Over the past several months, St. Markers around the country, current students and alumni of all ages have been responding to current events: speaking out and standing up to make a difference in these challenging times. Their voices are varied but their messages uniformly powerful. And St. Mark's has heard their voices and is responding.
In an early June letter to the St. Mark's community, Head of School John C. Warren '74 recognized that "turmoil in cities and towns across the country has once again brought the United States' long struggle with systemic racism into sharp focus. The unfamiliar disruption and suffering brought about by COVID-19 has been overshadowed recently in the United States by something much more familiar and pervasive: shocking violence against people of color."
This is a recognition, notes St. Mark's director of community and equity John Daves, of two pandemics – one biological and new; the other a racial pandemic now centuries old that has become more in our consciousness after the murder of George Floyd and subsequent tragedies and their aftermaths. While facing the challenging obstacles of the biological pandemic, many students, alumni, and others from the St. Mark's community have made stands and taken actions that are addressing the racial pandemic.
Among current students, the School's four Pathway Prefects for 2021—Bannon Jones '21, Vianey Morris '21, Daniella Pozo '22, and Samantha Wang '21—took immediate action. Individually, they represent four of the School's 11 affinity groups: the Southborough Society (women's issues); the Black Lions Union; Los Leones; and the Asian Student Alliance. Collectively, as Pathway Prefects, they are the student voices for Community and Equity at St. Mark's, and together they sent a petition to the School administration.
"As we are paying close attention to the anti-racist movements that have been happening recently in the U.S. and the world," they wrote in an email addressed to the entire St. Mark's community, "we reiterate that PATHWAYS STANDS WITH BLACK LIVES MATTER. We are done waiting for change and we demand immediate, measurable, and implementable actions from our school."
Their petition called for the School to design and implement a mandatory anti-racist curriculum, for regular anti-racist training and professional development for faculty and staff, and an expansion of services and resources for students of color. It is a call for institutional and systemic change at St. Mark's from current students at the School, seeking support from fellow St. Markers, parents, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends. St. Mark's has responded positively to the full petition with its commitment to a series of action steps.
Another current student, VI Former Lily Wang Luo '21, took a different approach. Lily, one of the School's two Head Monitors, is also a talented artist. To support the Black Lives Matter movement, she partnered with fellow St. Mark's artists Mandy Hui '23, Caitie Summers '21, Leila Frederick '21, and most recently alumna Angela Li '19 and current students Kaley LeBlanc '21, Richard Zhang '21, and Waverly Shi '21, on a website where people could make donations to a selected fund or organization and receive in return a commissioned work from one of the artists. "You can have your portrait done, or your pet's, or even just an abstract piece for your phone wallpaper," she said. "As a community we can make a change—this is a time to take action. I think it's important that we continue to support each other in times of need. I wanted to be able to use my own skills to make a difference and show the School that even when we're apart you just need to reach out to make a change." The program ran for three months this summer.
Both students and adults in the St. Mark's community gathered virtually for in-depth discussions on the topic of racism. Adults working with student groups such as White Students Against Racism (WSAR) took part in online conversations, facilitated by faculty members Veronica Barila, Caleb Corliss, and Kathleen Roussinos. "We heard a call to action," they reported after the initial Zoom discussion. "We see and respect the importance of that, especially now. We're worried about rushing to action without investigating ourselves. Unless we recognize how we are complicit in systemic racism, we risk adding to it with our action." They saw it as important to work at "connecting with other white people to help understand anti-racism, support the process of confronting privilege, and increase the number of people ready to engage is one useful kind of action." It was also important "to keep two things in mind when planning anti-racist action right now: Amplify black voices specifically and voices of color generally and find ways to put the comfort and security of whiteness on the line."
Students also took part in conversations on these topics.
Darius Wagner '23 (pictured at right), a student leader of the St. Mark's Black Lives Union (BLU—formerly Black Lions Union) affinity group, helped organize an online event co-hosted with WSAR. "I am proud that as global citizens we can come together in such a dark period of our country," he declared in his invitation to event participants. "I am proud we can speak out to the unfolding situations. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor may have sparked the protests and outrage across our country. However, as a community, we must understand their deaths are not the primary reasons for the uprisings we have seen in our country. The abandonment of attention to the issues of racial injustices, institutionalized racism, and the inhumane treatment of people of color in our American society has erupted a volcano that has been boiling for decades." He challenged both students and adults: "Let us make our community and country a better place."
