Courageous Conversations Letter to Students and Parents

Dear students and parents,

When I watched seniors Aba Sankah, Campbell Prentiss, and Peter Polega present their senior capstone project this spring, a documentary on the life of Tom Leslie ’66, Mercersburg Academy’s first black graduate, I felt a deep sense of pride in what our students produced, while also feeling deep discomfort with a story we may never fully understand. Like many of you, I acknowledge that I am on my own journey of learning and discovery as it relates to race and identity, understanding my own privilege in relation to others, and developing an action plan for how I can and will contribute to anti-racism in my communities. For me, as a white woman who grew up in a small, rural, mostly white, middle-class community, I was not confronted with specific evidence of racial injustice until college, but even then, my privilege allowed me to remain largely oblivious to it (”not my problem”); as long as I wasn’t contributing to it, I could allow myself to believe that I was playing my part. In fact, I was raised at a time and in a place where we were taught not to see color and to treat everyone the same, which not only silenced us in acknowledging our own racial biases, but also ignored the realities of a broken system. 

What we see happening in our country and around the world right now is a renewed awakening to racial injustice and systemic racism that undeniably exists and continues to oppress so many, and specifically our black and brown communities. Why now? Why did it take George Floyd’s murder, when so many were murdered before him? Why did it take a full two months for the suspects in Ahmaud Arbery’s murder to be arrested? Why did it take the nation’s response to Breonna Taylor’s murder to enact law enforcement change to protect the innocent? The questions are seemingly endless. My biggest fear is that the outrage expressed across the country right now will fade before real and lasting change can occur. As an educator, my greatest hope is in our students, in the possibility of how we, as a school community, can continue to influence their growth in understanding the deep and broad impact of privilege and inequity, and inspire them to lead and serve the world in ways that will reflect our school values so that they will do better than generations before them in building a more inclusive and safe world for tomorrow. Today we express hope that, as a nation, we will finally take the measures individually and collectively to meet the challenges before us and be compelled to achieve the ideals of this country that we have long failed to reach. Our school community is no exception and we must also acknowledge that there have been times that we have fallen short in our effort to live our values. I vow that we will do better for our students today and in the future.

As you all know, these last few weeks at school have been busy, coordinating our first-ever (and hopefully last) virtual Commencement and honoring and celebrating the Class of 2020 and their accomplishments. Obviously we are also remaining vigilant in our preparations for keeping our community safe during a world health crisis and planning for a fall opening that will require significant reimagining of space and program. And, we have been reflecting on our obligations and opportunities as a school to ensure a better future, committing to be the model for anti-racism in the privileged world of boarding schools. In my letter to our community on June 3, I wrote, “...we cannot choose the time to engage in the fight for justice—it has presented itself to us and we must face it together, with faith in each other and in the future, and with a commitment to our Noble Integrity which inspires generosity, authenticity, and responsibility—when no one is looking and when everyone is looking. The world can and must do better and I know that we can, too.” Today, I’d like to share with you some of our initial plans and actions for doing better and for building a safe school for all of our students as we become a more diverse and inclusive community:

  1. Tom Leslie ’66 Scholarship: Back in October 2019, Mercersburg Academy hosted its first black student alumni weekend to celebrate 55 years of black student integration and 30 years of the Black Student Union; the weekend was supported by the school but coordinated and executed by our black alumni, led by Tonya Rutherford ’90. At the event, our alumni suggested that we begin efforts to fundraise for the creation of a scholarship to honor Tom Leslie ’66, the school’s first black graduate. Today, we announce the school’s decision to fund that scholarship with the first recipient to be selected in the coming admission year. With ongoing support from our community, we will grow this fund to expand our commitment in the coming years. If you are interested in supporting this scholarship, please contact the Office of Advancement and Alumni Relations.

  1. Courageous Conversations: The school is committed to building opportunities for courageous conversations by selecting annual themes around which programming, community reading, and curriculum are designed. The concept was introduced to the community in 2017. Below is a list of our first annual themes:

    2018-2019: Immigration
    2019-2020: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
    2020-2021: Making a Difference (This theme was established in the fall of 2019 and is currently being reimagined given what we see happening in the world today.)

