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In the Aftermath of Charlottesville, Why AFS Embraces a Diverse Community

August 19, 2017

Dear AFS Families,

The tide of racism and anti-Semitism that has so brazenly swept into the public sphere this past week prompts me to write to you. The boldness of voices expressing Nazi and white-supremacist views that we thought were permanently relegated to the margins of public life as unacceptable and incompatible with our nation’s identity is disturbing and signals a change we all need to pay attention and respond to.

First, we must unequivocally speak out against the poison of racism, white nationalism and anti-Semitism that has been gathering strength in our public spaces. There is no doubt much to be explored, better understood and addressed about the sources of alienation behind such beliefs, but their corrosive power demands moral clarity in their denunciation. We are a nation whose best hopes lie in our aspirations of equality, opportunity, human dignity and success in our grand, living experiment in democracy and in the historic diversity and inclusion of our nation. Even with our flaws and the deep sins of our history, we have yet been a beacon for the world in our articulation of human rights and for the fitful, hard-won progress we have made toward justice and civil rights. Our nation’s greatest gift to the world is our vision, still yet ahead of us, of a just, peaceful, diverse and inclusive, free and liberal democracy, and we must persist in the hard work of ensuring that world for our children and future generations.

By intention, Abington Friends School has made much progress toward a realization of that future, ideal American community and as such is a setting for a powerful and inspirational education. AFS reflects the full diversity of our country within a single, intimate community, a truly rare accomplishment. We are widely diverse and inclusive by race, religion, ethnicity, income, neighborhood, ability, gender, sexual orientation and family structure.

From this sustained and richly explored diversity, we have learned a great deal — from each other, from academic inquiry and from spiritually rich reflection — about our shared humanity, the various pathways and experiences our families have traveled, the differential impact of history on the lives of groups and individuals and the work yet to be done to ensure equity in all aspects of civic life.

From this diversity, our children develop skills of critical thinking, social intelligence, conflict-resolution and a well-grounded sense of ethics and values. They come away from their AFS experience with a sophisticated understanding of the world, of leadership in building effective community and a clear sense of their own identity within the context of a complex world. They are surprised when they arrive on college campuses to find how uniquely skilled they are as leaders.

Our community also fosters a valuable sense of empathy and advocacy for a wide range of people. Coming to know the stories, experiences, hopes, fears and frustrations of others and their families unlocks both a deep understanding of contemporary issues and a deep commitment to addressing issues of equity, justice and vulnerability. It is thought that diversity and inclusion work is all about being a good person, but we know that it is really about experience. When “others” are fully human to you because of personal experience, the kind of dehumanization that occurs when people are at a distance from each other becomes virtually impossible.

These are the invaluable gifts of a truly diverse community gathered in common values and mutual commitments. This is what we know to be possible and what we fervently hope for a country that is founded on the ideal of inclusion and a recognition of the vitality that diversity brings to a nation.

As we prepare for the start of the school year, faculty and staff and I are all mindful that you, your children and our community are also subject to the larger world around us and the toxicity that we are all experiencing. All members of our community are made more vulnerable by this discourse and these events. We are thinking about the cares, anxieties and concerns that children will be bringing to school with them in a few weeks. Our children of color, Jewish students, gay, lesbian and transgendered students and Muslim students all are experiencing a world made more dangerous by hateful rhetoric. Our white students are navigating complex terrain as well and we want to ensure their healthy sense of identity while engaging larger issues that demand special reflection and involvement as white people. And I know that our conservative students and families can also feel marginalized or misunderstood in these discussions and thus deserve care, attention and careful listening as well.

As children enter the school year, we will be attentive to their questions, concerns and interests in age-appropriate ways. Our teachers are exploring a range of resources for addressing the social and political issues of the day. Our starting place includes both the essential human values of this Quaker school community and the tools of academic disciplines in coming to understand complex issues. We know too that empowerment through civic engagement is an important antidote to the helplessness and anxiety that news and events engender. We want students, in age-appropriate ways, to know that they each have a role to play in building up a more just and peaceful world. Some will find their voices as poets, some as environmental scientists, others as care-givers and good friends and some as political activists. Some will be focused on building community within AFS itself and others will be looking more and more to the outside world in their academic study, clubs, service and experiential learning projects.

We know that parents and care-givers are all wrestling with the question of how to talk to their children about these issues. Most professionals agree that it is best to follow the lead of your children and gauge your responses to their immediate concerns and questions. It is important for all children to know that they are essentially safe — in their homes, neighborhoods and school community — and that they are surrounded by good and trustworthy adults. It is important for them to feel empowered as well, and I encourage you as families to look for ways to be engaged in building up the good in our world whether by volunteering at a local food pantry, writing letters or participating in activities that match your family’s values. I encourage you also as parents and care-givers to create appropriate sanctuary from the day to day sensationalism of the news and our emotional responses to it, as I believe is so important to do in the school day.

At the end of next week, I will be sending a letter of joyful welcome to the new school year. We have much to look forward to as each year in school is an extraordinary chapter of growth for children and their families.

I wanted to make a connection this week while the larger world’s concerns are so pressing on us all. I welcome your thoughts, questions and concerns as we work together to create the ideal world of a Friends school community.

All the best,

Rich Nourie

Head of School


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