Celebrating Pride in an Unprecedented Year

By Jean-Robert Andre, Dean of Equity and Inclusion, and Susan Sterman-Jones, Theater

What does Pride look like when our city’s world-famous parade and celebrations can’t happen?  Students of the Middle School C.H.A.N.G.E group (Challenging Hate and Norms of Gender Expression) asked themselves that very question at this and last year’s Pride Chapels, held annually at the end of the year. There’s no doubt that these last two Pride months have been characteristically different from what we’re used to. Two years ago, New York hosted World Pride in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, and Grace Church School families and teachers marched in the parade for the 3rd year in a row. That summer, LGBTQ+ leaders and organizations made a concerted effort to remind us of the roots of the “modern gay rights movement” that Stonewall catalyzed: that the uprising was in response to police violence, and that transgender people of color led the resistance. Names like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson gained a well deserved spotlight for their contributions to ensuring that what would become the Christopher Street Liberation Day march represented the rainbow of identities that make up the LGBTQ+ community.  

Little did we know that these efforts around representation and uplifting voices of color would be central to the conversations we’d have in the summer of 2020 when demonstrations for racial justice and an end to police violence gained national attention. Embedded in the Movement for Black lives was the acknowledgment that black identities span all genders and sexualities, and that statistically the most vulnerable populations are Black and brown transgender folks. June of last year saw thousands show up to the first Brooklyn Liberation March for Black Trans Lives, and instead of a traditional pride march on the last Sunday in June, people from all over New York masked up and took to the streets for the Queer Liberation March in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. The victims of transphobia, homophobia, and racism were honored alongside the unsung heroes of the LGBTQ+ movement.

As our school year and hybrid classes began in the fall amidst these national conversations, students and faculty, including members of C.H.A.N.G.E, recognized the increased importance of community, and the continued need to make our school a more inclusive place for all. Our little club had work to do! Our Pride Chapel theme this year was “We’re Still Here!” and in it, we highlighted the many ways C.H.A.N.G.E continued its work within the middle school despite the challenges of the year.  

C.H.A.N.G.E selling masks in support of GMHC (img. source: Ms. Capelle-Burny)
  • We still held weekly meetings on Zoom and, sometimes, in person.
  • We held our annual Ally Week fundraiser selling Rainbow Griffin masks in the play yard.  Proceeds went to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, as comparisons between the trajectory of the Coronavirus treatment and that of the AIDS epidemic sparked important discussion.
  • We attended a virtual meet and greet sponsored by the Trinity School MS Gender and Sexuality Alliance to connect Middle School GSAs across the city, and met others doing similar work in their institutions.
  • We organized our annual LGBT Center visit which was virtual for the second year in a row, with Youth Services Coordinator, Joanna McClintick, teaching us about the history of the building and her work with LGBTQ+ young people.
  • We hosted Anastasia Higginbotham, author of What You Don’t Know: A Story of Liberated Childhood, to talk about what it means to feel supported and affirmed in your identities and did a workshop around collaging based on the illustrations in her book.
A student poses with a collage made during Anastasia Higginbotham’s visit (img. source: Ms. Sterman-Jones)

In addition to these wonderful projects, this year also meant the return of our biennial Visibility Photography Exhibit. Over the history of the four exhibits we’ve put together, we’ve experimented with different ways to educate the Grace Community in addition to celebrating the LGBTQ+ loved ones with which our families and staff choose to submit pictures. In 2016, we had a concurrent display next to the photo exhibit paralleling the history of Grace Church School with the history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. The next year we asked community members to submit photos of changemakers in their lives or the broader movement that they knew. Throughout that year’s exhibit, we interspersed photos of activists, organizers, and influential queer people who’ve made a difference in their communities. We knew we would have to hold this year’s exhibit virtually, so we thought long and hard about how to engage our school community over zoom, and lucky for us, a family connection gave us a great idea! Jennifer Baumgardner, middle school parent and publisher, connected us to Rachel Aimee, the Executive Director of Drag Queen Story Hour, an organization that celebrates reading through the glamorous art of drag and that creates diverse, accessible, and culturally inclusive family programming where kids can express their authentic selves. Grace parents, teachers, and students were treated to a digital version of the photo exhibit, with a soundtrack provided by our very own vocalist, Andrew Leonard. We were then joined by Rachel, Mor Erlich and drag queen Cholula Lemon, to talk about their organization. Cholula  and led the audience in a read aloud, and fun and, child-centered activities of coming up with our own drag names, before reading a picture book about acceptance.

