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Leading and Embodying Change at Abington Friends

June 29, 2020

Dear AFS Community,

Over the past six weeks, our nation has sustained a critical and penetrating attention to issues of race in America and the unbearable, devastating human cost of systemic racism. Starting with a focus on policing and community safety and moving to virtually all aspects of American life, we are witnessing a level of collective clarity and resolve that must lead to true and systemic change. And we as the AFS community must lead and embody that change as a school.

The breakthrough of this moment is in recognizing with fresh urgency the part that we need to play in dismantling a systemic racism that permeates and powerfully shapes the larger American experience and, inescapably, our own school history and culture. We understand more clearly than ever that race is a social construct whose purpose and effect is to establish a hierarchy of human value and worth. Inherited from a colonizing mindset is a concept of white superiority that has justified the subjugation of black and brown people throughout world history. From enslavement to segregation and exploitation, to the acceptance of gross inequities and mass incarceration, no other precept except dehumanization and systemic racism can adequately account for the world we live in today. And each of us has been formed and shaped within this permeating worldview, which must be confronted and rebuilt if we are to see the justice and peace that we ardently long for as compassionate, loving human beings in a Friends school community.

AFS has been on a decades-long journey toward becoming a more diverse and inclusive community and we are widely recognized for our leadership in this realm in the independent school world. Our accomplishments in engaging students in critical thinking about race and equity, in promoting student leadership and activism, in introspective and searching professional development of faculty and staff and in building and sustaining a community of a rare and authentic racial and socioeconomic diversity are real.

At this important moment of reckoning, however, we must recognize and grieve as well for the many sacrifices and painful experiences on the part of students, families and faculty and staff of color that have taken place along this journey. To students of color who have endured both the hyper visibility and invisibility of being one of few in a class, looked to for answers they shouldn’t have had to provide, of being misrepresented or simply missing in the curriculum, of being mistreated and misunderstood in school discipline, we owe a profound apology for our shortcomings and blindspots and profound appreciation for the many times students have pushed the community to evolution and growth with their voices and leadership.

To families of color who have had to illuminate the blindspots of this community over and over again with courage, risk and grace, we owe sincere care, apology and appreciation. To faculty and staff of color who have consistently borne the burdens of seeing, tending to and experiencing the inequities, hurts and gaps of an, at times, dangerously unconscious larger school culture, we owe profound care, apology and appreciation.

AFS does have a long history of engaging in this work, which I think is important for all in our community to know as a way of honoring the contributions, sacrifices and leadership of many folks over time. While much has been accomplished, there is at this moment in the life of our school and in the life of our country, a breakthrough, an inflection point that can impel us to be an ever more healthful, transformative and effective learning community.

The breakthrough is in fully realizing the need for systemic change and growth as a response to systemic racism and for reaching our potential as a diverse school community. By building more explicit systems and institutional practices, we will better ensure our capacity for consistent critical thinking, reflection and decision-making that fully harnesses the richness of our diversity. Much of this thinking will be captured in our strategic plan to be shared in early 2021. But at this important moment, I’d like to share a theme and four essential areas to inform our work this summer and into the 2020-21 school year.

A theme that has emerged in faculty discussion this year has been a shift from the concept of inclusion to that of belonging. Inclusion has been an important step forward in diversity thinking for the past several years, leading to institutional change in more readily welcoming the voices of people of color, LGBTQ persons and others to take part more fully in the larger community. But the term still has the connotation of a majority host welcoming others rather than creating a new center of the school community that is itself fully diverse and equitable. Belonging is a concept of centrality of position, of ownership and of power. I truly believe that the strongest possible community in the 21st century is one that is formed and informed by the full range of voices within the community. This derives directly from the collective search for shared truth and learning at the heart of Quaker spirituality.

Four areas of focus for the coming year include:

Ensuring the diversity of all decision-making, meaning-making groups, particularly at a leadership level, within the school community. What we do every day in school is make sense together: of what is happening at a given moment, of what to do next, of what should be in the curriculum, of how a transgression within the community should be handled. If those conversations for discernment are not comprised of a diversity of voices, they cannot reach the fullness of understanding needed by an intentionally diverse community such as ours. There are places within AFS right now that do reflect a healthy and necessary diversity, but other places where that is not yet achieved. Hiring is central to the long term success of this goal, but in the meantime, wherever possible we should redesign decision-making groups to ensure a multiplicity of racial perspectives. We can be thoughtful too about the addition of external professional voices to extend and complement our reach as well as the mindful inclusion of diverse parent perspectives in our parent organizations. The Administrative Council will engage in a process this summer to ensure the intentional design of decision-making groups for diversity prior to the 2020-21 school year.

Developing a process for a critical review and redesign of a curriculum that shows true narratives of our nation and its people, countering and correcting the toxic narrative of superiority of white people over black and brown people that is pervasive in our culture and in our institutions. Our history and how it is told, our literature and our arts all are shaped to either reinforce narratives of superiority and inferiority or to more fully tell the story of the various peoples that comprise our country. With the rest of the American educational world, we have inherited a curriculum in which whiteness is central. It is time for the narratives we develop in schooling to bring all constituents into the center, making an essential, true and deep history available to all AFS students. As a step in creating education for critical thinking and analysis, Mikael Yisrael this summer will redesign the 10 Sem course in the Upper School to become a course called Power, Identity and Social Change. The Division Directors and a committee of diverse faculty members will design a process for full curriculum review and development this year.

Professionalizing independent school teaching and pedagogy. We have an outstanding faculty of talented, committed and exceptionally caring individuals. But we can and should be more systemic in our programs of professional development and learning to ensure a strong grounding in Mind, Brain, Education research that supports pedagogy for developing strong, independent learners across the multiracial diversity of our classrooms. Our upcoming strategic plan calls for a foundational body of knowledge for all faculty and staff in professionally grounded pedagogy, Quaker thought and practice and critical thinking about race, identity and dismantling racism in the classroom and in the curriculum.

Protecting and caring for our students who are vulnerable to systemic racism and racial incidents in the community. This starts with thinking about re-entry to the school year for all students, mindful of the profound experience of separation they have experienced during isolation. But we must include specific thought and support for our students of color who have particularly borne the burdens and trauma of the focus on race and violence over the past several months. We will supplement our student support team with other professional voices this summer to design re-entry supports and programs for all students with an additional and specific focus on students of color. Additionally, we will be redesigning protocols this summer for reporting and addressing issues of race, aggressions and microaggressions within our community. The focus will mindfully include support of students who have been harmed and clear consequences and a restorative approach for those who are perpetrators. Mikael Yisrael will clerk and convene a committee this summer to develop these protocols.

And so I share with hope and a sense of focused energy this agenda for the coming school year ahead of our 2021 strategic plan. These initiatives address our school’s particular place in the trajectory of developing a healthy, successful and effective diverse community and our most promising and necessary work to be done in the near and medium terms. We will be reporting out on this work regularly and refining it with listening sessions and conversations with alumni, parents, students and faculty and staff. Our final work on strategic planning will also ensure multiple lenses of review and refinement, using the power of our diversity to do the best possible work together as an ambitious and also appropriately humble Friends school.

As always, I am deeply grateful for our school community. We have the opportunity to do tremendous good together, as we have often in our long history. A community at its best does both/and rather than either/or thinking. We are both rightly recognized as a leading school in diversity, equity and inclusion and we have important, necessary work to do together because the stakes are so high. How we teach and support students has a far-reaching impact on their lives. May we always reach for what is best for the children given to us in profound hope and sacred trust by their families.

All the best,

Rich Nourie
Head of School

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