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Ree Botts ’11: A Leader Finding Their Voice

My leadership development began as a new eighth grade student in Señora Cyndi Silverman’s Abington Friends School classroom, where she invested in ensuring that Black students like me felt safe, valued and affirmed. From the way she decorated her classroom walls with pictures that celebrated our accomplishments, to the warm energy I felt as soon as I entered her room, I knew I had a home. She taught me the things I felt most ashamed of were, in fact, the things that made me a profoundly unique leader. I was not too loud or too passionate to be an organizer and an activist. I could and should lead with my whole self.

By my sophomore year, I started the Black Student Union with my friend Alexis Anderson‘11, and we used that platform to host assemblies, events and gatherings that educated the community about the realities of our experiences as Black students. Wherever I was at AFS, I was always in the community. Our adult advocates, like Marc Thompson, Shakita Green and Cyndi did not restrict our movement or presence, even when some asked the question that Beverly Daniel Tatum echoes in her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, failing to acknowledge how crucial it is for students of color to have a place where they can be their entire selves. Every moment of safety, inclusion and affinity made my leadership possible. Within those sacred spaces, I was allowed to stand firm in my power as a Black girl coming into her own voice.

When I wasn’t organizing, debating or socializing, I was tucked away in a corner with Upper School English teacher Mary Lynn Ellis, whose mentorship cultivated my voice as a poet. With her support, I performed poems about African diasporic historical and contemporary struggles both inside and outside AFS. Her belief in me was a constant reminder that I had something important to say, and the world needed to hear it.

I entered Spelman College in 2011 with a strong sense of myself and a radical belief that I was worthy of taking charge. I took the helm of a number of community projects, including HBCU’s for Peace & Love and Street Scholars. In 2015, I founded The Movement, an initiative designed to support Black women and girls in their journeys to self-love and healing. I have traveled across the globe, speaking to and learning from Black communities about how to center our collective voice. The core concepts I lead with in my work and in my world are the result of my five years at AFS, and my seven years away from it, in which I have come to appreciate deeply all the ways the School has shaped me.

Today, as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, I research Black women’s healing spaces and their potential for communal empowerment. During my visit to AFS Homecoming in 2017, I spoke in Meeting for Worship about how the space my mentors made for me planted the seeds for my research and my approach to life. The poet, scholar and activist I am today grew from these places of care.

My life always seems to come back to the Quaker principle of inner light. I still recall my class’s final Meeting for Worship, in which Rich Nourie exclaimed that each of our individual lights, kindled by our time at AFS, would go out into the world and make our planet a little brighter. As a proud AFS graduate who has taken up that call, I am honored to be a part of the legacy of leaders who first flourished in the School’s hallways and have since found their voice and place in the world.

You can read the full Winter 2019 issue of Oak Leaves at

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