by Kevin Dicciani

Calling it “a day to begin learning how to take action to ensure that our economy, our political institutions and our educational systems serve the people and not the other way around,” Dana Weeks, head of school at Germantown Friends School, opened a Teach-in/Dialogue Day for Learning About Ferguson at the school on Dec. 12.

The teach-in was organized by upper school students at GFS as a day to reflect upon social injustice, racial inequality and peaceful conflict resolution.

Following recent national events in Ferguson and New York, upper school students at GFS persuaded teachers and administrators to suspend classes for the day so they could demonstrate their dedication to promoting social justice and combating racism. With classes suspended, students and faculty gathered in the auditorium for a full-day of discussion – one that featured speakers, workshops, and a film.

“Today, in my mind, is a day of learning, a day of learning how to have conversations, and a day of learning how we begin to take action to ensure, in particular, that the dignity of every human being with whom we share this earth is respected,” Weeks said. “In fact, we are our brother’s and sister’s keepers. We are one human family. Whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic or ideological differences, we are one human family that share this earth together.”

Mirangela Burke, director of multicultural affairs at GFS, spoke next about the importance of getting students involved in the day’s conversation, which she said was about “addressing the persistence of racism in the United States.”

“For many people of color and white, anti-racist allies, the deaths of these and so many other black and brown people, recent and distant, are connected to a long legacy of excessive force by police and others that disproportionately affect the lives of people of color,” Burke said.

The keynote speaker, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, is an alumna of GFS and an associate professor of Black American Studies and History at the University of Delaware. She has participated in multiple documentaries, including “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” and is the author of a book titled “A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City,” which was published by Yale University in 2008.

Before her speech, Dunbar said she thought the teach-in was important because it addressed the causality of past and present events. It was also important, Dunbar added, to enable the students to “have a voice” and allow them to reflect on current issues of race and inequality.

In her speech entitled “A Long Road to Ferguson,” Dunbar discussed the systems of race and law from colonial times and the origins of slavery, and the precedent they set in the centuries to follow. She said the goal of the teach-in wasn’t to arrive at an answer, but to foster a dialogue within the school and community while working towards a greater understanding of history and its repercussions.

“We will not figure out centuries-old problems surrounding race in America,” Dunbar said. “What we can strive for as a school, as a community, is engagement, investment, and understanding the world in which we live.”

Throughout her speech, Dunbar repeatedly said, “The system isn’t broken – it was designed this way,” using slavery, sharecropping, convict labor, segregation, the War on Drugs and other techniques, as examples of systematic racism in the United States.

“The system is working just fine,” she said. “Lack of opportunity, residential segregation, underfunded inner-city schools, and systematic imprisonment have all created and supported a perception of black criminality, of black under-achievement.”

“Perhaps now is not the time to focus on die-ins,” Dunbar said. “I don’t want anymore die-ins – I want a live-in. Let’s focus on life. Let’s focus on a way to prepare to live in this nation without this violence. We must figure out how to recreate a system that works for all of its citizens, to confront the past, to challenge ourselves, and to remain committed to creating a new narrative – so that the system really will work just fine.”

Following the speeches, students gathered in groups to engage in workshop blocks, where a variety of topics were discussed, such as “Unmade in America: The Figure of Blackness in the Media,” and “Talking About Our Different Racial Experiences.” Later on students watched a film, “Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity,” directed by Shakti Butler, which explores the “causes and consequences of systematic inequity.”

After the film, the closing keynote speaker, Michael O’Bryan, spoke on “The Sociology of Hope.” A graduate of The University of The Arts with a bachelor’s degree in music, O’Bryan works as a humanitarian, artist and a youth housing advocate. In 2014, he was awarded the “Child Advocate of the Year” award for the Philadelphia Region by the Pennsylvania State Department of Education for working with young people in emergency housing.

In his speech, O’Bryan said he would delve into narratives, who’s telling the story and the history of African Americans, explain the science of trauma and good mental health, and discuss what role they all together play in current times. He said he hoped to impact the lives of students by getting them to realize their space in their world when creating equity. The way to do that is to be proactive, in both words and actions.

“One goal for me is to have 25 percent protest and 75 percent direct action in local communities connected to local policy, state policy and federal policy, and really push back on those who are in the position to craft law,” O’Bryan said. “But if there’s not both and they’re not in the right balance, then I don’t know what you’re going to be able to do.”