Activism with Purpose and Heart
Amid national controversies that felt unprecedented in recent history, our students embodied the School's mission by tackling challenging issues with confidence, thoughtfulness, and empathy.
Protesting Gun Violence
On March 14, 2018, students across the country walked out of their schools at 10 a.m. to remember the 19 victims of the Parkland, FL, shooting. In Downtown Brooklyn, many hundreds of Packer students also walked out and kept going — to Borough Hall, where they held a demonstration to protest gun violence.
The Brooklyn Heights Walkout was conceived and spearheaded by seniors Aliana Acevedo ’18, Sarah DeSouza ’18, Drew Myers ’18, and Savannah Phillips-Falk ’18.
Sarah De Souza: I was one of the organizers for the Brooklyn Heights Walkout and I’d never, in all my life with anything I’ve ever done, felt so consumed by one thing. Late-night phone calls, text messages, meetings every day, press interviews, program organizing, and everything else that came with planning this was all I cared about. None of us had ever planned a protest before, but we just figured it out as we went.
Drew Myers: The media storm that this protest created was quite incredible. In the weeks leading up to March 14, we created a press release based on a template provided by the Women’s March. In total we sent it to 50 news organizations.
It was only in the week leading up to the march that we started getting responses, and then a deluge of media descended upon us. First it was an interview with a Fox News journalist, then NBC said they would send a film crew, then CNN. Asahi TV, Japan’s national news network, sent a camera crew. The day before the Walkout, we were interviewed by The New York Times and The New Yorker. A photographer for the Times came to Packer. And after the Walkout, Savannah Phillips-Falk and I did live television interviews with Fox News 5 and CNN New Day.
Sarah: As we stood on the steps of Borough Hall, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so proud of anything in my life. We were expecting about 200 Packer kids and hoping kids from other high schools would join us. We estimate almost 2,000 people came out that day!
There’s nothing like the feeling I had when I saw my peers and friends in the crowd. The pride shone on their faces, grins from ear to ear, seeing us up there doing something that actually mattered.
As the final piece of the 2018 Packer in Action program, which focused on gender norms, Middle and Upper School students gathered in the Chapel for a conversation between Tarana Burke, #MeToo founder and Girls for Gender Equity senior director, and student moderators Sarah DeSouza ’18 and Sam Tecotsky ’18.
This [Chapel event] was the first time that the entire Middle and Upper School was able to experience this conversation together. We pride ourselves as a community, and as a country, in being diverse in mind and makeup, so these conversations have to reflect diversity in terms of the audience and participants.
Ms. Burke tried whenever she could to draw the attention of every single person in the Chapel, regardless of what they felt coming into the talk. She addressed issues of race and the necessity to always acknowledge the intersectionality of race and gender when discussing sexual assault. She addressed boys and men, explaining both how to be a true ally without overstepping, and how to reasonably call out men — some of whom have used excuses of discomfort, ignorance, confusion, inapplicability, or the fear of being targeted, to avoid these discussions.
She repeatedly stressed that [the MeToo movement is about] human dignity and human safety, and that there are victims of sexual assault across the gender spectrum. When we make it about one specific group, she warned, inevitably there will be people who adopt a defensive stance and thus shy away from these discussions. This is exactly what she hopes to avoid.
Her experience and insight, balanced with her accessibility and charisma, made her in many ways the perfect speaker for Packer: one that we both needed and whom we were lucky to have the privilege of meeting.
Talking About Gender — and Listening
Rhea Lieber ’18, Sam Tecotsky ’18, and Satya Sheftel-Gomes ’19 led this year’s Gender Forums, in which Upper School students explored how gender socialization contributes to a culture of harassment and assault. “In the end, it was much more than that,” said Upper School Head José M. De Jesús, as he presented them with the 2018 J Geoff Pierson Leadership Award. “At many points the space was brimming with over 100 students and faculty, and [they] facilitated the conversation with grace, compassion, and consistency.”
“There was no way we could have made the progress we did if we weren’t listening to one another,” said Rhea. “It’s important to share one’s own experience, but it is then equally important to listen to someone else’s experience that may be significantly different than your own.”
The Forums also brought the ramifications of intersectionality to the forefront. “The experiences of women vary immensely based on one’s identifiers,” said Rhea. “Having women of color speak about their experiences in order to create a fuller and intersectional lens was crucial to moving towards our goals.” Rhea hopes that the Forums’ lasting impact will be the understanding that “intersectionality is inherent in these conversations, not just a buzzword.”
So many members of our Upper School, not just those who have typically taken action, have given voice to their points of view [this year] and expressed a desire to do more. I’m proud to say that the conversations we have engaged in together, although at times heated, have remained respectful, with love for this school and this community at the core.”
— José M. De Jesús, Head of Upper School, in a communication to Upper School families
A student-led workshop on the use of the n-word.
Leila Narisetti ’20, who has been active in student-led diversity work at Packer and beyond, was inspired by the record-breaking participation at April’s First Friday discussion (see photo, below).
She set out to develop a series of workshops on specific topics at the intersection of gender and race, entitled Continuing the Conversation. She shared her vision with Allison Bishop, Upper School Dean for Student Life and Leadership, and Semeka Smith-Williams, Director of Diversity and Equity, who helped her shape a plan to encourage fellow students to help spearhead her initiative.
“I was looking more for people who don’t typically lead, people who want to express themselves the most but don’t know how to. We’re seeing people who don’t usually work together — mixed grades, races, genders — coming up with the topics,” which included stereotypes and microaggressions, race and sexuality, positive privilege, and use of the n-word.
Halfway through the series, Leila was happy with the workshops’ impact. “[We] have begun to change the way we think and how we act with each other. Packer is in a bubble a lot of times, [and] the workshops are a reality check. Maybe that’s why people are taking so much away from them.”
Launched in 2016-17, First Fridays are monthly discussions in which Upper School students educate themselves and one another about events shaping our society. April's First Friday discussion on police brutality, Black Lives Matter, and the death of Stephon Clark was led by Archie Caride ’19 and Kadeem Roberts ’19. It drew over 100 students, faculty, and staff.