Ethical Leadership: Providence Friends Spring Break Service Retreat

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By Gara B. Field, PhD
Director of Global Education

We arrived at the Meeting House on the afternoon of March 22, 2017 for the 4-day Providence Friends Spring Break Service Retreat with a commitment to learning about and enhancing our community in authentic ways, being vulnerable to transform ourselves as individuals, and create a collective sense of social awareness in hopes of heightening our responsibility to one another and those around us. At Moses Brown, ethical leadership is described as living our core values of SPICES: simplicity; peace; integrity; community; equality; and stewardship. This immersive spring break service learning experience is a manifestation of our responsibility to learn and serve. It connects us with local non-profits, Providence Public Schools, and grounds our intentions to understand important issues of food insecurity in our city, and around the world.

IMG_2172We set up camp with blankets, sleeping bags, and aerobeds that filled every square inch of the Meeting House. Fourteen students and two faculty members began the retreat with a ride on RIPTA to a local supermarket in East Providence. Two groups of 7 students each divided into breakfast and dinner crews to budget, plan, and purchase food for the retreat. Senior Alasia Destine-DeFreece ‘17 remarked in our first night’s meeting for sharing, “It struck me that every single one of us had iPhones, yet one woman on the bus had no phone and was late to work because she missed her connecting bus. She asked us to help her figure out what bus she could catch next, and what time it was scheduled to arrive at her destination. I take for granted most days the fact that I have access to information 24/7 simply by accessing the internet on my phone. I was glad we were able to help her, but the realization of how many challenges working class and poor people face hit me in that moment.”

IMG_2226We were joined for a mac and cheese/chicken finger dinner by three Moses Brown parents who all work and serve in various capacities in Rhode Island, including Navyn Salem (Founder/CEO of Edesia https://www.edesianutrition.org; Cecily Zeigler (Immigration lawyer at Dorcas International – http://www.diiri.org; and Teddy Bah (Co-founder of the Refugee Dream Center with her husband Omar Bah – http://www.refugeedreamcenter.org. Each of these passionate and committed women discussed their varied yet connected experiences working with local refugees and those requiring support across the globe.

IMG_2205The next day, we went to visit and serve at Edesia and the Refugee Dream Center. It was an empowering and simultaneously humbling experience. We learned about four devastating famines that the world has not seen the likes of since World War II, and the work Edesia is doing to end them and save the lives of children in Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, and South Sudan. We spent time with Omar and his team at the Refugee Dream Center (RDC), helping them to organize and set up tables for a free yard sale where many refugees came for clothes, toys, and household items. Learning about Omar and his willingness to share his refugee experience as a journalist who fled The Gambia for investigating human rights violations was shocking. Perhaps as important, was coming to see and understand his unyielding dedication to the refugee community in Rhode Island. Ife Olubowale ‘19, Luke Dow ’19, Georgia Griffin ’19, and Collin McCormack ’18 listened intently as Omar described so much of what he had been through, and why he founded the RDC. That evening, Brooke Nyman ‘19, Lucy Tang ‘19, Andrew Dorman ‘18, Kayla Ure ’17, and Jacob Crisafulli ’17 led the charge to put together care packages with Mylar blankets, toiletries, and hygiene products for people in need who we would connect with the next night. Little did we know, one of the people who gratefully accepted a care package would teach us so much in a brief, but unforgettable interaction.

IMG_2270We spent the final day of the retreat in Providence at Pleasant View Elementary School (where I was a principal for 5 years from 2011 – 2016). We engaged in the morning advisory with students and teachers, and then we worked for several hours cleaning up and putting together new equipment for the PV playground. Retreat co-leader and school psychologist Jess Stewart led a small group of persistent students, including Brian Greene ‘17, Andi Stallman ’18, and Halle Salem ’19 in building a new see-saw for PreK students. Seniors Kile Grinai ’17 and Jacob Crisafulli ’17 built a storage bench while Alasia Destine-DeFreece ‘17 and Kayla Ure ’17 swept sand back into its rightful place, and edged the playground. Kile Grinai ’17 was particularly moved by one kindergartener who made a lasting impression upon him. He watched her struggle with each step that she took in her Physical Therapy session. At our meeting for sharing that night, Kile reflected, “I had a moment today, and it stayed with me. It stayed with me at lacrosse practice when we were doing wind sprints.  It will probably stay with me for a long time. I’ve never really thought about something as simple as walking being challenging for a child. I will never forget that little girl who worked so hard – just to walk. She was inspiring.”

