By Whitney Suttell
The theme for this year’s NAIS annual conference was “What’s Your Story?” While I heard many different stories from both individuals and schools, Bryan Stevenson’s keynote address was the most moving story of the conference. Stevenson spoke about his work with the Equal Justice Initiative and his fight against mass incarceration. A masterful teacher and story-teller, Stevenson spoke about four steps to change the world. He told us the first thing we must do is to “get proximate.” We can’t solve problems that we aren’t willing to see and experience up close. He urged us to get close to people who are suffering, to places where oppression is present. The second thing he said, is to “change the narrative”; we have to stop being a society that reacts out of anger and fear because it is anger and fear that lead to violence and inequality. Stevenson’s third step to creating change was to remain hopeful, even in the face of overwhelming odds. Finally, Stevenson urged us to do uncomfortable things.
Stevenson’s steps for change resonated with me both in terms of what I teach and in how I teach. I teach about social justice issues and frame my history classes around the theme of creating change. I hope my classes are about getting proximate to things that have remained hidden or at a distance. I want my Peace and Justice class to understand the sacrifices Cherokee leaders made to try and negotiate a claim to the land they had lived on for centuries. I hope that in presenting the ways colonized peoples fought against their colonial oppressors I change the narrative that my World History students have about white dominance. When I teach about the system of racial oppression, I emphasize that if racism is a social construct, there is hope that we can de-construct it. And when I ask my students to look inside themselves and see the ways they experience privilege and disadvantage, I know I am asking them to do something extraordinarily uncomfortable.
When I reflect on Stevenson’s talk, I also think about my own story as a teacher. I know of no other way to meet my students’ needs than to get close to them, to see them for who they really are. I also have to be willing to change my own narrative about students. I have to be aware that I am susceptible to stereotypes and to unconscious bias and be willing to change the culturally-informed narratives that sometimes lie buried in my subconscious. I don’t think one can be a teacher for very long without being hopeful and it is my genuine hope for the future, grounded in my admiration of my students that makes my work meaningful. Being hopeful gives me the courage to do uncomfortable things, knowing that my discomfort usually makes me better equipped to support my students.
I think many of us listening to Stevenson were ready to quit our jobs and go join the fight against racial oppression. In many ways, teaching at an elite private school feels like the very definition of privilege and I left Stevenson’s talk worrying that I wasn’t “doing enough.” I have been teaching Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence to my Peace and Justice students and today we discussed Gandhi’s conception of “duty.” Gandhi believed that “at every moment every person was aware of some basic need in the world that that particular person could help to meet.” I am grateful for Stevenson’s advice for how to change the world and for the reminder, from Gandhi and my Peace and Justice students, that my duty is to help my students understand their world and give them the tools they need to change it.
(If you are interested in learning more about Bryan Stevenson, you can check out his book, Just Mercy, or his TED talk here.)