Engaging in Vigilant Self-Awareness

by Kim Cooper, Director of Equity and Inclusion

For the past twenty years, The White Mountain School has celebrated and honored Martin Luther King. Jr. Day by suspending our typical academic day in order to engage with Dr. King’s mission and vision of racial equity and justice. This year, MLK Day fell on January 15th, and we knew that not all of our students would be back on campus and out of their COVID quarantine. Because of this, we decided to postpone our programming until February, when the majority of our students would be able to engage in this important work with in-person workshops. This programming occurred recently on Tuesday, February 23rd, and Wednesday, February, 24th. With the combined efforts of the Equity and Inclusion Student Delegates, leaders from the Black Student Union, and a handful of faculty and staff members, we planned programming with this central question in mind: how do we inspire our community to actively engage in the conversations, to think critically about the inequities and injustices in this nation, and—as the powerful Dena Simmons puts it—to “engage in vigilant self-awareness”? 

Our work with equity, inclusion, and justice aims to create a culture of belonging for all members of our community. In order for people from marginalized groups to feel like they truly belong in our community, we must be cognizant of tokenization; tokenization, after all, is a real barrier to belonging. Tokenization says that we are “checking a box” without caring enough about the impact of our actions, or language, or our programs. This, for me, reads more as tolerance, as false inclusion, rather than belonging. So, knowing that, how do we move forward planning programming to celebrate a man whom this country loves to tokenize? How do we move toward our vision of a “culture of belonging” when, regardless of how effective our workshops may be, we still have a “one-off” day that may disappear from folks’ consciousness the minute after it ends? One of our Equity and Inclusion Student Delegates, Sylvie Cromer ’22, wrote about the complexities of this national holiday and how it impacts the work that we do here at the School. Here is an excerpt from an article that she wrote for a student-produced newsletter, The WMS Address

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a celebrated national holiday in the United States, a day dedicated to the progress MLK Jr. made throughout the Civil Rights Movement and all that he sacrificed for the country, including his own life. The White Mountain School is working to create an environment on MLK Day in which we are working actively, rather than passively, to further his mission for justice.

Across the country, many corporations and organizations will often put out a statement about Martin Luther King Jr. as a PR initiative rather than a legitimate effort to fight against the evils of American capitalism in conjunction with systemic racism that MLK was eventually shot for fighting against. Capitalist corporations and institutions that have historically and currently exploited workers commonly cherry-pick quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. solely to appease public opinion so that they can continue to accumulate wealth through rampant exploitation. For example, Amazon, a company infamous for its mistreatment and exploitation of its workers, doesn’t deliver packages on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a shallow and meaningless “action” step alone, but even more meaningless coming from a company that exhibits so many of the behaviors Martin Luther King Jr. so strongly opposed.

This is the challenge that The White Mountain School faces: how do we reject and actively eliminate the white-washing and co-opting of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideas? Is the act of having a “day” dedicated to MLK’s life inherently co-opting it? We considered these questions, and more, as we planned our programming.

Our response to these questions was complicated and complex, but these facets rose to the top of our priorities: ensure that we are not putting unwanted work on our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) students, faculty, and staff; eliminate as much room as possible for students to disengage and be passive participants; keep the workshops focused on addressing hard truths while also celebrating Black joy and resistance. We decided to make our workshops more dialogue-based rather than the presentation style we’d been using for the past several years. We asked workshop facilitators to build their workshops around a common resource—an excerpt from a podcast, a short article, an episode of television, music, or Ted Talk, etc.—and then to cultivate questions for participants to wrestle with in response to this resource. Some of the workshops we created were White Women + Racism: What is a “Karen”?, Reparations, and Racism in the Queer Community & Homophobia in BIPOC communities. You can find a full list of the workshops and their descriptions here.

In order to help students have the right tools to engage in this kind of dialogue, we brought in Nicole Furlonge, director of the Klingenstein Center at the Teachers College of Columbia and the author of the book Race Sounds: The Art of Listening in African-American Literature, who studies and teaches about ethical listening and the act of listening as civic engagement. Nicole facilitated what she called a Listening Salon with our community and used music as the medium to discuss the complexities of listening. Through listening to Nina Simone’s “I Wonder How it Feels to be Free,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What it’s Worth,” and Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” we reflected on what we heard and what we wondered, which layers of the music got our attention and which one’s we disregarded, how the listening made us feel in the body, how we might aim to listen with our body and not merely with our ears. Nicole’s expertise allowed us to ask some beautiful and essential questions about listening as civic engagement: How do we coach ourselves to listen to not only what is familiar but also that which we don’t recognize? How do we hold two seemingly contradictory truths at the same time? How do we tell ourselves it is okay for two different things to be true? What happens if we see listening not as an act of agreement or complicity but as an act of understanding and exploration? 

As I reflect back on Nicole’s workshop and the moments of success in these challenging and beautiful workshops, two things Nicole said land most profoundly on my soul. At one point, she said that listening is an agreement to meet each other around the concept of being a human being. Later, in a different context, she said that to listen is to recognize the full humanity of a person. I often find myself in conversations with folks, especially young people, about how hard it is to listen to someone you don’t agree with or respect. And doing this is an incredibly difficult skill—there’s no doubt about that. But in the work of equity, justice, and belonging, it is imperative that we constantly practice that skill. And, if we return to Nicole’s idea that listening is not the same thing as agreeing, it might give us more space to work through that challenge. Perhaps we can look at listening to someone with whom we disagree an opportunity to understand a new perspective, to “travel” out into the world of opinions and experience. If nothing else, understanding other people, ideas, and perspectives will only help us to understand our own better. It is that nuanced understanding of self and others, I believe, that is needed in order to truly strive toward King’s beloved community, here at The White Mountain School, and extended across the globe. 

Founded in 1886 and set in the beautiful White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, The White Mountain School is a gender-inclusive, college-preparatory boarding and day school for 140 students grades 9-12/PG. Our mission is to be a school of inquiry and engagement. Grounded in an Episcopal heritage, White Mountain prepares and inspires students to lead lives of curiosity, courage, and compassion.

© 2022, The White Mountain School.