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On the evening of March 24, we distributed care packages that we put together for homeless and food insecure individuals at Cathedral Square with House of Hope (HoH) Case Manager Megan Smith, and her friends/colleagues from HoH and Brown University. There was a gentleman, affectionately referred to as Sarg, who stood out among the crowd. It became clear that Sarg is a valued and beloved member of his community, and he spent time talking to a few of us. We learned that Sarg is a Vietnam veteran who did two tours of duty and served our country with distinction. We talked about the state of our nation, the horrors of war, the complexities of life on the street, and the lifeline that the HoH and Cathedral Square communities have become to him. We talked about his childhood, his family, his favorite books, and his passion for cooking. He invited us back on a night that he cooks up a “mean stew.” Just as he departed, he got on his bike and said, “What you kids are doing out here means a lot to people. Thank you. I hope to see you again someday. Come back … even if it’s just to say hi, and share a bowl of soup.”

IMG_2292Each night, we had a meeting for sharing where we reflected on the most meaningful parts of the day for us individually and collectively. At times, we laughed, and at times, we cried. We reflected on what we saw, learned, and experienced in terms of poverty, physical challenges, immigration, worldwide famines, and food insecurity in the U.S. We reflected on life chance, privilege, social entrepreneurism, stewardship, and the arc of social justice in a complex world. Sophomore Lucy Tang ’19 noted, “To me, even though we are visiting local sites, we are seeing how our community can have a global impact.”

As stated by author and educator Dwight L. Wilson, “Personal perspectives on justice have been known to change with one’s degree of comfort. In response to this phenomenon, the 18th century Quaker, John Woolman offered guidance when he said, “Oppression in the extreme appears terrible, but oppression in more refined appearances remains oppression, and where the smallest degree of it is cherished it grows stronger and more extensive.”  “Without social justice, there is no peace.”  Andrew Dorman ’18 summed up his thoughts about the retreat in an honest and reflective way, “When I first got to the Meeting House, I found myself eager to get the whole thing over with, not really expecting anything to come out of the trip. Yet, each hour of the day spent bonding with kids I don’t usually talk to, and interacting with people at each of the places we went, really stuck with me, especially after the whole thing was over. The trip was so fun and thought-provoking. It was about people and compassion. Honestly, it felt good to talk to people who were struggling, and hear their stories. It made me ask myself who I want to be as a person, and how I can benefit someone else’s life, along with my surrounding community. I recommend the trip to every student at MB, even though there are a limited number of spots.” The next Friends Spring Break Service Retreat will run from March 14 – 17, 2018.

Faith & Play stories help students understand Quaker beliefs, history

By Galen McNemar Hamann
Director of Friends Education

In our lower school, I use Quaker Faith & Play as a means to help students better understand Quaker beliefs and help tell the history of Quakerism. Working with third grade at the end of the last school year, I used the tale of Mary Fisher, a Quaker who lived in the 1600’s, as a chance to teach about Quaker leadings and to demonstrate how we might approach others of different religions today.

The story explores Mary’s ability to follow a leading – a sense that one should do something. One of the leadings Mary followed, one which she is now famous for, was her leading to travel from England to Turkey to meet with Sultan Mehmet IV, the ruler of the Ottoman empire and a Muslim. Her desire was to share with him her understanding of Quakerism and to talk together about religion. Sultan Mehmet IV received her with hospitality and they were able to engage in dialogue, reaching a deeper understanding of one another’s religion.

These students, now in the fourth grade, will next study world religions and take part in a project based on inter-religious collaboration.