    We hope you will look through our Courageous Conversations webpage to better understand how we are embracing our commitment to challenging our community with timely and important topics, and how these programs specifically connect to our learning as a community around privilege and race. This should not suggest that we have it all figured out, but we are committed to this work and will continue to improve our efforts to create a safe school for all students through deliberate programming.

  2. Faculty and Staff Training: The school’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, established under the leadership of Selas Douglas, the school’s first director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, identified faculty and staff training as our highest priority. To that end, as the school entered into our accreditation process, we selected this as the singular focus of the Sustaining Excellence accreditation protocol which prompts a school to identify a strategic initiative, conduct a research project on the implementation of the initiative, and present its findings to other schools. As the adults responsible for nurturing a campus culture where all students can bring their full and authentic selves to our community, we know how important sustained training will be to the school. There is no box that can be checked to accomplish anti-racism; this will be an ongoing practice for all communities, especially those founded on privilege.

  3. Faculty, Staff, and Board Demographics: In recent years, we have made a commitment to the diversification of our faculty and staff. While we have made progress, it has been slow and not enough. We will continue to seek dynamic black and brown educators to join our community, and we may need to call on our community networks to help us with this critically important commitment. In addition, the Board of Regents has announced a commitment to creating a board that is more reflective of the community they represent. We have much work to do on both of these fronts. 

  4. Alumni Mentoring Pilot Program: Another initiative that emerged from conversations with black alumni is a student-alumni mentoring program. Today, the school is announcing our commitment to partnering with our black alumni in building this opportunity for our students.  Developing a protocol to this concept that prioritizes the safe engagement between alumni and students will take time. In the meantime, we will launch affinity webinars this fall for students to engage with alumni specific to race so that we can provide safe places for honest dialogue for our students, while also leveraging the benefits that relationships with alumni can foster. This is especially important as we recognize that our faculty demographic is not yet reflective of our student body. Alumni of color who wish to participate in this program should respond using this form.

  1. Academic Curriculum: The school has already identified areas of opportunity for our curriculum to evolve to be more reflective of a diverse and changing world. One such area is the work of our history department. This spring, a history class on race was presented to the Academic Office; that course was approved as an elective and will be our first official course propelling us in our initiative to move Beyond the AP. Advanced Studies in Race and Ethnicity in the U.S. will be offered this coming fall. In addition, in a memo to school leadership, Jay Bozzi, chair of the history department, wrote, “We will not allow ourselves to address the vital concerns of the day (racism) with antiseptic detachment, but will actively use the events, questions, voices, and figures of the past to promote an understanding of and engagement in the present. Such inquiry is a critical endeavor for all of our students and we want to ensure that those courageous conversations are a consistent experience in all of our history classes.” Finally, Jennifer Smith ’97, dean of academics, will lead our academic department heads through a curriculum audit next year to develop a comprehensive plan for how we will continue to diversify our curriculum for a contemporary and future world across all departments. This will allow us to build off what we are doing well, while embracing opportunities for development, growth, and improvement in our program.

In closing, I wish to acknowledge that for our current families, information about our return to campus learning in the fall remains a priority. Please know that we are preparing for our return to campus on time at the end of August and will communicate those specific plans to you in early July and again in early August. In the meantime, I ask you to spend time reflecting on your place within this conversation about race and privilege, and return ready to embrace the discomfort and opportunity of courageous conversations. It should not be lost on any of us that I am sending this communication to you on the eve of Juneteenth, an American holiday which commemorates the end of slavery in our country. And yet, here we are 155 years later still experiencing the effects of racial injustice. With a presidential election in November, Supreme Court rulings to protect gay and transgender employees in the workplace, the COVID-19 health and financial crisis, and a commitment to overcoming racial injustice, there is no shortage of conversations for us to explore, to challenge, and to learn together as a community. At Mercersburg, we are all responsible for cultivating an anti-racist community that responds to inequities, and we commit to that priority in the months and years ahead. To our black and brown families, we believe that black lives matter and we will not ignore the impact that systemic racism has had in our own community. We will work deliberately to continue to be the model for all boarding schools in building community where all students can bring their authentic selves to our campus and be honored and celebrated for that. Together we can, must, and will do better.

With deep gratitude and hope,

Katie Titus P ’20, ’23
Head of School