Dear Somerset College Community,
This week, in my final letter of term 2, I want to address the pain that so many Somerset College people have experienced recently because of racism.
Firstly I am grateful to our students and alumni for the dignified and respectful yet passionate and deeply authentic way in which they have communicated with me over the past week.
Thank you for bringing me your hurt, anger and outrage, with the intention of making a contribution to transforming Somerset College for the better.
I want you to know how sorry I am that any of you have been made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome at Somerset College.
I also want to assure you that I will never make peace with the presence of racism on this campus.
We have put in a great deal of work over the past three years to transform Somerset College but so much more is yet to be done.
In that we need committed partners from all sections of our community to roll up their sleeves and join us in the difficult, daily work of transforming a largely white and privileged school.
In that work, heroes are few, clear answers are in short supply, easy solutions are non-existent, and sweat and tears are guaranteed.
My great hope now is that our community members will channel the rage, disappointment and sadness they may have experienced over the past two weeks into that kind of work, on a long-term basis.
Two years ago, I was not able to say with confidence that we have good systems in place to address racism and to transform the school, but now, I can say that, with a great deal of confidence.
We have in place, among others:
A guiding Diversity and Transformation Statement from our Board of Governors
A well-entrenched transformation plan
Flowing from this plan, among other achievements, considerable progress in staff transformation with, for example, the staff complement in the Senior School having risen from 8% to 16% people of colour in the past two years
Policies, codes of conduct and discipline, and bullying and harassment codes to aid in combating racism
A transformation and diversity committee
A policy review committee
A two-year partnership (begun last year) with an independent, external transformation consultancy whose major prior work had been to assist the NSRI in advancing their transformation journey, with considerable success.
With us, their work has included:
presenting to all Grades and their parents this year at our annual information evenings
research into our community’s transformation needs
running focus groups among all of our stakeholder groups
staff and student training
delivering feedback and reports to management with recommendations for improvement.
The work has been difficult and far from perfect, for no lack of effort on their part, but once they have completed this second year of their contract with us, we will either sign them on for a new two-year contract, or find a new partner to assist us in carrying transformation forward.
Generally transformation requires continual work in which approaches are refined and improved so that effective change can be brought about. It is all the more necessary that this work be perpetual at schools because of the fact that our student and parent cohorts change so much from year to year. This work should also be done by a skilled outside group so that it can flag blindspots that we may have developed and uncover what might otherwise remain hidden. This group also provides an independent avenue through which our community members can voice concerns and report racism.
Internally there is the following support:
trusted teachers (and here, I believe, most alumni and current students will agree that there was, or is, at least one of those to whom they could, or can, turn with confidence during their time at Somerset College)
the Student Development Unit
the Student Unity Society
the Prefects and Student Leaders
the Student Representative Council.
Unfortunately we can never compel students to engage and so our challenge is to continue to find creative ways of eliciting engagement. Here teachers, parents and students themselves must play a role, and, hopefully, translate the intense rage and pain that has been articulated this week into a sustained commitment to make use of the systems available to combat racism, including the existing training and dialogue opportunities.
Systems are only worth anything if the users for which they are designed actually make use of them.
Therefore, I encourage all of you to get involved in that. We need students, alumni, parents and teachers really to engage with presentations, curriculum content, discussion platforms, and with the independent outside consultants we have enlisted to research and report on our transformation needs; to call out unconscious biases, and both clumsy and intentional acts and statements of racism; to stand for leadership positions in the school; to use the Student Unity Society and the Student Representative Council, and to join committees.
And to invoke our policies, press charges, bear witness or speak courage into others.
Once again the topic of the slave bell has been raised, so I want to remind us all of where that discussion currently lies.
There have been renewed calls over the past week from some alumni for the structure to be knocked down. While that has always been my personal preference, I must point out that it is not their call to make alone because, as many of them should remember, having served on (or at least been aware of) the Slave Bell Committee of students during their time at Somerset College, the legacy left by that first group of students was the following decisions:
that the bell structure should not be knocked down
that it should instead remain as a reminder of the atrocities of the past and of current racism
that the structure should be used as a canvas on which the students of every succeeding year can raise awareness, and evolve and continue the conversation, about the need to combat racism.
Accordingly, the future of the structure is primarily in the hands of our current students. I know some of them are wanting to revisit the question now, and I warmly encourage them to join the Slave Bell Committee or participate in its current deliberations.
In conclusion, I want to thank all of you for your efforts and deep commitment to Somerset College over the course of an unprecedented term in our school’s and country’s history.
Dealing with the pandemic has brought considerable challenges but it has also, in many ways, brought us closer together and provided us with significant opportunities to refine our characters, to live up to our values and to apply our minds and hearts to the solving of problems. That is likely to stand us in very good stead in the future.
Let’s keep the good, shed the bad, and move forward together in ever closer unity and commitment to making the very best of the opportunities available to us, so that we can make a contribution to our community, province, country and world that will improve lives and leave a legacy of which to be truly proud.
Somerset College Executive Head