and faculty together from across the country to learn and speak about equity, diversity, and social justice in independent schools. The next day we were to convene with over 5,000 students and teachers from across the country.

What I was reminded of at this conference is that despite differences in nationality, race, and religion, we all share similar stories of working to understand where we come from. I heard incredible speakers from a myriad of racial and national identities, all of whom spoke of struggling to find their identity and locate their home: Richard Blanco, the fifth inaugural poet in US history, born in Madrid to Cuban exiles and raised in Miami, John Palmer, Colgate University professor and author, born to Korean parents and adopted by a white family from the Midwest, and Panamanian-American writer Cristina Henriquez. All of them spoke of their journey to discover who they are and where they belong. I think that all of us-- no matter where we are from or how old we are--continually move through a similar process of identity and discovery.

Over the holidays, I was reminded of a story about identity told to me by a man who worked on building my house. His name is Rick Zamore. He is a tall man with blond hair and piercing blue eyes. He looks Swedish and, in fact, his ancestors are from Sweden.

Rick Zamore has an extended family and at a family gathering in North Carolina when he was coming of age, he was greatly bothered by his grandfather's discriminatory attitudes towards African Americans. Recently graduated from Middlesex School and destined for Harvard, Rick had a difficult time with his grandfather's narrow perspective and biased opinions, and he struggled with the idea that he was genetically connected with a patriarch who so violently opposed his own beliefs.

A few years later, the Zamores had another extended family gathering, this time in Sweden, and when Rick arrived, he wished his grandfather were alongside him. Half of his relatives looked a lot like Rick in terms of complexion, eye color, and hair color, but the other half of the family had dark skin, dark eyes, and dark hair. Rick was surprised to learn that he had a distant relative who had been a Moor and who had served in the French Court. Moors are Muslim inhabitants of North Africa, and often but not always of darker coloring. Within the French Court, this relative was called "Le Maure," which eventually evolved into the surname of Zamore when the family moved to Sweden. My friend Rick could not wait to tell his grandfather that he himself had North African blood in his veins. This experience helped Rick have a better sense of his own place in the world. It added another layer to his identity, and he heartily embraced his diverse family roots.

This is an example of diversity and understanding identity, but today I want emphasize the idea of equity rather than focus on diversity or equality. Diversity focuses on difference. It comes from Latin diverto which means to turn or go different ways, to separate or turn aside. Equality potentially aims at homogeneity. Instead, let us think about the need for equity. In recognizing the need for equity, we can celebrate difference while striving for fairness.

Let me give you an example of what I mean when I say "equity" rather than "equality." Imagine, for a moment, that a year from now Ryan Waters and I are going to have a swimming race. What is important in our training during this year is that we have equity in the racing conditions – the same access to a pool, the same coaches and trainers, the same training venues. This does not mean that, at the end of the year, we will be the same speed or be equal, but we will have had equitable conditions leading into the race.

The faculty has discussed this subject of equity and equality using Chimamanda Adichie's beautiful lecture called "The Danger of a Single Story" as a jumping off point. Adichie challenges our perceptions and assumptions about how we view each other. She argues that our perceptions are often based on a single aspect of our identity.

We quickly realized that it is easy for all of us to make assumptions about each other based on our race, our religion, our ethnicity, what town we come from, what sport we play, whether we are a thespian, an athlete or an artist, even what we look like or what school we attend.

So, we talk about equity, equality and inclusion because we have come to understand that when we move beyond those single stories or assumptions and get to know each other, we realize that we have much more in common than we know.

These are lessons that we all learned at the People of Color Conference last month, and for that, we are grateful.


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