Feature: Giving Voice
How does the School embrace the challenge of multiple points of view among a teenage population only just learning what it means to be empathetic?
Kimberly Swick Slover
In his first two years at St. Paul’s, Joshua Beirich ’19 felt like an outcast. He didn’t understand or fit into the “upper-crust culture.” He didn’t recognize designer clothing brands or know what “Nantucket” was or why it was a constant topic of conversation. Not wanting to make others feel uncomfortable, Beirich stayed silent about his family’s lower economic status. Then, at some point in his Third Form year, news that Beirich is gay became common knowledge. “I didn’t feel loved or respected,” Beirich says of his early experience.
Now a Fifth Former, Beirich is finding his voice and embracing his identity, both as a devout Muslim who prays five times a day and as someone who struggles to reconcile his sexuality with the edicts of Islam. Through his participation in Model United Nations and the Debate Team, he has honed his speaking skills. Beirich also founded the Muslim Students Association and organized a Chapel talk in which he and other Muslim students spoke about what their religion means to them.
“Unlike many of my peers, I hold a wide variety of identities and convictions that, to the naked eye, seem to give some people initial hesitation and confusion,” Beirich says. “But what I have found is that St. Paul’s has given me a largely judgment-free space to figure out who I am and how I should behave without the constant stress and judgment from the outside world.”
A Sense of Belonging
St. Paul’s School has many kinds of diversity among its students – socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, religious, and gender identity – although some groups have few representatives. Vice Rector for School Life Theresa Ferns ’84 focuses on maintaining a healthy culture, which she defines as diverse, welcoming, and inclusive. “I need to make sure all community members are educated and have tools and skills to confront inequities so we can be an inclusive, healthy community,” she says. “Ultimately, inclusion is the sense that you belong, that this is your community, your school.”
Ferns oversees the associate dean of diversity and inclusivity and works closely with administrators to create the School’s strategic initiatives and objectives. She sees the work of maintaining a healthy culture as a shared responsibility. Currently the School is integrating a new educational framework – equity literacy – into its Living in Community (LINC) curriculum. Equity literacy frames the pervasive lack of access to quality educational and career opportunities for low-income families and families of color as social injustice that results in societal biases and further inequities. In response, equity literacy guides teachers in how to create equitable classrooms and gives students the knowledge and tools to recognize and confront imbalances.
When Estela Lacombe Franca ’19 arrived as a Fourth Former from São Paulo, Brazil, less than two years ago, she didn’t know what to expect. Now she cannot imagine a future without her SPS friends. Franca sees herself as one of the most fortunate people she knows. She comes from an impoverished country in the midst of economic and social crises and recognizes that she is privileged to study abroad and benefit from experiences that few of her compatriots will ever enjoy. “I have incredible opportunities,” she says, “and it is my duty to give back to those around me who do not have access to the same things I do.”
Franca arrived at SPS and immediately leapt into campus life. As a leader in the International Society, she and her peers connect the campus to the fascinating cultures represented by foreign students. Each month, she and a fellow student also produce The Tides, an e-magazine that explores topical international issues.
“It baffles me how easy it is to get lost inside the St. Paul’s School bubble,” Franca says. “I believe The Tides plays an important role in opening peoples’ eyes to the world.” Franca also works with Kids Tales, an organization that provides creative writing workshops taught by high school students for low-income children. She brought the program to Brazil in the summer of 2016 and last year she received a Sokoloff Grant from St. Paul’s to expand the program.
“We have taught 200 children in six different institutions in São Paulo,” she says. Recently Franca shared her story about Kids Tales through a Chapel talk, and the community responded with great interest and enthusiasm. “I have found that if you love what you’re talking about, people will listen,” she says. “They will ask questions, they’ll probe further, and they’ll force you to consider more deeply the issues you are addressing. St. Paul’s has made me who I am today. I know it’s a community I will be part of for the rest of my life.”
Social and Cultural Conversations
Mashadi Matabane taught humanities for three years at the School before taking on her current role as associate dean for equity and inclusion. Matabane works with students, parents, and faculty, but students are her first constituency, and she makes sure she is visible and accessible. “If students need to rant, or if they need to celebrate, they can come to me,” she says. “There are a lot of people here for them, but sometimes they just need to have social, cultural conversations.”