Darius' advocacy has extended beyond St. Mark's. He was interviewed for and plays a central role in a recent article for yahoo!life about the need for more Black teachers in U.S. schools. "Putting better resources into communities that are resource deserts is where we can truly implement change," Wagner explains. "In certain classrooms, having a teacher of color could be important for students who might have a harder background or upbringing. Additionally, having more Black instructors in the later stages of education—like in junior high and high school—would likely make a big impact on graduation rates."
Also in June, the St. Mark's Pathways Prefects hosted "Continuing the Conversation: a Community Town Hall Meeting" on Zoom. Intended, according to Bannon Jones '21, as an opportunity to "unpack recent events," it provided a safe space for difficult discussion. Vianey Morris '21 encouraged participants to "lean into their discomfort." The event was attended by both students and adults, including Dr. John Daves, St. Mark's new director of community and equity affairs. Truman Chamberlin '20 expressed a general consensus of feeling when he said: "These are tough, tumultuous times we're in. Discussion is important!" The event proved to be an effective occasion for people to listen, to understand, and to empathize.
Other current students, like Bannon Jones '21 and Emma Simon '21 (pictured below) have been taking active part in marches and protests supporting Black Lives Matter and speaking out against racism and violence. Dozens of alumni—women and men of passion and principle—have also been protesting and speaking out.
Damion Nsiah '16 (pictured at left) has been marching in Philadelphia. "While the recent events surrounding Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery have received an unprecedented amount of national attention, which I support," he says, "I want to establish that these are not just current issues. During my time as a St. Mark's student, the unjustifiable deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile were all incidents that left a tremendous impact on me as a student and as a young Black man. Police brutality, institutionalized oppression, and systemic racism have plagued this country since its very beginning and the frequency of these events only shows that the fight against racial inequality is far from over. Recognizing the system responsible for the countless deaths of unarmed black people is not enough. I became involved in the Philadelphia protests because I believe that said system and its agents need to be held accountable. As a well-educated young Black man, I feel obligated to lend my voice and energy to peaceful protests that call for the complete reform of a broken and oppressive system."
Jamill Telfort '16 agrees. Recent tragic events, he said "just re-emphasize a long-ignored truth: the systemic racism and institutionalized oppression rooted in America's foundation continues to subjugate and abuse the Black community. Unfortunately, these names are only new additions to a long list of Black women and men that extends throughout and far prior to my time at St. Mark's. As a young Black man, I do not have the luxury to remain silent or inactive—I need to fight for my own rights and for my brothers' and sisters' as well. I have been involved in the protests throughout New York City and despite the common narrative seen across national media, the demonstrations I have been a part of have been very peaceful and powerful. I look forward to seeing the change that St. Mark's students, faculty, and administration enact during these times and beyond. For what is and should always be a life-long endeavor, Age Quod Agis must extend beyond the individual and call on people to positively impact the world while they're in it."
"With regard to the current issues around racism," writes Nana Boakye-Mensah '17, "I have undoubtedly been feeling pain, anger, and exhaustion. I am tired. My family is tired. My friends are tired. The Black community is tired. I have been protesting throughout Massachusetts from Boston to Taunton, and I found each demonstration to be extremely powerful. It is extremely important our voices are heard, and change is enacted. The support from St. Mark's will continue to be important as this country needs reform, from legislature, to education, to policing, and everything in between to ensure equality for Black people, and we will continue fighting the racism that has plagued our people for so long."
One of the School's newest alumnae is Ashley Battiata '20 (pictured at right). For the first time in St. Mark's history, this past year both Head Monitors—Battiata and Alexander Sumner '20—were students of color. "I'm sad," says Ashley. "As a female, as a person of color, and as an immigrant I am a walking minority. I know that, I acknowledge that, and because of that I had no problem standing with the Black Lives Matter movement. I had no problem understanding their pain, understanding the problem, supporting them, spreading awareness, signing petitions, demanding justice and educating others. But not everyone can see this problem and that is what saddens me. Black Lives Matter should not be political, there should be no sides or debates whatsoever. Black lives do matter, and they should always matter just as much as anybody else's. That is the core of what saddens me, the fact that some people truly cannot comprehend this or are so quick to defend themselves or debate the point. I'll say it one more time, this is not debatable."
