Toward a ‘Beloved Community’

I have been thinking recently about what makes a healthy and safe community. Often, we have used the term “counter-cultural” to describe aspects of Colorado Academy’s work with students. This does not refer to the social protests of the 1960s, but to our commitment to countering many contemporary trends that are not healthy for individuals or society. 

In the past few days, our nation has experienced an insurmountable amount of trauma that we must be honest about. Every time we fail to see the humanity in one another, it is not just another event; it is evidence that we are failing one another. And the trauma we are reliving each and every day because we forget that we are all connected to one another begins to reveal itself. It is impossible to hide. We continue to see deep divisions over a host of social and cultural issues, dividing families and impeding constructive civil discourse. Our inability to hold the lived experiences of others as sacred, with no judgment, but with humility and empathy, comes at the expense of the most vulnerable of us. And because we cannot sit in the discomfort of what we hear and see, and argue about whether it’s true or not, systems of oppression, devoid of truth, become even more brutal and heartless.  

Like many school leaders, I often witness external events reverberating in our community. Our students feel it when injustice happens in society. The release of the police bodycam footage of Tyre Nichols being beaten to death triggers our trauma. We sit in a state of confusion wondering what is most important at this moment. And we fail. We disconnect and act like it didn’t happen. Because to take a moment to feel the pain and agony of this tragedy is too much. The evidence of its impact is most seen when the emotional well-being of faculty, staff, and students shows up as an undefined brokenness.

We have seen a rise in racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Asian violence, Islamophobia, and homophobia in public spaces, as well as the use of political violence. Any time there is a mass shooting, we fear for our loved ones. The influence of social media in rewarding angry and judgmental posts has reduced our society’s capacity for thoughtful dialog and empathy. It diminishes our ability, every single time, to see the humanity in one another. And in this, we can become broken. 

Teachers and school leaders across the nation are in the midst of grappling with these issues, and they are facing anger from all sorts of folks about how to best work with and support children. When we were emerging from the pandemic, I noted the need for a “cultural reset” to re-establish norms to ensure we are living up to our mission and values. As a school, we reaffirmed our commitment to building an inclusive community; many schools across the country did. The repercussions of George Floyd’s death and the impact of the pandemic on children and their caregivers are just barely hitting the surface of how wounded we really are. 

As I sit in a space of reflection, thinking about the last three years, I can’t help thinking about how the Rev. Dr.  Martin Luther King Jr. would often talk about the concept of a “beloved community,” a compelling understanding that has relevance for us today. King saw Americans as inter-connected, despite their multiple and diverse identities. As King observed, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” King would often talk about the “solidarity of the human family.” Humanity.

Unitarian Universalists build upon this idea of interconnectedness in their own powerful definition of a beloved community: “Beloved Community happens when people of diverse background and identities—racial, ethnic, educational, class, gender, ability, sexual orientation—come together in an interdependent relationship of love, mutual respect, and care that seeks to realize justice within the community and in the broader world.”

At the core of these ideas are love and mutual respect for one another. Although King and Unitarians speak from a Christian perspective, we can look to multiple other world religions, such as Buddhism, which see the people of the world as interconnected. In the secular school setting, we are primarily focused on helping students better understand themselves, the experiences of others, and the larger challenges facing the world. We do that work better and help students realize their full potential when every individual feels the support of their peers and has a sense of belonging. But what does it mean to belong? In my view, cultivating a sense of belonging means we have to go back to the basics. It means we have to learn how to show humility, empathy, and dignity. It means we have to learn how to build authentic relationships with one another. It means we have to learn to listen to one another, with no judgment. And when we do, it means we have to show gratitude that we felt safe enough to do so. 

I feel for our students. This is a hard time to grow up. We know they face an uncertain future with looming challenges; they know it as well. How do we sustain a school community in which students feel supported? How do we create an environment in which all feel seen and heard? How do we create a sacred space that honors each and every one of us when we show up fully as ourselves? How do we build resilience and empathy within every facet of who we are as a school?