In their first years, students of color can feel isolated or not as well integrated as other students, and they struggle to fit in and feel the School is theirs. While Matabane recognizes their need for social and emotional support, she finds students don’t always know their experiences are part of normal growth and development. “A lot of it is me telling them, ‘Give yourself a chance to grow and be in this role. You’re in this space, how do you want to fit in? Do you want to do what everyone else is doing or forge your own path?’” she says. “Gender, race, class, and ability all play a role in how these kids begin to understand how to live and be in this environment.”
Micro-aggressions related to race, class, and gender are a fact of life for all human beings – and they happen at SPS. Matabane’s role sometimes can feel like a balancing act, in which she seeks to help the School support its underrepresented students, while also trying to help students strengthen their grit to deal with the “ways of the world” and confront issues of social inequity they may encounter in life. Underrepresented students are encouraged by LINC teachers and others to take on leadership roles as prefects and LINC leaders, in their dorms, and in student organizations. In recent LINC Days focused on race and socioeconomic differences, students stepped up to tell personal stories that surprised and moved their classmates and sparked dialogue that continues on campus.
For Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January, Matabane brought in New York University scholar and activist Frank Leon Roberts, who discussed with students the line between the Civil Rights movement of King’s era and today’s Black Lives Matter movement. In a powerful and empowering way, Roberts conveyed BLM as more about human rights than civil rights, encompassing feminism, LGBTQ, and current social justice efforts around the world. Student response was positive. “Slowly students are signaling that they want to have deeper conversations and ways to talk about their identities and what they’re seeing,” Matabane says. “They’re looking for allies and accomplices and for some solidarity in this world.”
Turning to One Another for Support
Alejandro Toledo-Navarro ’19, a Dominican American from Newark, N.J., has emerged as a leader for students of color on campus. He heads the Student Cultural Alliance – an organization that connects students of color at boarding schools – and Transitions, a group he describes as a safe space for students of color to discuss issues that arise from attending a predominately white institution. Students of color now comprise 39 percent of the School’s student body, which Toledo-Navarro says is large enough to constitute a strong affinity group. They turn to each other for support, especially as they navigate racial and cultural issues on campus. Yet, Toledo-Navarro laments that similar support is “nearly impossible” to find among the faculty, simply because the vast majority – 80 percent – are white and cannot relate to the experiences of students of color. Vice Rector for Faculty Michael Spencer and others are working hard to change that.
“I have a voice that is heard and respected among students as the head of the two affinity groups,” Toledo-Navarro says. “However, my voice is often left in the air when I talk to faculty about certain issues because of the problem of diversity. I have grown more comfortable speaking to students and faculty because I have formed closer relationships to them, but the problem of diversity still lingers.” In celebration of Black History Month in February, Toledo-Navarro and three other students presented a Chapel talk about persistent racial inequities in society. “We read articles from various time periods in an attempt to prove that the struggles for minorities in America are still present,” he says. “This experience was rewarding because it made people aware of the issues different racial groups face in society.”
Toledo-Navarro shares his culture, and specifically his love of music and dancing, through the Hip Hop Heads club. He and another student also started Campus Cuts, a service that arranges for barbers experienced in cutting the textured hair of people of color to provide services on campus. Over time, Toledo-Navarro says the St. Paul’s community has pushed his development from childhood into an independent, confident, and genuine man. “I stopped trying to fit in and started being me,” he says.
Windows and Mirrors
When Michael Spencer became dean of chapel in 2007 (he now serves as vice rector for faculty), he was asked to bring fresh eyes to what it means to be an Episcopal School. As an Episcopalian priest, he viewed the denomination as inclusive and aware of God’s presence in all the wisdom traditions. Interfaith readings were already woven into Chapel services, and Spencer expanded programs in that direction. As dean of chapel, he often evoked Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of The Beloved Community, in which people of all colors and creeds live as sisters and brothers, in love and peace. In that spirit, Spencer threw open the Chapel doors to welcome everyone, particularly folks of color, like himself. “You can have diversity without inclusion,” he says, “but you can’t have inclusion without diversity.”
