Bridging the Divides

Colored Pencils“Minority Students Say They Face Social Segregation and Indifference” reads the subtitle of a hefty article in the October 21 New York Times about racial and socio-economic divides in some of New York City’s independent schools—realities that undoubtedly play out in other independent and Episcopal schools across the country.

Despite huge efforts and visible progress to diversify the racial and socio-economic composition of student bodies and to bridge cultural, racial, and economic divides, the students interviewed in this article express a profound sense of disconnection that will chill educators to the bone. 

According to the students interviewed, unacknowledged racial and economic differences between and among students engender a perpetual sense of being an outsider. Meanwhile, majority students—largely white and largely affluent—remain ignorant of their classmates’ lives.

This doesn’t happen because malice or willful action; on the contrary, it seems to persist amid the best of intentions. As one student commented, “Everyone is too nice to talk about it.” Or, as a head of school noted, “Students, and these are nice kids, too easily assume ‘I’m a white kid in this nice Upper West Side school, and that kid is a brown kid in this nice Upper West Side school; my understanding of us can stop there.’”

But, as we know, ignorance is not bliss. Just over a year ago, I heard Paula Lawrence Wehmiller—Episcopal priest, teacher, and educator—speak eloquently about the importance of moving beyond “diversity” towards true inclusion. For children to thrive and not merely succeed, she asserts, they must be able to live outwardly who they are inside. Otherwise, they remain in some way always “the stranger.” The command to love your neighbor, she notes, must become an invitation to truly belong.

How we do this remains fraught with uncertainty. It will undoubtedly require more listening than talking and a profound gospel hospitality that transforms all, together. Hard work, but surely at the core of our mission and purpose as Episcopal schools.