Alumni from earlier decades have also been vocal during this time. Bridgette L. Hylton '02, has written some powerful essays for the online platform Medium.com. Recently, she addressed herself to self-proclaimed allies of the Black Lives Matter movement. "I know I feel safe to a lot of well-intentioned non-Black people," she wrote. "but I question inside whether your stated allyship extends to less socially accepted Black people, people who don't speak like, or dress like you, or live in a neighborhood like yours or to the trans community, and if it doesn't, I don't accept your use of the term. You can't be my ally without being the ally to all Black lives. I've learned that in order to know for sure whether you are an ally or not, I'm sorry, but I can't take your word for it. I have to see it for myself. You have to show me. To do the necessary work, YOU are going to need black allies who will be willing to sit with you, challenge you and guide you on this journey. Find them and let them past the point of frustration. They won't always self-identify as such, because no one seems to think about this work this way, but black people who are interested in your anti-racism, and whose survival depends on it, are sharing their stories and perspectives and how they have arrived at their thinking on these issues, sometimes at a personal and psychological cost, and you need desperately to listen and digest, and then to introspect. Lean in to your Black allies."
Outgoing co-Head Monitor Alexander Sumner '20 (pictured at left), understands this well. "When people ask me how I've been feeling," says Sumner, "the one thought that rushes through my head is, Finally. Finally people are taking this seriously. I've been posting about BLM since I felt it was OK to do so at St. Mark's (my sophomore year), and finally does everyone else see it too.
"I've spoken to Black students who have felt betrayed by their friends for not reaching out. You would think that living together—sleeping, eating, bathing together—would create a relationship so intimate that reaching out during one of the most important times of our lives would not even be a question. But to think that Black students at St. Mark's are feeling more alone than ever, speaks to how much more we have to do as a community."
Sumner's comments accurately reflect the complex history of the institution. While St. Mark's founder Joseph Burnett took part in abolitionist activities when a young man living in Boston and once established a church parish whose membership would not recognize "invidious distinctions of color," while alumnus Jerome Kidder (Class of 1901 and a grandson of Joseph Burnett) fought against lynching as an educator in the Deep South, while Hamilton Fish (Class of 1906) led black troops in WWI and advocated for the rights of African-American veterans while serving in Congress, while the Rev. Gene Goll (SM faculty 1950-1955) marched with Dr. King and faced down the enmity of conservative parishioners in Southborough, and while alumnus Malcolm Farmer '57 served as a Civil Rights attorney in the Deep South during the 1960s and defended African-American protesters, St. Mark's still was all-white for a full century, refusing to admit students of color despite the efforts of two headmasters, and countenancing blackface performances and Confederate flag displays by students even after integration in 1965. Progress in recruiting both students and faculty of color was slow for many years, and students of color report experiencing of racism throughout that time and beyond. However much progress St. Mark's has made over the past five decades—and it has been considerable—there remains much work to be done.
And St. Markers are striving to do that work: current students, faculty, staff, and especially alumni. Brittany Bing '15 was central to implementing BlackatSM on Instagram, where sites like BlackatGroton, BlackatMiddlesex, BlackatMilton, etc. have also proliferated in response to recent discussions around issues of racism and Black Lives Matter. In those platforms, true stories of micro- and macro- aggressions, systemic racism, and more have been shared. Eyes have been opened. Even the Boston Globe took notice. While BlackatSM was established by recent graduates, its impact has been cross-generational. For example, Damon Marques Patton '94 is among the many alumni who have become involved with it and through the efforts of a group of interested St. Markers has helped focus virtual conversation about the issue of race at St. Mark's. St. Mark's trustee Michael Boulware Moore '80 recognizes the importance of BlackatSM, which he declares "has moved the needle significantly to create awareness about our challenges." Alumni of color and their allies are making a difference, setting examples of moral courage for current students and the greater St. Mark's community today.
"I am a very optimistic person," declares Ashley Battiata '20. "I choose to see the good in bad situations, some people may mistake this with being naive, but I am not naive. I have my own stories and experiences to share that have allowed me to form my own opinions. With that said, despite this all, I still believe that the consistent protesting and demands for justice, will one day result in equality. I won't lie, sometimes it gets harder to believe this statement, and I encounter people that almost make it impossible for this statement to be true, but it will happen, I just hope it's sooner rather than later. Black Lives Matter today and tomorrow!"