The 2018 Visibility Exhibit

We’re incredibly proud of the impact C.H.A.N.G.E and our high school counterpart, Spectrum, have had on the Grace Church School community since their respective inceptions, and we also recognize that there’s always more work to be done. 2021 saw a record number of anti-transgender bills, most directly impacting students and young people, limiting access to services like health care and athletic programs. As students of C.H.A.N.G.E and Grace Church School stated during Pride Chapel, “we are still fighting for full acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as racial and gender equality, access to good healthcare for all and improved public education so that we may see an end to poverty and homelessness in our future.” We are committing to social justice and equality for all. What will you commit to this Pride Month and beyond?

Black History is American History

The accomplishments, impact and influence of African Americans are at the foundation of many of our country’s pivotal historical moments. Though Black History Month provides a venue for us to highlight Black history, it’s crucial that we continue to learn about and celebrate it. Afterall, Black history is American history.

Below, read the perspectives of several Grace teachers on why it’s important to learn about and teach Black history year-round, and how they continue to integrate it into their courses:

Andrew Leonard, Performing Arts:
For the Vocal Music program, teaching Black History through music is essential. I make it a point to start off Beginning Vocals in the 9th grade every year explaining that pretty much all music we listen to today can be traced back to the influence of enslaved African-Americans. All American musical artforms- Jazz, Blues, Musical Theatre, Rock, Pop, Hip-Hop, R&B, Country, etc. are direct descendants of Black culture and music. While this may seem like a hefty and overarching statement, it’s the truth. If you look only at the scales and rhythms used you will find this to be true. 

Therefore, it’s imperative that our Vocal Music students are not only aware of this- but they must learn it, honor it, and practice it from the beginning of their vocal studies at Grace. This plays a part in GraceNotes directly. I have made it a priority to make sure that there is a diverse body of repertoire that we learn and perform in GraceNotes. Some choral programs only focus on what some refer to as “the dead white guys”- aka classical music. While these composers are important to learn, if you are to only stop there, then you will miss the mark of being a truly well rounded and successful musician. Singing music from cultures from all over the world is a way in which GraceNotes practices antiracism daily. Also, allowing GraceNotes to dive deep into the world of spirituals, gospel music, and other forms of choral music that are traditional specifically to America, forces the students to gain a level of respect and understanding that would not otherwise be achieved. This is but only one way in which the Vocal Music program teaches and uplifts Black History all days of year, not just in February. 

Enkay Iguh, Literature
A. As a person who deals in stories—telling them, writing them, and teaching them—I am always aware of the power of narrative. It is how we pass on our cultural values, it helps us define ourselves, and ultimately the stories we hear, especially as children, shape our imagination and what that imagination creates. 

B.As a Black woman, I am also aware of the narratives about blackness, and especially Black woman-ness. These narratives are often dehumanizing, and to encounter them as a student was painful and confusing. What’s more, I wasn’t presented with the framework, the language to understand all that was messaged to me. Yet those messages shaped me.  

If A and B are true, then it is incumbent upon me as a teacher to equip my students with the tools to dissect narratives and contextualize them. What’s more, I must combat the harmful narratives and encourage positive identity formation, especially for my Black students. I teach Black history and life affirming Black stories year round in order to give my students what I never received in high school: tools with which to think critically about the stories we tell, especially regarding race. It is a daily practice and it guides my methodology. Black history is American history, and that’s a truth every student deserves to learn.

Mark Weinsier, History:
I teach the students with whom I’m fortunate enough to work at Grace that they each have a valuable voice that deserves to be affirmed and centered. And I stress to them that they can learn to navigate power structures and be active agents of the change they wish to see in the world.  But it was my own unlearning and relearning of Black History that helped crystallize these truths for me.

