A Journey Toward Informed Empathy

Suzanne Dewey
With the guidance of Director of Equity and Inclusion Director Jini Sparkman, this winter the school embarked upon a multi-week learning and habit changing exploration. In a letter to the entire school community and alumni, Head of School Phil Peck and Jini Sparkman quoted from social justice educators Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr., Debby Irving, and Dr. Marguerite Penick-Parks:
Change is hard. Creating effective social justice habits, particularly those dealing with issues of power, privilege, and leadership...Setting our intentions and adjusting what we spend our time doing is essential.

Using a website created by Jini to frame the 21-Day Racial Equity Learning Challenge, the school contemplated a series of readings, videos, and questions from multiple sources. Topics varied from“Race: The Power of an Illusion” which urged viewers to consider their fundamental beliefs around the concept of race to the New York Times series on “A Conversation on Race” series which explored Latino, White, Asian American, Black, Native American, and police perspectives on race. Other compelling investigations included “The Life-Changing Magic of Hanging Out, Why We are Awkward, and Snacks & Punishment,” “What Does My Headscarf Mean to You?” and “What We Get Wrong About Affirmative Action.”

In addition to the personal daily reflective endeavors, entire dorms participated as a part of Winter Carnival, additional advising time was created for discussions, and a full-day conference, the Inquiry Conference, was held at the culmination of the challenge featuring speakers specifically addressing race and intercultural leadership. Amer Ahmed, Ed.D and Raul Fernandez, PhD presented keynotes while both students and faculty facilitated and attended break-out sessions. A film festival at the end of the Inquiry Conference provided students with the opportunity to further explore a variety of perspectives.

Dr. Ahmed advised that our journeys and ability to meaningfully engage are unique to each of us. He shared that when something is different, we often move to negate that difference, or in groups, we tell each other what it means to be a member of that group, but we can help each other by seeking multiple perspectives. We often need more information to see an entire situation. As Jini shares, “All of us are on a continual process of developing our own multi and intercultural skills and competencies in order to better understand and engage with the pluralism of the world and lives around us.”

Jini asked students to reflect in a variety of ways on how the 21-Day Challenge and the Inquiry Conference impacted their thinking. Many shared their reactions to readings or videos throughout the Challenge and here are some of their thoughts:

  • “To me, racial literacy means understanding race relations beyond the things you always hear about like the KKK or Martin Luther King. It's about understanding how it affects the lives of yourself and those around you in society. As a white person, it's easy not to worry about race since I have the privilege to not think about it on a daily basis...Racial literacy is about wanting to learn about race as it is part of today's society, and for me it's about embracing different races both in my life and through the material I read.”  -- 12th grade female
  • “I agree that it is much more important to focus on open, clear, and brave discussion to provide a more permanent solution to the problems of racial discrimination. Letting uncertainty, fear and suspension fester underneath the veil of ‘turning a color blind eye,’ may work in the short term, but by shying from discomfort the problem will, at best, remain unchanged. I suppose that brings me to my question. I, a New Hampshirite whose previous school had only two black students, had never really needed to make the choice between color blindness or color bravery before coming to Holderness. How can we destigmatize the discussion of race if large swathes of well-meaning people never even interact with the discussion, nor are even really forced too?” -- 11th grade made
  • One of my “takeaways is to be aware that having racial anxiety is normal and knowing this going into a conversation can make it less awkward.” -- 12th grade female
  • “All four of the videos were really interesting but the one that stuck with me was the first video with the black and white roommate pairing. I took away the idea that interracial roommates had less bias at the end of the year which made me think of the kids at Holderness. As an African-American student at Holderness, it is so hard to feel accepted by the students around you when they are biased, in favor of their own race. To be honest, I find that most kids whose friends are all the white kids, tend to be the MOST biased at Holderness. Being exposed to more diversity at Holderness actually would help a lot here. They would see it as ‘ok’ to learn about different backgrounds or just the fact of seeing more of it instead of the tiny percentage we have here in New Hampshire.” -- 10th grade female
  • “Bias, prejudice, and racism often stem from ignorance, as well as distorted depictions of certain social groups; if one were to spend more time with these stereotyped people, they would know from their own experience that those assumptions are false and ungrounded.” -- 12th grade male
  • “I remember when I took an implicit bias test a long time ago. Even though I thought I had no bias at all, the results said otherwise. But as much as I didn't want to be racist, I didn't know how to change this.In the end, I just let it sit, hoping time could change me. This video helped me realize that there was a way to improve myself. I didn't have to be shy and avoid "touchy" topics like race at the dinner table.I need to bring it up and connect with my diverse peers.”  -- 10th grade female
How do we learn to navigate conversations about race and difference?  How do we behave in a world where conflicts around race have intensified? While not solutions, the 21-Day Equity Challenge and Inquiry Conference aim to expand our thinking, help us to go towards each other, help us to engage further, and keep us moving on our journey toward intercultural leadership. Embedded in our exploration is also developing habits that lead to courageous conversations, choosing to believe in the power of deepening engagement. If we can recognize that unconscious bias may impact how we think, or expand our thinking to look at other perspectives and not make assumptions based solely on our own experiences, we develop empathy and may collectively help grapple with deep racial and geographic division that exists in today’s society.

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Holderness School
33 Chapel Lane, Holderness, NH 03245
mail P.O Box 1879 Plymouth, NH 03264-1879
phone (603) 536-1257