The Challenge of a Big Tent

Praying HandsI have never been so happy to be head of an Episcopal School. Our school, in the tradition of Episcopal Schools, articulates that tradition through three key ideas: inquiry, the basis of our program; inclusion, the idea of the big tent where all are welcome; and gathering, the practice of being together to build community.

The last year has been challenging—especially for a school in Portland, Oregon, well known and celebrated for its liberal bent. If you don’t know what I mean, check out Portlandia. We tend to think that our view is the only view, so imagine the shock of the election over a year ago.

I remember clearly early on the Wednesday morning after the election when I was at the airport scheduled to fly out for a school visit with colleagues. I looked at my team at the security point and realized, I needed to be at school for the day. It was the right decision. The level of grief from many over the unexpected outcome of the election required conversation, empathy and care. At the same time, there was a silent minority watching how we reacted and potentially overreacted to the results of a national election.

As the Presidency rolled out, I was under enormous pressure to enter into the political fray. Not long after the inauguration, of course, there was the implementation of the travel ban for people coming from Muslim countries. Again, there was outrage among many constituents and a call for the school to take a strong stance on the topic. Emotions were swirling in a myriad of directions. Parents and teachers were demanding the school react; others were silently hoping we would not. There are actually different and rational reactions to the travel ban; however, because we are a boarding school, it felt immediately important to let our international students know that we cared for them, and would fight for their right to be at the school—we were on their side. But it did not feel right to take a divisive, political stand on the ban itself. As you can imagine, I came under fire for this decision.

I kept coming back to the challenge of having a big tent. Opening our arms to a wide range of people from different backgrounds and ideologies and countries, and welcoming them to our community, means understanding that there are different ways to think about and to live in this world. It gives us pause when we have an immediate strong reaction to ideas different than our own. To welcome people, you need to listen to their story, to be empathic and to find the common ground we all have as human beings. That means, of course, that those of us under the tent will disagree on many things. If we manage to live together well, we will have community conversations with civil discourse, recognizing that we disagree and are not changing minds, but sharing ideas. This has been incredibly challenging—but with the Episcopal tenets of inquiry, inclusion and community—we have a strong foundation from which to work.

I am intrigued by the growing interest in failure, and the creation of failure resumes. At chapel last week, I was asked to reflect on my upcoming sabbatical. As I prepared my remarks, I realized that I had had a forced sabbatical of sorts while I was in college—having earned the gift of a D in a class in my major. I knew (and the school and my parents knew) that I needed time to refocus. I shared that with the students, and I think they heard nothing else in the talk—just the fact that I had earned a D in an important class in college. In the challenging times of today, our Episcopal heritage and traditions will guide us. But we will continue to fail again and again and again, as this is challenging, emotional, and often discouraging work. I truly believe that this failure, and the willingness to try again and again and again, in spite of it, will create the kinds of schools we want to be, and the kind of country we can be.

About the Author

Mo_Copeland (2)Mo Copeland serves as Head of Oregon Episcopal School in Portland, Oregon. Before coming to OES, Mo was Head of School at St. George’s School in Spokane, Washington. Mo holds a B.A. from Reed College, and serves as an alumna trustee for the college. Mo is active in the regional association for independent schools, the international Commission on Accreditation, and serves on the Victory Academy Board. A love of outdoor activities, Mo is an avid cyclist, skier and backpacker and happy to live so close to the mountains.