Last month, I travelled to San Francisco to attend the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference. The gathering is a two-day crossroads of ideas, strategies and tools to ignite and compel educators to make a difference in the lives of children.
One of the most evocative and powerful voices at the conference was Bryan Stevenson, a keynote speaker who shared his story of becoming a public interest lawyer who fights poverty and challenges racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. Stevenson is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, and recipient of the ACLU’s National Medal of Liberty and fourteen honorary doctorate degrees. His work has helped eliminate unfair criminal sentencing, exonerate innocent prisoners on death row, and expose abuse of mentally ill prisoners. He also has represented children who have been tried and convicted as adults in the court system, recently winning a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that mandatory life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional for children under 18.
In his conference address, Stevenson challenged us to look honestly at injustice by seeing it up close. “You cannot change the world from a distance,” he implored. “Get proximate.” At Brookwood, our students have first-hand experience with real-world challenges: we seek proximity so that our students understand the context in which they operate and how they can contribute more profoundly to their world. Whether it’s first graders purchasing supplies for a family leaving Wellspring House and thus recognizing the reality of homelessness in our community, or an Upper School student designing, with a 3-D printer, a holder for white board markers and thus problem-solving in his or her classroom, our students impact the real world. By coming to know another’s reality, our students learn how to contribute authentically and usefully to a solution.
As Stevenson says, “proximity will change you.” We cannot stay immune to injustice when we see it close up and instead are compelled to change the narrative of what we see. With deeper empathy comes the ability to redefine issues in ways that reflect deeper truth and spur new approaches to tackle them. Stevenson shared the example of a society viewing drug dependency either as a crime problem or a health issue; one’s perspective, approaches, and laws will differ greatly depending on which narrative is chosen. This is where Brookwood shines: we believe our students must learn to ask the right questions to surface the inconsistencies, ambiguities, and truth in each situation. By cultivating curiosity and investing time in critical reflection, our students see the world in more complex ways that recognize the stories—the voices—of others instead of defining others from a distance with narratives that do not reflect those involved.
Finally, Stevenson compelled us to commit to staying hopeful and to do the uncomfortable things in the name of seeking truth and justice. “Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.” He added, “Hope gets you to speak when others say to be quiet.” Again I thought of our students—this time, our seventh graders—who learn what it means to be an upstander and how their actions and voices can change the course of history. Whether confronting a peer when they witness unkind behavior toward a classmate, or exploring and challenging in class how stereotypes of the North and South confine and undermine people in both areas, our students are developing the capacity to recognize and confront injustice.
Compelling us to be both present and bold, Stevenson concluded, “If justice is to prevail, we have to be a witness: to pick up the children who are needy, stand close to the parents who are struggling, and step into the spaces of despair.” Guided by a mission of conscience, character, compassion, and cultural competence, Brookwood is a community dedicated to raising children who embrace Stevenson’s thinking. I’m proud of the adults in our community who model these traits daily and show our students what being present and just truly mean. I’m equally proud of our students who practice and refine what it means to be a citizen of compassion and integrity in their homes, our school, and our greater communities. We are a better place because of them.
Head of School
Watch Bryan Stevenson's TED Talk.
[Image of Stevenson courtesy of Twitter, Michael Hanas @mhanas34]