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 Head of
School Jen Price assured community members in
an April 25 email that “BB&N does not tolerate
any form of hate such as anti-Semitism and
racism” and that “it is never our intention to make
[students] question if they belong in our school.
DEIG Officer Leila Bailey-Stewart, an event
organizer, said a goal in hosting speakers at
the school is to sharpen community members’
critical thinking skills and ability to hold multiple
perspectives.
“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.’”