Delivered at the June 7, 2019 State of the School and Final Parents' Association Meeting
EMPOWERMENT and LIBERATION
This is the year that I joined your ranks as a parent. A large part of this year has been about the juxtaposition of working with adolescents and teachers here at MCS and then going home to sing the ABC song and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” because Zora’s face lights up and she sometimes says in her lispy, one-year-old voice “eieio.” Here we talk about big ideas like climate change and identity, and at home I get teary-eyed every time I read Guess How Much I Love You. Here the students are finding their voice to become the sophisticated, nuanced, politically minded 8th graders who are almost ready to graduate, and at home I celebrate small milestones like climbing up on the couch or growing a new tooth. And yet, of course, it’s all part of the same process.
When I think of Ana Maria Archila talking about parenting for freedom at Big Night Out! I understand that that process begins when children are very young and just beginning to learn about the world and continues long after they leave MCS to grow into adults who feel empowered to help create the world they want to see. This engagement in the world as activists and participants in a democratic society is fostered here at MCS. In the Upper School, we have had three speakers this year who helped shape the learning and dialogue around education, empowerment, and liberation.
The first speaker was Zakiyah Ansari from the Alliance for Quality Education, who came to kick off the Black Lives Matter Week of Action by talking with the students about her work fighting to increase access to high quality education for all students. She showed the students a graphic depicting three versions of people behind a fence at a baseball game that served as a metaphor for equality, equity, and liberation. She explained that the person who couldn’t see over the fence was because “Poverty, society, and systemic racism put you in a hole” and that “With liberation, there are no fences.” She frequently lobbies government officials to argue for equity in government spending on education, yet observed, “Our elected officials don’t believe in liberation. We struggle to get them to believe in equity.”
A student commenting during the discussion sharply observed why the battle is so challenging: “The one who has the most crates is going to keep getting crates because they want more. [The people in the hole] are going to have to work harder because they have to spend money [to get ahead]. But [the people who have more crates] are going to keep getting more crates. They don’t want to give up power.” Zakiyah agreed that it can be discouraging when it takes so long to create change, but also said that she is hopeful. “I believe in liberation. You have to believe. There are so many obstacles, so many things that we learn that say we can’t get there. I believe it in my core. I believe it for my grandchildren. I genuinely believe it.”
One of the first parts of fighting for liberation is defining the issues and recognizing your personal connection to them. In the classroom, teachers often use literature as the inspiration for students to explore and connect to their identities. This year, the 5th graders read Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai and then wrote poems reflecting on a theme from the book and connecting it to their personal identity. One student wrote:
I don’t want
a girl uniform
Let [*] wear whichever she wants
So I wore
Took it to another
BUT there were
Another aspect of helping students find their voice is asking them to understand their position in the world and how it relates to others. The 5th graders spent some time defining privilege: “A privilege is something that you can waste and you don’t have to think about running out or not having enough. A privilege can also be something that not everyone has.” “I would define privilege as a thing that you do without thinking about it.” Awareness of privilege is the foundation of working toward equity.
Individual awareness leads to group action. In the 6th grade, students study the organization of social movements and learn about how people have come together over the course of history to fight for a vision of a more equitable world. As part of their Civil Rights Movement study, they wrote about the most important elements of an effective social movement.
Arguably the most important part of a social movement is organization. If social movements didn’t have organization, nothing would ever get done! They wouldn’t be able to plan protests, march, make speeches, anything. Imagine the Civil Rights Movement without Martin Luther King! If there hadn’t been a leader, the Civil Rights Movement might not have succeeded.
An important factor in social movements is the committed leaders…. Another important factor that makes social movements are the persistent protesters. Throughout history protesters have been discriminated against for speaking their minds. They stand for what they believe is a right…. Persistent protesters are people who will not give up on what they believe and will stand for the rights for all people on their cause. The last factor that makes a social movement is the fearless marchers. The marchers have been prejudiced against but they continue to stand and fight for their rights and beliefs…. Fearless marchers are people who will risk their lives for their freedom by any means necessary.