Several years ago, in a moment of clarity – and to my great mortification and horror — I realized that my discussions of Reconstruction entirely lacked Black voices and agency. I honestly can’t remember what prompted this revelation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” which landed with this white teacher in a predominantly white institution, for one, like a thunderclap and has become the single-most revisited reference point for me in both my teaching and ongoing learning. 

The more I read, the more I learned – and, in retrospect, wanted to apologize to all of the students who went through my classes as I began teaching them at Grace 19 years ago to whom I may have unconsciously done harm. Because I realized that, for longer than I care to remember, I had inadvertently taught Black History as I had myself learned it growing up in my hometown of Plantation, Florida (incorporated in 1953, which only makes its naming differently execrable): a trauma-focused distortion of the human experience in which people were acted upon rather than having the agency to dream and laugh and love and act to shape the world into the one they wished to see for themselves, their families, and their loved ones. But now I know better. I will never go back.

Now, as GCS students hope for the promise of vaccines while navigating these turbulent times on computers and microphones, they can say they have the genius of Onesimus, Dr. Mark Dean, and Dr. James West to thank. Katherine Johnson and Dr. Mae Jemison show them how to reach for – and get to — the stars. The Divine Nine and Victor Hugo Green lead by example in teaching them how to have mutual networks of support and oases of peace and dignity. The True Reformers and Maggie Walker demonstrate how to create structures out of whole cloth when unjustly denied access. Mary McLeod Bethune and the organizers of the Montgomery Bus Boycott lead by example in how to wield economic power to fight injustice. The Pullman Porters, The Chicago Defender, and the Freedom Riders teach lessons in how to use media to bring about change. While Madam C.J. Walker and Jay-Z show how to start a business with two dollars and a dream and to build generational wealth, Kehinde Wiley and filmmaker Stanley Nelson mentor them in challenging representation. Fred Hampton’s First Rainbow Coalition and the recent #TimesUp Movement demonstrate by example how to build coalitions. And the allyship of Theodore Sedgwick to Elizabeth Freeman in suing for her freedom, of Catholic sisters of the Order of St. Joseph to Black students in desegregating independent schools in Florida, and of Brad Lomax and the Black Panthers to disability rights activists that helped bring about the Americans with Disabilities Act encourage the eighth graders – and us all – to get into what late Congressman John Lewis called “good trouble.” Because, in bending that arc of the moral universe towards justice, each of us has a role to play.

My unlearning and relearning of Black History prompted me to reexamine my entire curriculum through other lenses. I am now constantly looking out for and incorporating other stories and voices that were hidden to me in my own education – and, consequently, that I have inadvertently hidden from my students, from gender-binary-shattering Public Universal Friend to agricultural pioneer Ah Bing to Muslim founding father Yarrow Mamout to Sikh railroad builders in Oregon.

As James Baldwin once wrote in his “A Talk to Teachers,” “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”  I’m committed to continuing to learn and teach an ever broader range of histories that speaks to the full spectrum of the human experience and to the power of human agency. And I will continue to lift up and center Black voices – as well as the many others that were hidden to me growing up – every single month of the year.

From Chelsea Flores, Early Childhood:
In Early Childhood, one might call our “unofficial” overarching curriculum, “How to be The Best You.” This curriculum consists of daily lessons on how to listen to each other, ask questions when we’re uncertain, and stand up for those who need help. The opportunities for children to unconditionally celebrate both themselves and one another are numerous in Early Childhood. One such opportunity for students is through telling stories from both around the classroom and around the world.

In First Grade, the “Around the World” social studies curriculum serves as a medium to impart upon students how the similarities and differences of people, which are central elements of an enriching community, should be celebrated. First and foremost, we want our youngest learners to see themselves and their peers in a positive and affirming light. We want them to be able to pick up books and regularly see different aspects of themselves in the stories they read. We also want them to engage with experiences and identities that differ from their own, gaining new perspectives both in the classroom and their surrounding environment. We call these mirrors and windows.