Damion Nsiah '16 has been joined in speaking out and standing up by his brother, Justin Nsiah '16 (both pictured at top and at right), but also by sister and brother St. Markers of all ages. "The large number of former classmates and faculty who have expressed support for the movement highlight how strong of a community is present at St. Mark's," says Damion. "That being said, our school, and other like academic institutions have a responsibility to take a firm stance on this issue and commit to actions that bring forth change. I look forward to seeing the impact that the St. Mark's will have as we all strive to lead lives of consequence."
In his July letter to the wider St. Mark's community—alumni, students, parents, faculty, and staff—Mr. Warren outlined the forthcoming action steps for 2020-2021 and beyond.
- An Anti-Racism Task Force will identify action steps both inside and outside the classroom for St. Mark's to take so that St. Mark's is an anti-racist school. I have heard the demand for a task force to develop an anti-racist curriculum that is mandatory for all students. This demand is entirely appropriate. In addition to the necessary curricular work, I recognize that we also have work to do in other areas of School life. As St. Mark's is a school committed to educating the whole student, I want an Anti-Racist Task Force to have a more extensive focus. The Task Force, reporting to me, will be led by Director of Community and Equity Affairs John Daves and will address the curricular need identified in the petition and also address needs that exist elsewhere in the academic program and in other areas of the School like the residence halls, athletics, and the arts.
- Faculty and staff members will engage in mandatory anti-racist professional development programming. Every year, all faculty and staff members will participate in at least one daylong on-campus professional development program on race. In addition, all faculty will be required to attend a regional or national diversity conference at least every three years.
- St. Mark's counseling services will expand to include additional resources for students of color, and specifically Black students. We will have on campus, starting in 2020-2021, a health professional of color with expertise in supporting students of color. That health professional will also provide expertise to help our current counselors increase their skills and knowledge for their work with students of color. In addition, we will implement a confidential process for reporting on and vigorously addressing incidents of bias that occur on our campus.
These steps are fully supported by the St. Mark's Board Trustees, which is creating a Board Diversity Committee to oversee the School's progress in its advance to being fully anti-racist in all parts of its program. Addressing the third point in the student petition, reflected in Mr. Warren's third action step, St. Mark's alumna Lauren Martin '85 joined St. Mark's this fall as the School's Community and Wellness Educator. Martin has been a member of the wellness faculty at the Winsor School in Boston since 1998. She developed Winsor's health and wellness program from the ground up and has also designed and implemented curricula on identity development and leadership for students of color in the Upper School affinity group program. As part of her work, she has helped students and adults alike cultivate deep listening skills and develop the ability to communicate in a manner that leads to a heightened sense of purpose. Martin also selects and serves as lead chaperone to a delegation of student participants at the annual NAIS Student Diversity Leadership Conference and has presented at the NAIS People of Color Conference. Over the years she has remained connected with St. Mark's through work with students: In the 1990s she served as advisor to the School's sole affinity group at the time, We the People, for several years and taught a Human Relations and Sexuality class. More recently, she led a sexuality workshop with members of the VI Form.
St. Mark's faculty and staff have also offered their commitment to engage fully in these action steps, which all directly respond to both the student-initiated petition and to alumni concerns.
Dr. Daves, who has quickly become fully engaged in guiding the School's community and equity programs, is impressed with the initiative being taken by various constituencies. "I am pleased," he says, "to see that student leaders at St. Mark's are demanding a more relevant educational experience: where learning to understand is more valued than merely knowing information; where self-awareness and social justice literacy play central roles in how students learn from their peers and teachers. I am also pleased to see that many alums, faculty and administrators are aware of the need for educational change and are eager to meet the needs of our current students." Dr. Daves has had many virtual discussions with alumni of color. There have been petitions from both alumni of color and from white allies calling for action by the School, and Dr. Daves will be holding a "town hall" meeting with alumni of color in early October.
In his July message, Mr. Warren acknowledged that "much more work lies ahead. Indeed," he wrote, "the action steps identified here represent only the first in a series that St. Mark's will take in the coming weeks, months, and years in the interest of making St. Mark's a truly anti-racist School and a truly inclusive community." This commitment was affirmed in Mr. Warren's opening Convocation address to the St. Mark's community on September 11, 2020, entitled "Becoming Truly an Anti-Racist School."