One of the most important things to have a great strong social movement is people of different races, genders, and sexualities…in order to make sure is it all different types of people who are faced with this issue. We're going to need people who are black, white, men, women, elders, children, straight people, gay people, people who are Hispanic people, who are Native American people, who all look different and have different traits… but these different types of people are faced with exact same issue. It also proves that you don't have to be the cause to support the cause.
The 6th graders end the year by writing a research paper on a social movement of their choice. They learn about the architecture of movements by studying one in depth. This student chose to write about body positivity and the impact of media and marketing on body image:
All girls in the world have faced some sort of challenge throughout their life. Whether it be about sexism, their body, or something else, it's all important. We can't let what is being said in society make us feel less or worse about ourselves. We are all strong and will keep fighting until any girl of any size can be loved because beauty comes from within and everyone is beautiful, inside and out. Being a girl in today's society is very hard. You have to face a lot of challenges. But it's also an honor. We get to be strong, independent women who don't care if they aren't as skinny as another. Who don't care if they aren't pretty enough. The thing that we care about is ourselves, and it may be hard but we can learn to love ourselves just the way we are. We don't need to have surgeries to be pretty. You just have to look within.
The second speaker, who also came during Black Lives Matter Week of Action, was Ana Maria Archila from the Center for Popular Democracy. She told us her story of confronting Senator Flake in the elevator to urge him not to confirm Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Ana Maria and her fellow protester Maria Gallagher shared stories of their own survival of sexual assault to help Flake understand that there must be further investigation into Kavanaugh. Her talk was a moving example of how to fight to be heard and how to feel empowered as an activist to tell the most important stories.
The theme of her talk was that “Every single person has a powerful story that is both of struggle and aspiration as we try to realize ourselves.” She went on to say, “That is the essence of our fight for justice. In order to build the country of our dreams we have to look at each other. We have to see the experience of someone different from us and see their aspirations…” Ana Maria championed the role of the everyday person in fighting for justice. “I was a regular human demanding that a person in power listen. That thing all of us can do and all of us must do. Without all of us leaning in, we can’t make our democracy work…. I wish I had said he had a moral decision to make. But it’s ok. Interactions don’t have to be perfect. Speak your truth. That’s what makes it powerful and beautiful.” She also spoke about the importance of finding her community, people who shared her identities, so that she felt empowered to speak. “In community we feed each other’s fire and in community we feed each other’s voice. That’s why it’s so powerful that you are a community here.”
The MCS community is also built on shared stories and identities, a theme interwoven into the curriculum. In Spanish class, the 7th graders write identity poems after reading “Caribe en Nueva York” by Nathalie Handal. One student wrote:
No soy corto de espíritu.
Mi alma es ardiente, como un volcán en erupción.
Deberías tomarme en serio, porque mientras mi exterior es pequeño, mi interior es grande.
I'm not short on spirit.
My soul is hot, like a volcano erupting.
You should take me seriously, because while my exterior is small, my interior is big.
No soy rica, ni pobre
No soy femenina, ni masculina
No soy los ideales de la sociedad.
Soy insertable a la musica
Soy la definición de indecisa.
Soy una chica negra que vive en un mundo de hombres blancos.
Y bajo todas estas etiquetas, soy solo yo
Una chica tratando de encontrar su lugar en el mundo.
I am not rich, nor poor
I am not feminine, nor masculine
I am not the ideals of society.
I'm plugged into music
I am the definition of indecisive.
I am a black girl who lives in a world of white men.
And under all these labels, I'm just me
A girl trying to find her place in the world.
Eighth grade students also connected to their identities in their speeches for the Martin Luther King, Jr. March. They drew from their personal experiences to help the audience connect to their issue of choice.