One of our biggest goals is to encourage students to challenge stereotypes and misinformation, right from the start. If we are truly to love and understand ourselves and our neighbors, then we must first learn to listen and appreciate one another. This is why listening to and learning from Black voices and experiences is not just important in February, but all year-round. In many ways, de-centering the white narrative and spotlighting Black history is an opportunity to reflect, learn, appreciate, and uplift our communities to include the multiple, often untold stories. After all, Black history is world history.

From Toby Nathan, History
We teach and learn Black histories at Grace for the same reasons that Dr. Carter Woodson built the field of Black studies a century ago: because Black histories are an affirmation of Black life and identity, and the process of illuminating, teaching, and learning Black histories is a necessary and joyful act that is as much about our present as it is about the past.  

In conceiving of “Negro History Week,” Woodson identified a need to focus and fix our attention on the histories of Black people that had been, to employ the framing of Haitian scholar Michel-Rolphe Trouillot, “silenced” by generations of white historians. Indeed, Woodson feared that Black Americans had been rendered a people with “no history…no worthwhile traditions,” and that liberation would be found in unsilencing, illuminating, and amplifying Black histories.  

His aim was never to silo Black history to a week or a month; quite the opposite. Woodson’s work, and the work of generations of scholars since, was to center Black histories. In fact, Professor LaGarrett King points out that Carter Woodson intended “Negro History Week” to celebrate a year of learning Black histories. Woodson and his contemporaries in the ferment of the Harlem Renaissance affirmed that scholarship and study were vital components of what Alain Locke called a “spiritual emancipation” for Black Americans. 

These ideas are at the forefront of my mind because students in my course, “African American History since 1920,” are currently working to understand the contours of the “New Negro Movement,” and many are also enrolled in Kallan Wood’s “The Harlem Renaissance & Its Legacy” course in the literature department. Ms. Wood and I continue to work collaboratively on these courses, so that students can engage with Black stories and Black life across disciplines and without the limitations of any one method.  

Black histories are foundational to the 10th grade “History of the Americas” course, which I teach along with my colleagues, Jaliz Albanese and Jason McDonald. History of the Americas is organized around a decolonial framework, one that explores the interconnected histories of North America, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, and does so by deliberately centering the perspectives of African-descended and Indigenous peoples across the Americas. Our teaching and learning of Black histories is, and must be, diasporic in scope, both hemispheric and trans-Atlantic, and the “Americas” curriculum for History and Literature enables students to see African diasporic continuities fragmented by colonialism, and bring these to the present. In this course, we work to teach Black histories as histories of liberation and self-determination, Black histories that are joyful, powerful, and complex. 

Our work over the years to strengthen our teaching of Black histories at Grace has yielded significant and ongoing growth in our courses and pedagogy, but has been marked  by mistakes and missteps, including my own, that must be acknowledged. As a white teacher of Black histories, I have too often failed to recognize the ways that my identity and positionality – my relationship to these histories – were making it easy for me not to see the ways in which Black students and other students of color were experiencing materials we were reading or activities in the classroom. As a teacher, my work calls me to acknowledge these failures and to deliberately be a better educator and historian, to center and care for them in all aspects of my teaching life.  Departmentally, we continue to review and strengthen the skills we need to effectively teach Black histories and the histories of other historically marginalized people, because we know that our teaching must overturn and dismantle the power dynamics of the past.  

We learn and teach Black histories both because these stories are central to our shared history, and because Black histories are their own vital stories, which themselves demand our attention and scholarship as students and faculty.  

To adapt Arturo Schomburg’s framing of Black history, we must now all remake our past in order to make our future. We must teach Black histories all year, every year, because history is identity. It tells us who we are, and also shapes who we want to be. Bringing about a just future requires us to do justice to our past.  

Selected Texts for African American History Since 1920 (so far):

Selected Texts for History of the Americas 

Kallan K. Wood, Literature:
Black History Month, as Dr. Nathan has shared, was never about confinement. Black History Month and Black history is about amplifying, elevating and expanding, not restricting and contorting into small spaces. The idea of amplifying, expanding and working to take up space is at the heart of each literature course I teach.

This semester in Harlem Renaissance & Its Legacy, a literature course for 11th and 12th grade students, I have focused on the idea of expansion and amplification of the individual voice, the individual writer and the individual character. Black Studies (no matter what the academic discipline), Black people and Black experiences are not a monolith, and much of what we do has to be to constantly push against that impulse. 