Teaching Presidential Elections in a Divided Age

By Graham Holland
Middle school humanities
May 2016

GrahamThis is certainly shaping up to be an interesting election season. Just as Americans across the nation are trying to make sense of what seems to be an historic political realignment, history teachers are struggling to come up with the best way to talk about this election with their students, one that speaks to both the mechanisms of our democracy as well as the surprising and perhaps even alarming characteristics of this particular presidential campaign. This is no easy task.

I have been thinking about how to teach during presidential elections ever since Barack Obama was voted in to a second term in November of 2012, which was about the same time that my seventh grade history class was studying the American Revolution. As usual, I had a lovely group of twelve and thirteen-year-olds that year, but as the election neared I couldn’t help but notice that a certain toxicity had entered the classroom. Students who were otherwise good friends had taken to lobbing verbal bombs across the room at each other. Others had started making casual, unprompted pronouncements to the class about the positive qualities of one particular candidate and the America-destroying traits of the other. Worse still were the conspiratorial whispers and eye-rolls shared between like-minded neighbors whenever a classmate dared to utter an opposing view. For the most part, these students were echoing the views of their parents, which covered the entire spectrum from left to right. For every Obama t-shirt seen peeking out from behind an unbuttoned flannel, there was a Romney bumper sticker slapped across the front of a laptop. I found myself looking forward to election day the way voters in swing states must. Just as they know they will wake up the next morning to television programming that is blissfully free of political advertisements, I hoped that the tone in my classroom would return to normal as well. And that’s exactly what happened. On November 7th, the same students who had been eyeing one another suspiciously across the room happily shed their partisan cloaks and were friends once more. The atmosphere in the classroom was as polite and convivial as ever.

So, for the past three and a half years, I have found myself asking the same question: is there a creative, pedagogically sound, and developmentally appropriate way to address presidential elections with my students? With another one looming on the horizon, there is a temptation to pretend it’s not there. We could chart a course down the familiar path of American history, horse blinders shielding our gaze from the realities outside of the classroom. Any talk of politics could be quickly silenced. The election of 1816 would be fair game, but not the election of 2016. Tempting, but it feels like a bit of a cop-out. It’s certainly not the best way to nurture the critical thinking skills that our students will need to become the next generation of engaged citizens. Messy as it might be, the only real solution is to face the election head-on.

Americans of all political stripes frequently lament the absence of civil dialogue or genuine debate among the voting public. The term homophily is increasingly invoked to describe our tendency to seek out like-minded peers who will confirm what we already think. This trend has only accelerated in the age of social media, where we block out the things we don’t want to see and are increasingly fed the content that is most appealing to us. More and more Americans are even choosing to move to those regions of the country that most reflect their political leanings.  If we take it as a given that these are unhealthy trends in a vibrant democracy, then what role can we as educators play in interrupting them?

When planning curricular units, teachers often employ a strategy known as backward design in which they begin with the learning outcomes they want their students to achieve and then work backward to plan the lessons and experiences that will yield that result. So, what would backward design look like in this case? To imagine an end result, let’s fast forward to a time when these seventh graders are adults and assume that they will hold a wide range of political opinions. If we were to put them in a room together and encourage them to debate and discuss presidential electoral politics, what hopes would we have for the tone and character of that discussion? I, for one, would hope to see a vigorous debate in which even the sharpest disagreements could be expressed with civility and respect. I would want the participants in the discussion to be exceedingly well-informed about the issues, so that they could both support their own opinions and critique the opinions of their peers with evidence. While I might expect to see a range of firmly held beliefs, I would hope that the participants would also be open to new ideas, and that uncertainty, curiosity, and flexible thinking would be valued by the group. When the discussion ended, I would hope that the participants would leave with a better understanding of the issues and one another. Whatever their disagreements, I would want them to shake hands as friends and peers, content in the knowledge that they were participants in a vital and healthy democratic process.

If this idealized political discussion is the goal, then we must work backward to identify the set of knowledge, skills, and experiences that students need to achieve it. My vision for a “positively political” classroom starts with a set of understandings that I intend to share with my seventh graders early in the year. The first is an honest portrait of the state of political discourse today. I want to be transparent about my hopes and fears. I want to tell them how I felt four years ago, what I saw in the classroom, and the concerns I have for teaching this election. But more importantly, I want to invite them to join me in building an alternative.

