Dear Salem Community:
May 2020 was a troubling month.
May 2020 also was an ordinary month. That very contradiction is why I write to join my voice with others from Salem and across the globe in speaking against systemic racism.
I know we have seen letters deploring racism before. Indeed, we have seen too many of them, year after year after year as systemic racism and brutality continue.
As a proponent of education as a force for social change, reflecting on these particular deaths and the ways they repeat a long history has meant asking myself: What are the outcomes of the education I value so much? What is education’s role in these tragedies? Why do such injustices persist? What are our responsibilities?
When I talk about meaningful education, I point to liberal education. I talk about the ways education is a public good. I hope it makes us not only more informed but better. I hope that education changes not only individual lives but also the world. I hope that what we do calls us to courage, compassion, and the refusal of racism. That hope is mistaken when it is generic and passive.
Today, in a nation marred by violence, I know that access to hope is built from tears, anger, joy, and stubbornness. I know—and I hope we all know—the risk of hope in our hearts and in our bones. We certainly know the cost of failure. We know that while Minneapolis can seem far away, it is our neighborhood, too. These are our neighbors; these are our failures. The lives lost call us to ask who we are and how we will act.
Our educational mission requires us to be thoughtful in both senses of the term—especially about uncomfortable topics like racism that only some of us have the privilege to ignore. Salem’s mission—like the persistent belief that education can bring change—calls us to act so that next month, next year, and in our third century, no one will need to write a letter differing from this one only in the names called out.
And so, I ask not merely that we think of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and those whose deaths preceded theirs, but that we recommit to do what we aspire to do well: educate ourselves and each other not for conformity but for change. Let us ask of ourselves and of one another how we will learn better and live more fully and more responsibly into a better, more equitable world.
There are many resources that can help each of us decide how to act—in our vast differences from one another, in our joint humanity, and in our shared hope in the power of education. Today, I would recommend the full text of Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech at Stanford University entitled “The Other America” and James Baldwin’s 1962 piece “A Letter to My Nephew.” All too often shared through quotations ripped out of context, these are texts we are all responsible to know in their fullness. They require change.
I recommend, too, a more recent work, “White Fragility,” which speaks to those of us who are not subject to (and indeed benefit from) the forces that led to George Floyd’s death. Here we also are reminded that inaction sustains racist forces that ruin lives.
As we move forward, I will write with further actions we will take in coming weeks and months to ensure that we are among those changing the world not merely standing by and awaiting the next letter.
Salem Academy and College