Culture drives our affirmation for one another and ultimately makes meaning of what happens with us and to us everyday. And because we are an established culture, we may or may not be conscious of our interactions and how they are interconnected and, in turn, influence our experience within it. So, how do we get better at recognizing our interconnected experiences here at CA? My best guess: we focus on building a culture of humility. To do that, we must work on our own self-awareness and grace, relentlessly challenging the imbalances of power and privilege that impact the way we see ourselves, others, and the world around us as we uphold the principle that human growth is never ending—it is a journey. We acknowledge that we will never fully arrive at our supposed destination, but we offer ourselves grace and accept guidance from those who may actually know how to get us there. And we can do it, too, as long as we are intentional with the practical guidelines we apply every day in our relationships with other members of our CA community. And this isn’t work for just some of us; this is everyone’s responsibility. 

We talk about promoting kindness at CA. With 1,035 students, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of student-to-student, teacher-to-student, and parent-to-teacher interactions on this campus every day. The vast majority of these are positive; sometimes, they are even life-changing. I have received so many testimonials from alumni, students, parents, and teachers about transformative learning experiences. When we show a willingness to lean into our own humility, it can have an immense positive impact that can stay with us and nourish our growth.

But there are also those interactions that can cause hurt, pain, and even trauma. These can take the form of saying something unkind or teasing, or excluding someone from a social group. Given the larger impact of racism and bigotry, we can see acts of prejudice and ignorance play out on our campus just like they do across the nation. 

Regardless of intent, it is heartbreaking for me and other educators when we learn that we have not always lived up to our mission. Although CA is as diverse as ever, with 32% of our students identifying as coming from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds, we are still a predominately white school, and it can be hard for some of our students of color. It is important that we acknowledge that fact and our own mistakes, even as we affirm our values and work towards being that beloved community.

For us to do this, we have to be willing to look inward as well as outward. In a school, there is only so much that we can realistically expect children and teenagers to be able to do—there is so much happening developmentally. Yet, creating a community of belonging, where everyone feels valued, is not an unrealistic goal. We can set aside jargon and complex theories of community dynamics and focus on simple actions in which we actively demonstrate our respect and love for our peers every day. I love going to major CA athletic and arts events. Without fail, after a big game or production our students rally around their friends. But can we do these things in the quieter and more subtle moments? Can we be vulnerable with our friends and colleagues? Can we take the time to lean in, offer thanks, or maybe engage in thoughtful dialog?

Another question that I think about is how to create a sense of belonging in a school. This is more complex than it seems. We all know that we “belong” to CA if we are enrolled or attended or work at the school or are paying tuition. But there is a deeper goal toward which we are striving, and it is not always easy. There are different groups within our communities, such as a sports team or music group, that develop their own sense of belonging. Students may have different identities which can make them wonder how they fit in. And, no matter what your interests or identity, if you are a student going through your years at CA, you are in the process of finding yourself, and you are constantly evolving. As a result, the way you interact with your peers and the institution may change.

For me, belonging comes down to feeling as though you are respected, recognized, and supported. It means you can be vulnerable and ask for help. It means that you can live your life at CA and be appreciated for all that you bring—especially if you can be your authentic self and not have to pretend to be anything other than who you are. It means you have the agency to cultivate an experience that is most meaningful to you. Our job is to make sure you have the freedom to do so. 

As we go through the second half of the year, I am committed to doing what I can to connect with more students and members of the community. Over the years, I have learned of my need as a leader of this school to listen and to empower others around me to seek solutions to challenges. Humility is a critical feature of servant-leadership, but also key to developing engaging relationships with others. I also know that as a white male with power in the school, I can be an upstander and leader in making our community more inclusive and equitable, and I will continue to use my voice to guide the community. And, you can expect me to continue to address issues. I have been here 15 years now, and, ultimately, the buck stops with me. 

All of us—students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumni—have a responsibility to model great behavior with the goal of sustaining a unique community that, despite its imperfections, has so much to offer. Let’s all do our part to raise our aspirations and make every day on this campus a celebration of our beloved community.