I imagine saying something like this on the first day:

Seventh graders, we will be carving out time to talk about the presidential election, but here is my fear. I fear that this discussion will divide you from your peers, that you will shut down and close yourself off from the new ideas and opinions. I worry that we will begin the year in a way that will separate us right at the moment when we are first getting to know each other. But it doesn’t have to be this way. This classroom space can be whatever we make it. I’d like it to be a place where we can talk politics with openness, honesty, and a sense of goodwill toward each other.

Let’s start with this. You are not a member of a political party. Your parents might be, but you are not. As a seventh grader your job is to learn as much as you can about the world and begin to form your own opinions about the issues of the day. You may find that your opinions line up with the platform of a particular political party or that they don’t. Neither is right or wrong. If your starting point is an identification with a political party, then you run the risk of letting other people do your thinking for you. Your positions are informed by the party’s position, not by your own experience and learning. The same is true of presidential candidates. If identification with the candidate is your starting point, then you allow that allegiance to define your position on issues instead of developing your own understanding of those issues and then seeking out a candidate who shares your views. Let’s also start with the assumption that you haven’t had enough life experience to develop an informed opinion on most issues. This is fine. No one expects you to have fully developed opinions, and that’s a good thing. It means you are still open to learning and growing. So, as we have these discussions, let’s celebrate our uncertainty and be skeptical of anyone who is too confident in his or her opinion. If someone says, “I don’t understand this issue well enough to have an informed opinion” then they should be applauded. There is great wisdom in this statement.

Our goal as a class is to create a safe, open environment in which we can discuss and debate issues respectfully. In order to do this we need to abide by certain rules. When you speak, use “I” statements. This is one of the foundations of good communication in any setting. If you state something as truth that may in fact be debatable, then you create the conditions for conflict with those who question that truth. If, on the other hand, you express ideas as a matter of what you feel or believe, your statements become much harder to contradict, and you create an opening for others to share what they feel or believe. As you express an opinion, try to imagine that someone in the room, a person whom you consider a good friend, has the opposite opinion. Try to express yourself in a way that clearly articulates your feelings while preserving the positive feelings that you and that classmate share toward each other. Even if you are quite confident that what you have to say is true, consider using these phrases to convey a sense of humbleness and openness:

It seems to me…

It is my understanding that…

My sense is…

In my experience…

Rather than shutting people down, these phrases are invitations to further conversation. A classmate might respond by saying I have a different understanding or my experience with that issue is different.

This is a history class and one of the most important skills you will practice this year is how to find and use valid sources of information. Similarly, you will learn to critically examine sources for bias and accuracy. This skill will be essential to our ability to have informed political discussions. If you want to express an opinion, please know that it will carry much more weight if it is backed up by a credible source. If you can point to an news article or share a link with the class, they will be much more likely to take your point seriously. Saying, “I heard…” or “My uncle told me…” doesn’t have quite the same effect.

As we engage in these discussions, things are bound to get messy from time to time. You might find that you disagree strongly with someone you care about. You might experience the discomfort that comes when you begin to question long-held assumptions. Don’t let any of this stop you from participating fully in the experience. If we can learn and grow together, challenge each other, and really wrestle with the issues of our time together, all while maintaining a sense of goodwill and respect for one another, then we will have accomplished a great deal.

Where to go from there? This spring, I experimented with this a bit with my current class and was encouraged by the results. We started with a journal exercise in which the students were prompted to write a description of their ideal presidential candidate. What characteristics or personality traits would he or she have? What background or experience? The students wrote their responses on a shared Google doc which I projected on the board while they were writing. When they were finished I asked the students to read over each other’s responses. I asked them to share aloud if they saw something in a classmate’s response that they connected with or that made sense to them. I then gave the students a chance to ask each other clarifying questions. What did you mean when you said that the president should have a good background? Why do you think it’s important that he or she has held elected office before? While there were a couple of jokes thrown in about the current presidential candidates, the students were quite thoughtful and reflective during this exercise. In many cases I was struck by the depth of their responses:

They wouldn’t be extreme, but rather someone who is interested in compromise.

