Feature: Expressing Fears, Hopes, and Dreams
For generations of SPS students, the curated literary magazine Through Our Eyes has provided a space for lesser-heard voices.
Matt de la Pena '04
In the 1970s, St. Paul’s went through a noticeable transformation. With the appointment of Eighth Rector William Armstrong Oates came a flood of expansive initiatives – co-education, a new dress code, intervisitation, the Independent Study Program (ISP) and, more significantly, the cultivation of a more robust and diverse student body. Millville was changing. From those changes sprung groups such as the Third World Cultural Society (now the Student Cultural Alliance), its members united by a simple but important idea; that people of different races, creeds, and status needed a safe space to talk about the School’s rapidly shifting culture. The mantra continues to this day.
Empowered by a common goal, the society went to work promoting inclusion among faculty and peers. Part of that included Through Our Eyes, a published collection of essays and photographs “depicting the joys, sorrows, and hopes” of students of color in the Third World Cultural Society. It was initially created as a look book for prospective SPS minority students. To the group and editors Hilton Clark ’76 and Severo Nieves ’76, who took it on as an ISP under the guidance of The Reverend Preston Hannibal, the book was both an appeal and a tangible representation of the change taking place at SPS. The inaugural edition, recalls Nieves, was conceived to supplement the current admissions materials with additional information regarding the experiences of students of color at the School. “We thought that perhaps a different viewpoint would enable prospective attendees to SPS to become better prepared for life at the School,” says Nieves. “There was little in the way of restrictions when it came to content or idealization; we wanted honesty and truth from every contributor.”
The second edition, edited by Heid Erdrich ’82, Sandra Palomino ’84, and Dennis Alvarez ’83, was produced as an admissions piece in 1982, and included the subtitle “A Minority Perspective of St. Paul’s School.” Editors Lisette Gonzalez ’89, Natasha Kendall ’89, and Michelle Joan Wilkinson ’89 took on the magazine as an ISP in 1989. The third version of Through Our Eyes, evolved into a curated literary magazine, highlighting the “lesser-heard voices” on campus. It was filled with prose and poetry and artwork that put the conversation of race, creed, and socioeconomics squarely in the hands of those who struggled otherwise to discuss it. “I felt it was important to produce Through Our Eyes because the students of color at SPS needed better visibility,” says Wilkinson, “and more access to spaces where their experiences could be expressed and documented. I strongly believe in publications as a way to do this.”
Content Reflective of the Times
Continuing the work of the Third World Cultural Society, Through Our Eyes has since inspired generations of SPS students to take on its duties and responsibilities, its content reflective of the times. Lydia Okutoro-Seck ’93 was one of those students. She remembers editing, designing, and soliciting funding for the 1993 ISP edition. Back then, Okutoro-Seck recalls an ugly confrontation between a black student and a white student that drove much of the conversation at SPS, at a time when racial tensions ran especially high nationwide following the 1992 Los Angeles riots. “Things felt unsettled. And it heightened the feeling of voicelessness that many [students of color] felt,” she says. “Through Our Eyes was one way to express our fears, hopes, and dreams. I remember opening the call for submissions to include both fiction and nonfiction, so that anyone who wanted could tell his or her story.”
There is a sense among former editors that the times may be different, but the issues are the same. That alone is reason enough to “take up the mantle,” says Adrielle Jefferson ’13, a Brooklyn native and editor of the 2013 edition. Jefferson arrived at St. Paul’s in the fall of 2009 and describes it as “a huge culture shock.” In her initial two years, she struggled. By the time Fifth Form rolled around, she found her footing. It was around that time that she discovered Through Our Eyes as a member of the Independent Study Committee. Seeing it for the first time was a revelation. “It was comforting knowing there were generations of students of color who had similar experiences and used their art to discuss issues that were happening on campus,” Jefferson says. “I wanted to add my two cents into that conversation about what it means to be a non-traditional student on campus.”
Addressing Both Obstacles and Progress
Jefferson’s edition, which included alumni voices (including that of 1993 editor Okutoro-Seck), counted as the publication’s most recent until this past year, when Sonna Obiorah ’18 published the newest volume. Of the short stories, poems, and cartoons that make up its contents, the 2018 version follows in the footsteps of the past, its stories and prose alluding to coming-of-age feelings of isolation, despair, discovery, and optimism. Titles include: “Grow,” “to be the beautiful ones,” and “Who We Are.” “You read stories [from older issues] and you see these recurring themes of feeling excluded,” Obiorah says. “You realize that you’re not weird for feeling that way, which is important for people who may feel alone.”
Among the hundreds of ISPs that have taken shape since the 1970s, Through Our Eyes is perhaps one of the few that uniquely addresses both the obstacles and the progress at SPS over the last 50 years. Nieves, the 1976 co-editor, says he is honored that his Sixth Form “labor of love has resonated with the current generation.” Some more recent SPS initiatives: The School created a position overseeing diversity and inclusion and established LINC (Living in Community), a program that supports the School’s objective to build on the core values of the SPS credo (“be kind, live honorably”), among other things. Like SPS, it seems the key for Through Our Eyes is filling voids where they exist.
“I have seen up close how each of these projects has evolved: the challenges and the rewards that each editor has faced,” says Jeanne Windsor, director of the Independent Study Program. “In every instance, I have been exceptionally proud of the students’ investment in the publication.”
The 2018 edition of Through Our Eyes is available online at sps.edu/throughoureyes2018.