In the first half of the course we have studied an array of poets from a collection called Caroling Dusk, edited by Countee Cullen in 1927. In the foreword Cullen underscores this tension between the compulsion to see Black writers and Black Americans as one singular experience and the urgency to not erase the individual and their contributions. Cullen writes,  

“I have called this collection an anthology of verse by Negro poets rather than an anthology of Negro verse, since this latter designation would be more confusing than accutate. Negro poetry, it seems to me, in the sense that we speak of Russian, French, or Chinese poetry, must emanate from some country other than this in some language other than our own. Moreover, the attempt to corral the outbursts of the ebony muse into some definite mold to which all poetry by Negroes will conform seems altogether futile and aside from the facts.”

Towards the end of the foreword Cullen notes,

“The poet writes out of his experience, whether it be personal or vicarious, and as these experiences differ among other poets, so do they differ among Negro poets; for the double obligation of being both Negro and American is not so unified as we are often led to believe. A survey of work of Negro poets will show that the individual diversifying ego transcends the synthesizing hue.”

This text is not only a prolific anthology, it is also an exquisite primary source document. Cullen asked each poet to submit a short biography with their poems. Reading these biographies alongside each poet’s work allows us to further emphasize individuality and make thematic connections that consider and contend with racialized experiences and expression, but are not exclusively about racialized experiences and expressions. Some of the themes we have been exploring within the Harlem Renaissance and will continue to explore into the second half of the semester (our “legacy” bit) are dreams, self-actualization, love, power, elitism, womanhood, manhood, affirmation of humanity and Alain Locke’s notion of “spiritual empaciation”. 

Texts for Harlem Renaissance & Its Legacy:

Celebrating Social Justice, Then and Now

By Dr. Akbar Herndon, Chief Technology Officer

Although we will be using a different platform for coming together this year, more than ever, we are committed to renewing our dedication to social justice during January, the month of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. For several months, we have been hard at work preparing classwork as well as school-wide programs commemorating the civil rights movement and our ongoing commitment to fairness and human rights. Grace’s Martin Luther King program for 2021 is on schedule.

Grace has a long history of equity activism. Thirty years ago, we were one of only two New York City schools to host a Multicultural Assessment Plan (MAP) visit from the National Association of Independent Schools – NAIS. (This was one of the reasons I chose to work at Grace). In 1997, Grace sponsored a two-day, city-wide diversity conference titled “ Getting Beneath the Surface of Racism in Education”. During each of these school years, we have used the life of Dr. Martin Luther King and his birthday as a rallying point for social action. While reaching for the ideal of trying to include anti-racist instruction in our curriculum throughout the school year, January 15th (MLK’s birthday) provided a special opportunity to highlight lessons related with justice, fairness, dreams and the triumph of the human spirit. At all grade levels, a focus on past and current struggles for fairness invited stories, discussions, analysis, artistic expression and other presentations about freedom and justice. Annual MLK assemblies continue to provide a framework for shared classwork, music, visual and spoken word, celebrating social justice then and now.

Students hold signs for the 2012 Peace March

In 2004, Grace began a tradition of conducting a silent peace march (around the block and to Union Square) as part of the MLK commemoration, honoring the actions of civil rights protesters in the 60’s as well as expressing beliefs about the issues of today’s human rights challenges. Large paper mache puppets depicting freedom fighters (e.g., Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Wangari Maathi and Bayard Rustin) created by fourth graders, often led the five block march. The Peace March culminated in an all school Peace Chapel, led by students. In 2015 a new dimension was added to the annual MLK program curriculum as high school students and teachers created and led a day of social justice symposiums attended by Grace high school students and middle school students, as well as occasional guests from public schools.

Two students participate in the 2020 annual Peace March

Today, faced with our newest challenge of hosting our MLK activities remotely, the Grace community has risen to the challenge. Although we will not be able to have our Peace March, we will gather (online) for an all-school Peace Chapel, and our usual assemblies and symposiums are bursting with current day topics including covid-19 inequities, Black Lives Matter movement, the 2020 presidential election and Being a True Ally. I believe Dr. King would be proud to see his legacy and its impact continued through a new dimension of technology. Most important, is our effort to help bring fairness, freedom and awareness of our interdependence into each other’s lives.