I would want this world leader to be a veteran of the military, which suggests they’ve seen the horrors of war and will be careful when declaring war upon others.

I would hope that they would come from a low income family so that they understand the struggles of much of the population.

This exercise felt like a good starting point. It provided a chance for students to begin laying the foundations of what I hope will one day be a thoughtfully constructed and fully realized belief system. With enough class time, I imagine that we could work through many of the issues facing our country today. What limits, if any, should be placed on the people’s right to keep and bear arms? What should the immigration policy of the United States look like? What role should the government play in providing healthcare to its citizens? These are weighty topics for seventh graders, but there is great value in beginning to wrestle with them and in developing an understanding of the wide range of perspectives on each issue.

How much of this work can really happen in the first few months of school? Without scrapping the rest of my curriculum entirely, probably not a lot. But is it worth at least making the attempt?

Will the experience impact my students in a meaningful and lasting way? I truly hope so. In a time of such partisan rancor, when our intractable differences render us incapable of confronting the challenges before us, a hopeful outlook might feel like a luxury. But, it is in the very nature of teaching to see in our students the promise of the next generation. So, while teaching during this election season may seem like a burden, perhaps it is an opportunity.  

Breeding respect, unlearning bigotry, and deflating stereotypes

By David Wasser, middle school teacherWasser_sm

Fifty years after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the passage of the first significant Civil Rights legislation in this country, we find ourselves again struggling against the pernicious forces of prejudice and discrimination. Not that prejudice and discrimination had ever gone away; but the past several years have brought us a string of particularly tragic and ugly reminders of what happens when our biases and stereotypes manifest themselves in our actions and behaviors.

The list of black men, women, and children who have died at the hands of law enforcement personnel just in the last two years is beyond disheartening. It is a national shame.

In the political discourse of this new election cycle, we see how easily and successfully some are able to invoke vile stereotypes to stoke and exploit the fears of millions of our fellow citizens. It is frightening to see just how small is the distance between a rally and a lynch mob, and how thin is the veneer that separates an advanced cosmopolitan civilization from one that is primitive and tribalistic.

Where have we gone wrong? How could it be that our annual commemoration of lofty

Martin-Luther-King-Jrwords and deeds has not innoculated us against the disease of bigotry? Where is the Promised Land that Dr. King claimed to see?

If my experiences have taught me anything, it is that the only effective way to combat prejudice and stereotypical thinking is personal contact with people from all variety of backgrounds. Bringing people together with others who are different from them – not just to sit and politely listen to a speaker – but to really live together, eat together, pray together, sing together, learn together, and work together, is the most effective antidote to the spread of stereotypical thinking.

I am forever grateful for having been born into a family that values travel and the cultural enlightenment that it makes possible. As a teenager, I was given the opportunity to visit Israel, where I lived and worked in a kibbutz. There I got to meet not only young Israelis of my age, but also young people from all over Europe, and many other countries. We studied Hebrew, worked milking cows and picking fruit, went sightseeing together, and celebrated every Friday night in the bombshelter-cum-discotheque. This sojourn led to a whirlwind tour of Europe, including a visit to France, where the warmth and kindness of every stranger I met blew my previous image of the French out of the water! A few years later on, I jumped at the chance to trek with a couple of college friends from Casablanca, Morocco along the southern Mediterranean coast to Algeria, then south and across the Sahara on the back of an open truck, and on into the West African nation of Mali. From Mali, I went and spent some time in Egypt before heading north to visit my old friends in Israel.

In every place I visited – despite cultural and linguistic barriers, despite different ways of doing things, despite different views of how society should be organized and governed – I found people who were friendly, generous, welcoming, curious, and intelligent. I found people who loved and believed in their way of living, and those who wanted to make a change. I discovered that what I thought I knew about certain places and people just didn’t fit the reality I was seeing. I realized that a stereotype is a just a two-dimensional representation of creatures that are multidimensional! I learned, also, that getting to know a person face-to-face is an experience a thousand times richer and more satisfying than hearing about a person through a second-hand account.

