By Bob Whelan
Head of School
Over the last month, we have witnessed yet again how the nation’s long legacy of racism continues to damage and destroy the lives of Black and Brown people. We also have witnessed a vital and impassioned national conversation about inequality, racism, and the notable absence of a just and fair society for all.
In recent weeks, students and alumni of color have taken to social media nationally to share stories of their experience as students at majority-white educational institutions, from higher education to PreK–12 schools. We are in the midst of that same conversation at GFA.
Amid this national reckoning on racial injustice, I have listened to and read numerous accounts — many shared on social media — of discriminatory and racist experiences on our campus from GFA alumni and current students. It pains me to read these accounts of prejudice and inequity in our recent past and over decades at GFA. They range from stories of insensitive or awkward ignorance that caused hurt, to more serious allegations of outright racial bigotry and discrimination, too often tacitly or explicitly condoned by onlookers.
Each story matters, and we are listening. To the members of our community who have endured this, I am deeply sorry.
Moreover, these stories describe behaviors that are unequivocally at odds with our mission, our core values, and the community we aspire to create at GFA for every student. I want you to know that we hear you and we will continue to listen. We can, and must, make our school a more inclusive community.
Each of our lives is made up of a series of moments. The same can be said for the life of a school. One of the things I prize most about my work at GFA is the gift of observing moments unfold for young people at pivotal times in their development as human beings. On any given day during the academic year, I find myself genuinely moved by examples of GFA students’ courage, creativity, persistence, compassion, and growth. I’m inspired when you trust your voices, speak up, and when you support one another.
In the midst of the moment we are in as a nation, we have an opportunity to envision ways we can live more fully and deliberately into our mission. GFA is not exempt from the significant structural problems in American society. We have a responsibility to listen carefully to our students and alums as we commit ourselves to living up to the standards our mission sets forth. We can renew our commitment to making every student at GFA feel loved, respected, and valued.
Where do we go from here?
Let’s start with our mission, our purpose. GFA is a learning community, a human endeavor made up of hundreds of individuals with all of their marvelous complexities — every one of whom has the capacity to be compassionate and kind, insensitive and cruel. We take very seriously the work of living out our ambitious mission, and we fully acknowledge that we are a work in progress.
Our mission envisions a community where everyone is a learner, where together we make sense of our world, and where we each share in the responsibility to create an authentically inclusive community where we can engage in that learning together. The strength of GFA has always been in the relationships that grow here among students, teachers, and ideas.
Now, more than ever, is the time to depend on and invest in those relationships. I’m heartened to see students and alumni speaking frankly about their experiences, and I intend to honor their honest speech with the kind of open listening that can deepen the relationships in our community and set the stage for making our mission aspirations more real for more of our community. This fall will afford us the opportunity to engage in that work together; in the meantime, we have set up an anonymous feedback form for you to share your experiences and thoughts directly with me. This insight will be invaluable for the work to come. In addition to your feedback, we recognize the unique power of the alumni perspective as we reflect and plan. Ms. Henry has been engaging in Zoom calls with our alums of color and will continue throughout the summer. We’re also excited to share that Julie Lythcott-Haims will spend the day with us as a visiting Coyle Scholar. She is incredibly compelling and her story “What it Means to Be Black in White Spaces,” is a powerful one about identity and community.
Our school’s motto, “each for all,” describes an ethos of connection and accountability evocative of Dr. Martin Luther King’s network of mutuality; “Whatever affects one directly, affects all directly.” For us to be truly accountable to one another requires a commitment to being fully engaged in the discipline of listening, strengthening connections, building understanding and trust, even — and most especially — when the underlying hurt is at its most raw. This is hard work, yet I know ours to be a determined community that has demonstrated it can do hard things.
I look forward to the time for reflection that summer affords. And I look forward to beginning our 95th year with a renewed sense of purpose and vigor.
Take care of yourselves and each other.