All About Activism

“Good morning, juniors,” exclaimed Class 11 Dean Sarah Rutledge as the students’ faces appeared on the Zoom screen. “Welcome to our Special Day!”

Informed by the overarching theme of activism, this thoughtful and far-reaching day – Friday, October 2 – offered these Upper Schoolers the opportunity to connect virtually with inspiring individuals who are making a measurable difference in their communities and the world.

“Activating Activism,” which was organized with the help of Director of Community Life and Diversity Erica Corbin, kicked off with an interactive workshop facilitated by Julien Terrell, a Harlem-based youth organizer and community activist who uses music, art, dance and culture to enact social change.

Sporting a bright smile and a baseball cap, Mr. Terrell connected easily with his audience. “Let’s start with a little honesty,” he began. “How are you feeling? I’ll start. I’m tired. My three-year-old woke me up. I’m here and present, but I may be rubbing my eyes.”

Acknowledging the magnitude of the current moment, he led the students in an upbeat talk that touched on the pandemic; the Black Lives Matter movement and police violence; the presidential election; environmental justice; and the role of schools in fostering connections – and the complicated feelings surrounding these topics.

“A lot of folks are struggling emotionally right now,” Mr. Terrell noted. “We’re all looking for a human connection.”

One way to connect, Mr. Terrell pointed out, is to fill our lives with joy. “Joy is critical for changemakers,” he said.

Along with contributing to the lively dialogue, the students had time to reflect on their own. At one point, for example, Mr. Terrell asked them to consider the question, “What brings you joy in this moment?” For 10 minutes, they jotted down their thoughts, then came together to share.

“I’m revisiting content I liked as a kid,” one student offered. “I’m finding joy in the little things in life,” another added.

Deepening the discussion, he inquired, “Why is joy so important in our role as activists and organizers? ”

An eye-opening exchange ensued, during which Mr. Terrell introduced the concept of restorative justice. “There is power in collective decision making. Restorative justice teaches you skills of compassion and how to think outside the status quo,” he explained.

Toward the end of his engaging presentation, Mr. Terrell posed a vital question: “What is the role of the activist?” A number of hands went up.

“Being a leader, fighting for what you believe in, and bringing people together,” suggested one student. Others nodded in agreement.

Before wrapping up, Mr. Terrell praised the students for their commitment to activism at Chapin and beyond, encouraging them to keep fighting for what’s right. “You will continue doing great things. I’m taking your energy and bringing it to the rest of my day,” he added.

Following a brief pause, Class 11 rejoined the Zoom room for another powerful session, this one featuring four Chapin alumnae activists* – Georgina Emerson ’05, Tazrean Hossain ’20, Kathleen Moore ’99, and Amari Tankard ’13 – who are each involved in variety of vital causes, including racial, class and gender equity, Black Lives Matter, voter advocacy and LGBT and indigenous rights.

The generous panelists answered a series of open-ended questions, from how they first became activists to topics they are most interested in to strategies for dealing with “activism burnout.” They also offered helpful advice. Listening to these passionate and accomplished role models, the Class 11 students were no doubt energized to begin or build upon their own social justice work.

“Thank you to our illustrious alumnae for sharing your stories,” remarked Ms. Corbin, who moderated the captivating conversation. “You gave us a lot to think about,” added Ms. Rutledge. After an enthusiastic round of applause, the students signed off for a well-deserved break.


*Alumnae Panelists:

Georgina Emerson ’05 is founder and director of Teach About Women (www.teachaboutwomen.org), a New York-based nonprofit focused on gender equity.

Tazrean Hossain ’20 is a first-year student and activist at Wellesley College.

Rev. Kathleen Moore ’99 is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, where she leads anti-racism work.

Amari Tankard ’13 is completing her Ph.D. in molecular biology at Princeton University and serves as social chair of the Black Graduate Caucus and Intersecting Queer Identities/Queer Graduate Caucus.