One student wrote about the immigration crisis in Europe:
I was only seven years old when I walked towards the exit of the Milano Centrale station in Milan, Italy. I looked around and everywhere I could only see African immigrants slumped against the walls; people without food, water and clean clothing. But the most noticeable thing was the difference in skin color. At the time I didn’t understand what was going on; I only saw poor people, not immigrants who have sacrificed everything they owned for a chance in a new country and a new life. As I grew up, I started to understand the significance of this immigration crisis occurring in Europe. In 2015, a BBC study said the number of immigrants in Europe in was 1,015,078.
Another student wrote about colorism, grounding her speech in her own experiences with discrimination.
When I was in second grade all the way to fifth grade, I was ashamed of my dark skin. I didn’t like being as dark as I was, and I felt like I was bad because of it. However, I didn't just wake up one day and complain about my complexion. I was constantly made fun of and called terrible names because I was of a little bit darker skin tone than the other kids in my class. Even as a young child, I knew that I was going to be treated differently because of how I looked.
It is a common stereotype that black girls are “loud”, “impulsive” and “ugly,” so when you add dark skin on top of that, it seems to be even more true. We are impulsive when we decide to stand up for ourselves. We are not allowed to talk because the second we say something that is true, or that someone else doesn't agree with, we are attacking them. We are loud because we want to share our ideas, but every chance we get we are somehow shut down. We are ugly because that is simply what the world has made us to believe. People believe these stereotypes because those in power present them as true. Colorism started as a tool of white supremacy but worked so effectively that many in the black community have internalized these feelings so that they too believe light skin is somehow better.
No matter what, I know that as a dark-skinned black girl, I am going to have to deal with these stereotypes for the rest of my life. Is it fair? No. Is it the type of world we live in? Yes.
The power of students’ writing often comes from the intersection of their research and knowledge with their connection to personal experience. This 8th grader wrote her research paper on the history of queer identity and how it has been shaped by oppression over time.
Throughout history, queer people have existed in the dark corners of the colonizer’s narrative. The ideas introduced by genocidal, mentally ill, biased, closeted colonizers still shape how people view queerness to this day. Queerness has thrived since the beginning of time. Many cultures celebrated queer identities as essential parts of their traditions and everyday life. For years, the history of queer people has been obscured because of the biased perspectives society has internalized. These perspectives have shaped the way society views and treats queer people.
She went on to explain how a history of biased, repressive views toward queer people and the erasure of queer history have created divisions among the queer community, arguing that we must learn about this history to begin to heal these divisions.
Another part of students’ identity at MCS is the Farm. Several eighth graders read pieces about the Farm to talk about their identity as part of their portfolio presentations this week, underscoring the essential role of the Farm in their development.
“The Farm influences all students at MCS by showing them the source of things – where our food comes from, where our water comes from – it has been transformative.”
“Going to the Farm since you’re 7 or 8, it really becomes a part of you and your identity. When I talk about MCS, I always talk about the Farm and how fun it is and how it becomes a part of you. It’s the one time you’re away from school and everyone and you can really get to know people.”
“Anyone who goes to the Farm really should feel lucky when they go there. It’s unlike anything else.”
As 7th and 8th graders, their memories of their first experiences at the Farm are still crystal clear:
When I walk out into large, grassy field, I see the moon shining brightly in the sky. I look down onto the field and see a cluster of colors that, as I walk closer, I realize are the heavy winter jackets that my classmates are wearing. We have to almost double our weight, bundling ourselves up so much because it was so cold and wet outside. My rain boots make a sloshing sound as I step in the cold, wet grass, and I quickly descend into the crowd of excited people waiting to play their first game. As the last group of people runs down to us, we start getting ready to play.
This student shared the joy of playing Sharks and Minnows again on their 8th grade trip, just as they had during their first trip in the 7-8s.
