A community builder, an early childhood visionary, a human rights activist, and a leader in the cause for social justice – these are the people who will be honored at Roeper’s 75th Anniversary Gala Celebration on Friday February 17th at the Royal Oak Music Theater.
Shamayim Harris, Sally Booth, Rudy Simons, and Bryan Stevenson are all activists; they have dedicated their lives to leading by doing. At a time when many in our country are seeking ways to engage, ways to make an impact and to better our community, these four individuals model for us how to make a difference.
The timing of our celebration is indeed most opportune; over the past three weeks I have listened to community members debating and arguing, engaged in a number of interesting conversations about our political times. Like the parent who drives the carpool and listens to the conversations in the backseat, sitting in the Birmingham library has given me a front row seat to the daily discourse that has become American politics.
You might be surprised to know of the political diversity that exists at our school. We often talk about diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation, but somehow political diversity doesn’t jump immediately to mind within our community. Our families run the gamut from conservative to liberal, libertarian to communist, and activist to the cynically disconnected. Into this collection of differing beliefs landed the emotional intensities of the 2016 election.
As I reminded the community after the votes were counted:
George and Annemarie Roeper wanted us to be “Citizens of the World” – not to live in isolation. They wanted us to focus on the importance of justice rather than power; they wanted to make sure that we valued the differences in each other and understood that those differences made our community stronger. These core tenets of our philosophy may at times feel counter culture – and that’s okay.
Our Roeper values do not change because of an election – no matter what the outcome of any vote, we are a community guided by ethical principles. We are a community that treats each other with respect, speaks with thoughtfulness and kindness, and works every day to be an inclusive place of teaching and learning. Our tenets may not be in keeping with the experiences our students see in the media, and so it is up to us to help them see that we sometimes have to work to preserve our core values.
In our philosophy, the Roepers called upon us to prepare our children for the unknown future. Let us agree and commit to the principles of civility, decency, and care for one another as the central ingredients to that preparation. Let us agree that we will not be an isolated community – that instead we will continue to be a school community that stands up for inclusivity and justice.
Three weeks after the inauguration our country has moved past the election season and into the time of governance. Our students are watching closely how the adults in our community and beyond the walls of our buildings are responding to the changes that have come with a change in leadership. They watch as issues shift from the hypothetical discourse of election rhetoric to the actions of executive orders, congressional hearings, and judicial actions. Our children are living a modern day civics class and it is incumbent upon us as the adults in their lives to provide guidance, support, and understanding.
We have the opportunity to teach media literacy, to help our children learn how to be informed consumers of news and discerning users of a variety of sources. As the recent Stanford Study, Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic online Reasoning suggests, American students have a great deal of difficulty differentiating real from fake news. The trending phrase “alternative facts,” has only deepened the cynicism that already exists among our students suggesting that facts themselves are malleable.
We have an opportunity to teach civic engagement; we can help remind our students that each of them has a voice. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we can write our congressional leaders, we can attend town hall meetings, and we can register and help others register to vote. And yes, when it is appropriate, we can engage in public protest. Such civic participation requires that we work to educate our students and ourselves about the issues at hand. It is not enough to have an emotional belief or an intense political passion – we must first understand, we must first know the issues.
We have an opportunity to engage with one another, to learn about and from one another. As our Gala Keynote speaker, Bryan Stevenson reminds us, when we get proximate we can change the narrative. It is all too simple to demonize our neighbors because of how they voted, it is easy to unfriend someone on Facebook whom we have known for decades because of the memes they post. It is easy to be critical in a post or tweet from the sidelines of your couch. It is easy to fall into the stereotypical descriptions of one group of people or another, and then hold our heads up with moral superiority. But what have we done? How have we improved our world? How have we changed the narrative of the situation? We get proximate by spending time with one another, by talking to each other, by respecting difference and showing tolerance.
We have real differences in our country. We are struggling with issues of identity; the balance between liberty and security; economic philosophies; the concept of a social safety net; the notion of how to care for our environment; we are struggling with the understanding of what it means to have human rights; of how to balance justice and power; of how to give each citizen a voice. We are struggling with how we prepare ourselves and our children for the unknown future.
If, as Bryan Stevenson reminds us, we are to have hope, then we must be willing to do some things that are uncomfortable. Helping our students learn how to use their voices is not the same thing as telling them what to say or what to believe. As teachers, we know that children look to us for guidance and that they can be directed by what we suggest or model. The power to leave such an impression is an awesome responsibility – one that is based in trust, integrity, and a dedication to the health of our community. We hold this responsibility soberly and understand the anxiety families have when we lean into hard conversations. We also believe that it is far better to lean in than to let difficult conversations go unspoken.
Our students are trying to process all that is going on around them; they bring their passions, their fears and their emotional intensities with them into the classroom. As teachers in a gifted school we understand these intensities and their ability to inspire and overwhelm. As adults watching all that goes on in the world, some of us will be tempted to seek engagement on each twist and turn of the political and social landscape. Knowing what is an appropriate conversation for students at a particular point in their development is something that we must constantly review – and we will.
Our Gala celebrates the lasting strength of our philosophy. In a time when it is easy to be cynical or manipulated by the echo chamber of social media, it is important to see the recipients of our Golden Apple Awards as people who lead by example. We are honored as a school to share these leaders with the community. We hope you come away inspired and, like our recipients, be ready to think as individuals and engage as a community with compassion for each other and this world.