Check the eNews for a schedule of MLK 2021 program events.

Want to Prompt Discussions on Equity in Science? Start by Drawing

by Jean-Robert Andre, Dean of Equity and Inclusion

Last year, at the People of Color Conference in Seattle, WA, I attended a workshop called “Incorporating Issues of Equity and Inclusion in Middle School Science.” There, two educators helped dispel the myth that science (and math) classes aren’t as amenable to incorporating antiracist and inclusive curricula as, say, a humanities class is. Through a number of activities and conversation prompts, they loaded our tool belts with things to take back to school. At the start of this year, I was contemplating how to weave our efforts towards anti-bias and antiracism more deliberately into my 5th grade curriculum, and I remembered one activity they suggested that has been reproduced in science classrooms across grade levels.  

The prompt is simple – “Draw a scientist doing science.” Let me venture a guess as to what you may have pictured: A scientist in a lab coat, perhaps with frizzy hair giving “mad” scientist vibes, most likely male, most likely white, working indoors at a table surrounded by colorful and bubbling chemicals in beakers. Was I right?

This prompt has been documented with upwards of 20,000 students, and more often than not, the above description is what usually takes shape on the page. As expected, this representation of scientists and their jobs was most prevalent in my classroom too, with a few exceptions. I appreciate this activity because, as a class, we can examine our drawings across any number of different identities and factors. How many students drew an adult? How many drew a woman? How many drew a person of color? Who didn’t draw “potions”? What else are your scientists doing? Why did you draw them this way? The conversations we had after students put their pencils down were fruitful, as we dug into where these “mad scientists doing chemistry” tropes came from, and how our actual experiences with science are quite different! We brainstormed all the different fields students have been exposed to in their academic careers thus far from human physiology to astronomy, entomology, botany, geology and physics. We landed on how systems of discrimination such as sexism, racism, and other ideologies throughout history have limited many people’s access to education, training, research, and jobs in STEM, and how this has led to a certain image of science that we associate with today. In the end, we looked around the room and affirmed that each person there was a scientist, and that science can be for anyone!   

Hearteningly, since this experiment was created several decades ago, there’s been a noticeable increase in a few areas of representation. In the 60’s and 70’s, roughly 1% of students drew women scientists. By the late 2010s that number rose to almost 30%, with 58% of young girls drawing women on the page. It became clear to researchers that stereotypes about the STEM fields were taking root at a very early age – all the more reason for increased representation, not only in the media, but in the classroom itself.  

Each year, Ilta Adler and I introduce the 5th graders to the Ada Lovelace Project as a joint technology and science class assignment. The project draws inspiration from Ada Lovelace Day, founded in Britain in 2009 to honor Ada, the first computer programmer, and women throughout history and the present working in STEM. The walls of South Hall are lined with depictions of Mae Jemison, the first Black astronaut; Hedy Lamarr, inventor of technology that opened the door for modern GPS (and world-famous actor); nuclear physicist, Chien-Shiung Wu; and Wanda Diaz Merced, who translated light energy from stars into sound so that visually impaired scientists like her could make breakthroughs in astronomy, too.  

With each intentional effort, we can further open the door for our students to see themselves in STEM fields, which in turn means more opportunities for future generations of young learners. The first step is recognizing our assumptions and blindspots and actively working to undermine them – in our case, one poster at a time. 

On Our MLK Preparations

There’s a shifting of gears taking place here at Grace. Months of planning for the year’s MLK program have wrapped up, and when we return from our long weekend, the whole school will dive into a series of special events.

It will be a week chock-full of meaningful activities, highlights of which are sure to include:

  • Our annual gathering at Union Square and the all-school chapel service that follows;
  • Our tenth graders’ trip to see the play Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom;
  • A panel of young alumni of color discussing their experiences in college and independent schools;
  • Our annual symposium of speakers and workshops, developed by a team of high school students and teachers;
  • A visit from Dr. Ali Michael, who will speak with parents, teachers, trustees, and a group of students about the roles each of us can play in the school’s anti-racism efforts;
  • A Middle School Assembly when students and teachers will hear about Colin Kaepernick, the poetry of Langston Hughes, letters classmates have written to their political representatives, and much, much more.