The 7th and 8th grade activism project is an another example of students using their stories and their identity to speak up about issues they care about. This year they joined other empowered young people fighting for climate change, such as Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old who sparked a movement with her weekly school strike for the climate. In support of the Green New Deal, students went to protests, lobbied elected officials, and wrote letters to the editor.
I am a 13-year-old white boy living in New York City. Every day I live in this beautiful world, I hear a new story about climate change. As I understand more I’ve started to see the impacts of this problem. Living in New York is difficult for many reasons, but one of the most disturbing ones is the amount of pollution in the city. Because of my privilege I don’t experience the grave effects of pollution, but areas like the Bronx and places near the airport suffer the dangerous conditions. And soon enough, in 12 years, the “change” in the world won’t be stopped.
… We should also reckon with the fact that there can’t be environmental equality without addressing economic justice; we all deserve to live, to breath clean air, have equal access to renewable energy, and be able to live a peaceful life without disease and pollution. I strongly urge you to support the Green New Deal for the sake of all of humankind: adults, children, and all generations that will come after us.
I am a fourteen year old. I want the opportunity to grow into an adult and be able to live my life free of constant fear that climate change is ending my world. I don't want my children and grandchildren to grow up on a disintegrating planet. I don't know all the logistics of the Green New Deal. I don't know if all the math checks out, but I do know that the rate in which we are burning through our resources and emitting carbon into the atmosphere is unsustainable and will be incompatible with human life in the very near future. We need our government to do something big, and do it quickly, if we are going to save this planet before it is too late. We need something to hold our leaders accountable for corrupting our democracy by taking money from fossil fuel companies. We need something to let our country know that the government takes this issue seriously and recognizes the catastrophic consequences that doing nothing will have. The people of our generation see this problem. We care about this problem. It may be in the hands of our leaders to take legislative action, but we’re going to force their hand. We are here today because climate change is no longer an issue that we need to address to save the future citizens of the planet; it is an issue that we need to address to save ourselves.
The third speaker was Asha Avery, an MCS alum from the Class of 2015. She spoke with the 7th and 8th graders about her experience in high school as an activist for racial equity. Following are some excerpts from her talk:
MCS taught me that you have to understand the root of problems to understand what’s happening
At my high school, we never talked about Selma, lynchings, or the Irish civil war. Then in advisory they would tell us, “Don’t be racist,” but they never explained where racism comes from. And you need that to change things.
It’s not about being a voice of authority; it’s about being the voice of morality. It’s not just about leading sit-ins and writing an article (both of which Asha did), but sometimes just speaking up to say things are overtly wrong. I felt very empowered to do at least that, even when teachers didn’t agree.
It’s really about the information and the facts that shape what people think…asking what is our community like that people feel empowered to do these things?
It was powerful for the students to hear about how an individual speaks up to people in power in an effort to fight injustice in a real-life context, especially as they are getting ready to attend and apply to high school. Asha ended by telling the students that they probably wouldn’t be able to appreciate MCS until they leave it, but also that they have to leave “to become people.”
I’ve done a lot of growth that I wouldn’t have had to do if I had stayed at MCS. You are much smarter than people will believe that you are. I’m always hearing that freshman or sophomores are too young to have these conversations. You’re lucky to have had these conversations at such a young age and to have been having them for a long time. Trust yourselves. You are intelligent. You are prepared. You do know things. Remember that.
I’ll end with a coda. The students are writing essays and speeches, but they also do so many creative projects and problem solving. Eighth graders did culminating projects for the Social Justice Data Fair ranging from period poverty to environmental racism to gender and sexuality representation in politics. In eighth grade science seminar, they learned to code Lego Mindstorm robots. At the portfolio panels, several students chose their robot as one of the assignments that made them most proud. One talked about their experience learning how to work more effectively in a small group “because that’s theme of MCS – I may never build a robot again but I’m going to have to work with others,” as well as the challenge of the coding itself. Any time we teach students a new language we are granting them access.
Watch a sample of the students’ work below.
Thank you for another amazing year in the Upper School.