Human rights champions discuss anti-racism with community

MS and US students, faculty tune into webinar with Angela Davis and Nikki Giovanni


Anjali Reddy, Off Campus Editor

As a BIPOC student at an independent school in New York City, Angela Davis, although she did not have the conceptual tools to address it, was aware that racism existed within the institution while still feeling profoundly thankful for the opportunity to attend, she said.

“In order to address the question of racism at independent schools, one has to be willing to embrace contradictions,” Dr. Davis said. “One has to be willing both to be critical and, at the same time, to be thankful.”

Nikki Giovanni, who sent her son to a private school, said she supported him by telling him he was “doing [his] share” simply by being a Black student at the institution and educating others with his presence.

The two iconic authors, professors, and human rights activists shared these remarks during “Centering BIPOC Voices,” the April 13 virtual event hosted by the school and attended by the Middle School (MS), Upper School (US), students’ relatives, and school graduates, among them Avik Sarkar ’19 and Alumni/ae of Color Network Chair and Inclusion Committee Co- Lead Milyna Phillips ’99, who moderated the discussion.

The conversation highlighted several themes, notably the concept of “enoughness,” the value of other living beings, and the role of hope and optimism as we progress toward becoming an antiracist society.

Dr. Davis stressed that without hope, nothing is possible.

“Hope is a discipline,” Dr. Davis said, quoting South African civil rights activist Miriam Makeba. “It’s not an emotion that just arrives. It has to be cultivated in a disciplined way.”

MS Librarian Christina Dominique-Pierre, who secured Dr. Davis and Ms. Giovanni for the event by writing the firm representing them with a proposal, said her hope in bringing the pair to the school was to help students connect what is happening today with what has happened historically.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for students to interact with women who are still a part of the social justice endeavors—as it relates to racial justice, as it relates to cultural justice, as it relates to environmental justice,” Ms. Dominique-Pierre said.

Kate Constan ’22 said she hopes Dr. Davis’ anti-capitalist history and Ms. Giovanni’s comment that it’s important to “recognize when you have enough” material wealth did not prevent community members from appreciating the speakers’ wisdom.

“We go to school in a bubble where capitalism benefits many and where overconsumption is commonplace,” Kate said.

Kate, who has read Dr. Davis’ book “Women, Race, and, Class” and considers Dr. Davis one of her heroes, said the speaker defied the saying “Never meet your heroes.”

“She was as eloquent and charismatic while speaking as she is in writing,” Kate said.

Avik said Dr. Davis and Ms. Giovanni are two of his biggest inspirations.

“I’ve been reading their work since I was in high school—and in middle school, in Nikki Giovanni’s case—and they just have been such sources of inspiration, motivation, and hope, personally, intellectually, and politically,” he said.

Ms. Phillips decided to co-facilitate the conversation for similar reasons, she said.

“These are two living icons. They’ve done so much social justice work, and they’re simply brilliant. They’re people that I admire for their work and sacrifice; I knew that this would be a historic moment for the BB&N community.”

Accordingly, she said hyper-prepared for the event by reading five books written by each speaker, watching documentaries and interviews, and reading articles on the authors and their work.

Within the first 10 minutes of the webinar, organizers needed to bump up the participant cap, which quickly surpassed the 500 expected.

“At some point, we exceeded 600 logins, and that’s not necessarily the amount of people who are actually looking at a computer screen. It doesn’t include teachers who had it up on their smart boards,” Ms. Phillips said, attributing the numbers to her committee’s outreach and community interest. “I hope that that’s what BB&N took away: that events like this can galvanize a community, and we can begin to come together.”

English Teacher Sam Crihfield also framed the event as a beginning and said he plans to use the event as a jumping-off point for larger discussions in his courses.

“In my sophomore English classes, we will be looking at some Nikki Giovanni poems, and in my junior class, we are currently reading James Baldwin, who was an inspiration to both Giovanni and Davis,” Mr. Crihfield said. “I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation they started.”

Alexandra Kluzak ’24 said she appreciated how Ms. Giovanni used anecdotes and personal experiences, like when she related a story about an encounter she had with the mother of Trayvon Martin, who was able to laugh deeply even after her son’s death.

“She explained how Trayvon’s mother refused to be subdued by George Zimmerman’s murder of her son and instead lived to keep his memory alive,” Alexandra said. “Ms. Giovanni used the greatly troubling backdrop of racial injustice to teach us an invaluable lesson about the importance of love and hope.”

Ms. Giovanni’s analogies spurred reflection for Ceramics Teacher Christian Tonsgard, who found wisdom in her remark, “If you teach a child not to kill a caterpillar, it helps the child as much as it helps the caterpillar.”

“I have not stopped thinking about that since she said it,” Mr. Tonsgard said.

Prior to the talk, Dr. Davis and Ms. Giovanni participated in the school’s seventh author Zoom bomb, a recurring event started by Ms. Dominique-Pierre during which authors join students, faculty, and staff members online to discuss their work.

Gabby Blanco ’21, who attended the author Zoom bomb, said meeting with Dr. Davis and Ms. Giovanni offered unique lessons that went beyond the classroom.

“The talk was important because these are activists who have experienced and witnessed years of systemic racism and have risked so much in order to uplift Black voices and fight against the system,” Gabby said. “It’s important to not just learn about them in our classes but to hear them firsthand.”

Both events with the speakers helped her realize the support she has in her community at and beyond the school, Gabby added.

“I don’t have to waste my energy on every single fight. I can allow myself to rest and depend on a wider community. That is definitely the biggest takeaway that I felt so comforted and impacted by: I am not fighting alone,” she said.

In his introduction of Dr. Davis, Avik identified Dr. Davis as “active in […] the BDS movement against Israeli occupation of Palestine,” a reference that put off some community members who reject BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) as an anti-Semitic organization that opposes Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

“It was extremely disappointing to see that, after Holocaust Remembrance Day, [the moderator] felt the need to mention that Angela Davis was strongly against the Israeli occupation of Palestine,” Avery Rubins ’23 said, calling into question the school’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion with respect to Jewish community members. “I feel like it had nothing to do with the purpose of the meeting, and it made me feel uncomfortable.”

Dr. Davis did not share any comments related to BDS during the event, however, and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Global Education Officer Leila Bailey-Stewart, an event organizer, said she wanted to be clear that the school is not endorsing BDS.

“Both Dr. Davis and Ms. Giovanni are iconic and inspirational activists, writers, and scholars. Their literature and life work have been instrumental in advancing human rights,” Ms. Bailey-Stewart said. “Some of our goals of having speakers at BB&N are to provide an opportunity for our students, faculty, and staff to exercise their critical thinking skills, sharpen their ability to hold multiple perspectives, and be inspired.”

She added that she hopes the community continues to develop the ability to engage in conversations where difference of thought is encouraged and respected.

“Our community has been having conversations about complex topics and will continue to engage in that way to ensure all members of our community, especially our students, are affirmed. Inspired by Dr. Davis, we hope to give students the opportunity to ‘embrace contradiction.’”