Those are just some of the high wattage events. In classrooms throughout the school, teachers will help students engage with the legacy of Dr. King. The heroic lives of civil rights champions and of other advocates for justice can speak through history, challenging us to name and resist hate, bias, fear, and oppression and to reflect on our own lives and on the ways we might use them to make the world a better, fairer, kinder place. And so that is what we’ll be doing.

But as these gears shift towards the week’s activities, I’m struck by how much of the vital work of this annual program lies in preparing for them: in the conversations among teachers, brainstorming with students, lesson-planning and schedule-making. The purpose of the event, in other words, seems as much for us to prepare for it as it is to have the events and activities themselves.

Take a look at the mission statement for the program, which a team of teachers and administrators drafted this fall with help from the school’s Diversity Council. Together, they came up with a statement whose convictions are clear and whose ambition for the program demand that we continually raise the bar.

The Purpose of Grace’s Annual MLK Program

Every year at Grace, we come together as a school to commemorate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and to learn from his example and from the lives of other champions of justice and peace.  We do so to acknowledge the debt we owe to those women, men, and children who fought for equal rights, to note how their work remains unfinished, and to seek the courage and conviction to march in the paths of righteousness they’ve blazed for us to follow.

The Martin Luther King program is a focal point for the work of inclusion, diversity, and anti-racism that the school’s mission calls us to do all year long.  Every day we teach children to value kindness and fairness and to seek the common good, and we aim to graduate students who can not only recognize the scourge of racism, injustice, and oppression, but who have the skills and desire to do something about it.  And so our celebration of Dr. King and of the many unseen champions of freedom past and present strives to do more than note their historical import.  It seeks to inspire us to action:  to attend to the dignity of every person; to challenge systems that seek to diminish others; and to fashion our lives that they may serve the cause of justice and do the work of peace.

If that statement’s ambition calls us to raise the bar continually, how have we done so this year? By the end of next week, our students will have no shortage of answers to draw upon: our first panel of young alumni of color; the Early Childhood’s work on making good decisions; the combined forces of the Middle School vocal ensembles and the High School Singers; and so on.

But to me, what stands out has been the process of preparing for these events, which has expanded the number and diversity of voices involved in doing the planning. And that started with our high school seniors, who discussed ways to ensure that this event would inspire action and not degrade into inert and congratulatory satisfaction, as well-intentioned diversity initiatives too frequently do in independent schools.

For those who have seen our MLK programs in recent years, one new aspect of this year’s program may seem noteworthy: we won’t be making or marching with puppets (with the exception of the one depicting Dr. King). For a decade or so, puppets have been a feature of the day. Why shelve them for this year? There are a number of reasons: e.g., the fact that this year’s theme focuses our attention inward rather than outwards to a pantheon of heroes; colleagues expressed thoughtful concerns about the difficulties of representing the likenesses of enslaved or oppressed people without whitewashing the tragic circumstances of their lives; the desire for new traditions to take root and to allow this program to grow in unexpected directions.

That last idea brings to mind a favorite scrap of poetry by Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. He ends a sonnet with the striking image of a bird retracting its wings mid-flight. Birds in flight, of course, are known by their wings, which are their source of stability and safety, power and control. For some years now, puppets have been a central part of our MLK program. But like a bird that retracts its wings to achieve a greater distance at a faster speed, so have we, collectively, decided to pull back our puppets—for this year, at least—in hopes of allowing our MLK program to grow and to help all of us do so, too.

No more thy meaning seek, thine anguish plead,
But leaving straining thought and stammering word,
Across the barren azure pass to God:
Shooting the void in silence like a bird,
A bird that shuts his wings for better speed.

–from Sonnet XXVIII

Best wishes to everyone for a restful long weekend. I couldn’t be more excited for the activities that lie on the other side of it, nor more grateful for the thoughtful preparation that went into planning them.