So how does this kind of personal connection with people who are different from oneself work to counteract the effects of negative stereotypes and generalizations? Speaking for myself, I know that whenever I hear or read something about a place I have visited and where I have friends, I have a different reaction than when I hear about people or places where I have no connection. In the former case, I think of the people I know and see their faces in my mind. I compare what I am being told with what I know, and I am therefore able to evaluate more critically the information being given. In the latter case, however, I lack the same frame of reference. I am much more at the mercy of whoever’s perspective is being shown to me, and all I have are the stereotypes I have picked up with which to assess the validity of the claims being made.

At MB, this truth is recognized and acknowledged through the TRIPs program. Students of the 21st century are stepping into a world where “interconnected” has almost become a cliché. Our students will certainly be interacting with people from all around the world in their daily lives. To a great extent, they already do! They do not need to travel far across the globe to encounter different cultures and ways of thinking. We have incredible diversity all around us!

It will be essential, therefore, to our students’ success in this world that they get out and meet it face-to-face. They need to learn to identify and reject stereotypes encountered in the media, in stump speeches, in board rooms, and in casual conversations. This is not so simply for the moral and ethical reasons, which are certainly sufficient; but also for practical reasons. Decisions and actions that are based on stereotypes – rather than a deep understanding of history, culture, values, and beliefs – are, at best, less efficacious; at worst, life-threatening.

Giving students the opportunity to travel, experience, and build authentic connections with people from all walks of life enables them to develop a clearer, more accurate, more nuanced picture of the world, and prepares them to fill the ethical leadership roles we so urgently need.

Student diversity conference an eye-opener for students (and parents too)

By Heidi Gilkenson, MB parent

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MB students and faculty attending the SDLC 2015 in Tampa.

Imagine giving your child a stress free weekend, a time full of rich meaningful conversations, connecting with other kids who look like them and have similar lifelong experiences. Giving them a few days to have fun. Sending them someplace where they can play games, learn new skills, laugh a lot and cry sometimes, and realize that they have just stepped through a door to a world that they have never opened before and it feels like home. For those of you who can’t relate to that, but do wear glasses, remember when you put on a pair of glasses for the first time. I don’t know about you, but for me my first reaction to being able to see life clearly was, “WOW! I had no idea.” This is what the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) has been for my children.

SDLC is an annual conference for junior and high school students which takes place throughout the country. This years took place in Tampa, Florida. For our family, we all attend in some way or another. Whether it’s driving Moses Brown’s contingent of 6 students and 2 faculty chaperons to the airport, or receiving a string of text messages describing how the flight was and where they are staying, to receiving several photos of the meals that they are eating. Getting a quick phone call relaying a heart-tugging story shared in an affinity group is not unheard of, as well as more excited texts about great performances presented by students, and descriptions of new friends they’ve made. Picking up an excited yet exhausted teen at 9:30 p.m. from the airport is always enlightening. The summary of the weekend begins in the car and winds down a little after 11:00 p.m., only to begin again the next day and continue in drips and drabs throughout the next two weeks. One year our family was treated to reliving part of SDLC when we hosted three young gentlemen from Boston who had befriended our daughter at the Maryland conference. These young men were part of a Facebook group that a bunch of the SDLC kids had formed. It was a great couple of days where we were treated to so many stories recapping their SDLC experiences. Witnessing the ease in which the kids interacted with each other, and seeing the trust that they shared, was so eye-opening for my husband and I.

SDLC is rich, it’s full, it’s encouraging, it’s fun, it digs down deep to the heart of who you are by helping you define you. It instills confidence and certainty and anchors the kids that attend. It offers them a lifeline that they’ve never experienced and never knew was there. It’s freeing and affirming and it bonds the kids to other kids that have attended, as well as to those that they have traveled there with. As corny as this may sound, it’s life changing. Even though it happens just once a year, the experience lasts forever for the kids who are lucky enough to go.