Living Our Mission: Building an Anti-Racist Community Through Resistance, Liberation, and Joy

Danny Stock

Georgetown Day School’s 2021 Social Justice Teach-In Days

Linked in this story:
GDS Anti-Racism Action Plan
With Their Souls Intact (GDS article)

Each year, the GDS High School and Middle school set aside a day to honor the life, work, and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists at the heart of the struggle for equal rights—a day of deep learning and community building. In lieu of regularly scheduled classes, students and staff participate in workshops, seminars, and mini-lessons led by their peers as well as by family members who are experts in their respective fields.

This year, the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion elevated the program’s goals to meet the school’s specific commitment to building an anti-racist community and living our GDS mission. To that end, the workshops included in the 2021 Social Justice Teach-In Days all featured an intentionally anti-racist focus that would specifically “highlight the need for resistance, liberation, and joy in the fight against racism.”

Dr. Bettina Love, author of We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom and board member of the Abolitionist Teaching Network, returned to host a virtual keynote address following an enthusiastic response earlier this year to a presentation she gave for GDS faculty and staff. Notably, Dr. Love began by applauding the students, parents, and teachers for managing to thrive through the pandemic. Her presentation centered on lessons from Black music like hip hop, soul, and R&B that “encapsulates all the resistance and love” of a people striving to do more than survive. Hip hop specifically uses the various tools critical in the fight against racism and racist structures: improvisation, repetition, chorus, creativity, and explicitly articulated statements of protest. Dr. Love explained how the joy, creativity, art, and stories can be used to shame and mock racism. The Black radical imagination, she explained, empowered by White co-conspirators, can “hold up a mirror to democracy and demand” equal treatment and the opportunity for Black students to thrive. 

Students dove into some workshops that were popular repeats from previous years reinvigorated by a fresh commitment to anti-racism as well as some newly conceived workshops in response to the national reckoning on race and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

High School students who were fellows of the 2020 Life Resettled Policy Institute presented, as they do each year, on displaced peoples, the causes of displacement, and immigration policies impacting the global issue. Parent Greg Chen (Shanwai ’25), director of Government Relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, also returned to engage participants in collective problem-solving around immigration—this time with an added focus on what President Biden could do.

Several sessions on music as protest, advocacy, and drivers of social change returned this year. New sessions emerged around spoken word poetry, inspired by Amanda Gorman’s inauguration performance. Students in Middle School math teacher Lauren Thompson’s session conducted a close reading of “The Hill We Climb” and used it to inspire their own writing and art. One Middle School student noted that the session allowed them to “think about justice in a new way.” Middle School history teacher Toussaint Lacoste’s spoken word session used the excitement around Gorman’s performance to engage students in a collaborative recording. High School jazz and creative music director Brad Linde presented a session entitled “Sea Shanties, Work Songs, and the Free Jazz of Albert Ayler.”

Several sessions put DC-area issues under a microscope. Tenley Peterson, GDS web director and commissioner on Arlington County's Planning Commission, partnered with veteran Policy Institute Waging Life track and HS history teacher Topher Dunne to present “Housing Inequality and Urban Planning.” Alumni from the Policy Institute attended the session to provide insight as workshop participants explored case studies and original letters from local housing commissions and the NAACP related to affordable housing policies. Anoushka Chander ’21 and Maddie Feldman ’22, student leaders from the Student Action Committee, facilitated a workshop specifically designed to train students in lobbying for DC statehood, making connections between statehood and issues of racial justice, national security, voting rights, the prevention of gun violence, reproductive justice, and more. 

Caleigh Vergeer ’21 presented an in-depth look at environmental justice and the white-washing of environmental racism in the DMV. This session was both a continuation of study from the new Policy Institute Environmental Justice track and the ongoing work of the new GDS Environmental Task Force, a subcommittee of the High School Student Action Committee. More news on their work to come.

Close to home, Luke Flyer ’22 and Emi Bailey ’22 facilitated a new discussion-based session about free speech at GDS and where the dividing line with hate speech is drawn. In a related session, 5th grade teacher Judy Brown presented a session on the controversy around Confederate flags, monuments, and memorials and steps taken for their removal.

Female students of color facilitated several important discussions this year. Pilar Holder ’23 and Iansa Powell ’24 took participants on a deeper dive into racism at GDS from a Black student perspective with particular attention to addressing problems raised by the Black at GDS movement on social media. Women of Color in Politics, facilitated by Iman Dorman ’22 and McKenzie Griffith ’21, investigated the impact women of color in positions of power (like Vice President Kamala Harris and “The Squad”) will have on the future of the country and the role enthusiastic support from American youth is likely to feature in their success. Nadia Fairfax ’22, Isa Rene ’22, and Sahari Abney ’22 guided participants through an analysis of and reflection on intersectionality in beauty standards for Black women.

Three members of the athletic department, Director David Gillespie, Pamela Stanfield, and Taylor Treacy, explored the role of film in telling the stories of inequality and activism in sports in a continuation of the inaugural meeting of the GDS Athletes for Action project, which seeks to engage students in discussion of anti-racism and anti-bias in athletics. P.E. teacher Kevin Jackson teamed up with High School English teacher Khalid Bashir to facilitate a session entitled “Was It Really About the Flag?” discussing the parallels between Colin Kaepernick's kneeling and Donald Trump’s social media ban. Participants responded to the discussion by curating a timeline drawing from content produced by various media outlets.

Two sessions directly addressed the COVID-19 pandemic. Middle School teacher Angie Errett’s session explored privileged access to vaccines and vaccine distribution beyond the city. Maya Boyer ’21, Alexa Goldfarb ’21, and Yael Wellisch ’22 led “COVID Inequity: The Latino and Minority Experience,” examining how the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected Latinos and other minority groups. They also discussed taking action to combat the pressing inequities that permeate our healthcare system.

As intended, the sessions in the 2021 Social Justice Teach-In Days featured a critical blend of joyful engagement, creative expression, and fierce advocacy. Many students were energized by their participation and, as Dr. Love said at the opening of each of the days, “grateful for the opportunity to come together” on our collective journey in this essential work.

Stay tuned for additional important programming and follow our progress on our Anti-Racism Action Plan.

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