Difficult and Necessary Work

by Kim Cooper, Director of Equity, Inclusion, and Justice

Over the past five months, students, alumnae/i, parents, staff, and faculty have frequently asked about The White Mountain School’s commitment to equity, inclusion, and justice. Sometimes the question is: why aren’t you doing more? Other times the question is: why are we doing this? Regardless of the angle of approach, those words—equity, inclusion, and justice—are at the tip of all our tongues, at the center of all our questions. Each time I am asked why White Mountain is engaging in the work of equity, inclusion, and justice, I feel compelled to answer like this: because we must. We must engage in this work not only because the world needs us to, but also because we have written it into the mission of our School: “White Mountain prepares and inspires students to lead lives of curiosity, courage, and compassion.” Curiosity, courage, and compassion are foundational to the success of equity, inclusion, and justice. We need curiosity so that we can learn about world views other than our own, so that we are compelled to look outside our own lived experiences. We need courage to reflect critically upon those lived experiences, to acknowledge that what we have always known may not be the only truth, and then to be courageous enough to speak a new truth. We need compassion because, without it, our curiosity and courage are in vain; compassion, when wed with curiosity and courage, turns to empathy, which we need in this fight for justice.

My approach to this work derives from what I’ve learned from reflecting back on my own upbringing and educational experience. I didn’t grow up talking about race—or any other identifier at that. As a family, we would sometimes watch the news during dinner, and I remember political headlines popping up then disappearing on the screen. I don’t remember if my parents ever commented on the news; if they did, I wonder if it was just in hushed whispers to themselves, not wanting to bring my siblings and me into the folds of what was deemed inappropriate. We lived in a small, mostly white town in New Hampshire, and I was raised by parents who also grew up in small, mostly white towns as well. They were not practiced in talking about systems of oppression, about what the political headlines on the nightly news really meant, or about why we lived in mostly white towns.

I fell in love with reading at an early age, and I remember my favorite books in middle school were written by Mildred D. Taylor, a Black woman: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; The Road to Memphis; and Let the Circle Be Unbroken. I devoured these books. I read and reread them in a way that I haven’t done with any book since. And yet, I didn’t have the language to process what I was reading, to understand that the stories of these characters didn’t just live in the pages of my favorite novels: they actually lived all around me. 

This trend continued throughout high school. I still loved reading, and my teachers often suggested extra books for me to read outside of class. One was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. There are pictures of me reading this book, my lips pursed, eyebrows tense: what was 15-year-old me thinking while I read that book? How was it that I could have read Malcolm’s story and still not understood the depth of the racist world I lived in? In high school, I would go on to read Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston, all Black writers who were telling me explicitly what it meant to be Black in America; and yet, I wasn’t listening. I didn’t understand. How could that have been possible? 

What I’m learning now is that my teachers and my peers were never willing to have a conversation with me about the world beyond the books. The racism that I learned about in high school was a thing of the past; it was a pain so beautifully drawn by the magic of Toni Morrison, and it was there simply for me to read about, not something for me to examine in the life I lead or in the communities in which I lived. It wasn’t until I was twenty-four years old and in graduate school—called out by my peers and professor for something quite racist—that I understood I too had race, and that race did not just exist in the books I read but in me, and in the very white world I lived in. Now, with what I have learned and what I am continuing to learn, I know that I likely caused great harm to many people in all of those years. Of course, I didn’t know that I caused harm; I believed I was someone who was trying to do right for the world, but I was only deciding what was right based on what I saw in myself.

Now at The White Mountain School, it is my job—my duty and responsibility—to make sure that as few students as possible are telling that same story when they are older. It is my job to create and sustain a community where students will not go years and years thinking that the injustice or inequity that they read about in high school only lived in those books and not all around them. Because there is inequity in this world; that is a fact. And this country where many of us live, and where all of us have decided to pursue education, was created upon a racist foundation with structural inequity that we—the collective we of this nation—do not yet know how to confront; that is also a fact.

Our job as educators is to prepare students to enter the world with the necessary skills to succeed, and the world to which we are sending our students is riddled with intentionally constructed injustices. A world:

  • That values physical property more than the lives of Black women; 
  • Where the police are murdering Black people in the streets, or in their homes, or in front of their children, simply for being Black; 
  • Where LGBTQ people, most especially transgender people, are erased from narratives, either by being murdered or by being written out of legislation; 
  • Where women, most especially women of color, are silenced, boxed up, simplified, exploited all for the ease of a white patriarchy; 
  • Where prisons are overpopulated with Black, Latinx, and Indigenous folks still providing free labor for this nation; 
  • Where Latinx immigrants are caged up and Latinx citizens are threatened with violent deportation; 
  • Where Native people are sold for profit as mascots while the little that remains of their land is dug up and destroyed before them; and 
  • Where white is synonymous with power, money, access, trust, innocence, and success.

However, we are also sending our students out into a world where young people of all genders and races are rising up and organizing themselves; they’re collaborating, problem-solving, analyzing, writing, and presenting—all for the cause of a safer, more just, more equitable world. I’m not sure if there is anything more central to White Mountain’s mission than that.

The enormity of the task before us is incredibly difficult. The exclusionary systems holding America together are rooted deep in our culture, and they are born from the colonization that haunts us on a global scale. This work cannot be done with one person, or one club, or one group of people at school. We cannot dismantle the global impacts of white supremacy and colonization, sexism, and homophobia if those historically privileged and protected are not part of the movement. That is why White Mountain intentionally embeds justice into the fabric of our community: equity, inclusion, and justice does not live in an elective course or club or group of people; rather, it lives in the academic mission and vision, in the expectations of faculty and staff to be inclusive, culturally competent, and antiracist educators, in the values and voices of the student leaders, in a culture that upholds storytelling as the healing and unifying force that it is.

While I am confident in White Mountain’s commitment to equity, inclusion, and justice, I will be the first to tell you that, historically, we have not always been guided by those principals. We have made mistakes that have caused our alumnae/i, current students, and past and present employees great pain, and that is a trauma that many are still processing. I own and acknowledge that truth; I commit each day to helping our community heal and be better for our current and future community members. And yet, I know that making this commitment does not ensure we won’t make more mistakes or cause more harm; in fact, I know that we will. The inherent nature of doing this work in a predominately white institution is messy, complicated, and imperfect, which is why it makes it all the more important for our community to be prepared and trained, to have open minds and open hearts.

It is my enduring hope and intention that White Mountain students see no separation between doing “work” for school and doing “work” for justice. When they read Sarah Broom’s memoir The Yellow House, or Tommy Orange’s novel There There; when they use speculative fiction to understand American history and read The Deep by Rivers Solomon; when they study Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Project as the primary text in their history class; when they use mass incarceration as the foundational structure in their statistics class; when time after time they are given the agency to tell their story, to center themselves in their learning and their quest for truth—they will know that what they’re learning is not just about books or credits or projects, it is about them as an individual and their duty and desire to understand the world in which they live. They will know it is about their duty and desire to be curious, courageous, and compassionate, both for themselves and for the humanity of all.

If you want to connect with me to share your experiences at the School, to offer feedback, to share ideas or resources, or simply to just be in conversation about equity, inclusion, and justice—please feel free to reach out to me at any time. The best way to connect with me is via email: [email protected].

Kim Cooper is The White Mountain School’s new director of equity, inclusion, and justice, having assumed the role permanently this summer after serving on an interim basis in the 2019-2020 academic year. Throughout the 2020-2021 school year, Telemark and Echoes readers can expect to hear from Kim on various equity, inclusion, and justice-related topics, both at the School or in society at large.

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.