Since 2015, Spencer has continued to build out the School’s vision of a diverse and inclusive community as vice rector for faculty. In addition to supporting 117 faculty, he leads the School’s efforts to recruit more diverse faculty members. “The particular needs of folks of color are a little different,” Spencer says, “and they are in demand.” St. Paul’s posts faculty openings in all the relevant places and works with historically black colleges and recruitment services, such as NemNet. The School’s teaching fellowship program with the University of Pennsylvania provides a steady flow of faculty, at least half of whom are people of color.
Today people of color make up 20 percent of the faculty, with less representation of Hispanic, Latino, and Asian faculty members. “We want to bring our faculty more in line with our students,” Spencer explains. “In diversity work, we talk about windows and mirrors. In a community, you want to have windows – people different from you – and mirrors – people similar to you who reflect yourself back at you. For people of color, there are a lot of windows here, but there could be more mirrors. We’re doing well with bringing more diversity to the School, and we’ve got much more work to do.”
Spencer stresses the goal of providing the best possible teaching and learning environment for students. Academic excellence, Spencer explains, requires diversity of perspective, opinion, and background. Diverse schools, therefore, create the foundation for academic excellence.
The diversity of faculty of color at SPS has continued to increase over the past three years. However, the goal of Spencer as vice rector for faculty and the School in general is for the faculty to more closely mirror the diversity of the student body. For the upcoming academic year, four of the six new faculty hired as of early April are faculty of color. “Our obligation,” says Spencer, “is to create an inclusive and diverse community that prepares our students for the world they will inherit and gives them just a glimpse of this world in all its opportunity and richness and complexity.”
Doing Something Right
A resident of Alexandria, Va., Helen “Lark” White ’19 is the youngest of three sisters who attended boarding schools. As an African-American woman, she arrived at the School ready for overt sexism and racism, but what happened at St. Paul’s felt different from her sisters’ experiences. “I encountered more micro-aggressions,” White says. “Like jokes about my name, Lark White, and questions about what part of Jersey I’m from. A lot of students think all African-American students come from New Jersey or come in through certain programs.”
Early on, White found many social groups were already tightly knit, perhaps due to shared dorms or activities, which left her feeling stranded. She and other students of color often ended up sitting together in the dining hall, not by choice, but because they felt
excluded elsewhere. “There’s a certain mobility after a while,” she says, “but having mobilized myself, it does require an unmatched effort to go sit at that other table.” White expresses herself most freely as a person of faith. Christian Fellowship offers a safe haven for her and
people of many denominations and faiths, as well as those who are curious about the unknown. Every other week the Fellowship meets in the dining hall to eat, study the Gospels, and chat.
“It’s boys and girls and faculty who bring a wide range of experience and baggage to the room, and we end up having great conversations,” White explains. “It’s like a spiritual humanities class. It’s fun and relaxed and a bit of a release, and you can be really vulnerable.” As a Fifth Former, White finds more chances to connect, especially in classes, where she thinks School culture is at its most robust, and social norms have no power. Finally, she has some freedom to create her own social narratives. “Students no longer care about those absolutely ridiculous things that kept them from being friends in the first year,” she says.
In her time at SPS, White has acted in theater productions, most recently in Hamlet, for which she was cast in the lead role. Theater Director Hugh MacGregor had reservations about producing this particular Shakespeare play in a high school context, given the emotional maturity required of the lead character. But by asking the question, “What if Hamlet were a girl?” MacGregor saw possibilities opening up. “Lark did an outstanding audition, particularly when approaching the ‘O what a rogue and peasant slave am I’ soliloquy,” he says, “bringing wisdom, vulnerability, grief, and compassion.” To prepare for her role, White tapped into her own emotional well to summon something like the anger, anxiety, and fear that coursed through her character.
“As a young black woman, oppression and silencing can be as maddening as Hamlet’s struggles,” she says. “My inherent humanity and experience as a minority served my portrayal as Hamlet.” The audience response to the Hamlet production was dramatic. Viewers expressed a genuine sense that they had experienced something special. White was showered with superlatives for her performance. Remembering that night, White laughs joyously, concluding, “We must be doing something right.”