Thank you everyone for coming out this morning to join us in exploring our Hidden Stories of the North Shore. I am humbled to see such a large, enthusiastic crowd here today.
My name is Jennifer Lind, on behalf of HEROS, welcome to our Call to Action. Healing Everyday Racism in Our Schools is our name and our aim; we are delighted to see so many people here today to explore our local history in an effort to mobilize, organize, and energize together to become more inclusive, to create more fair and equitable policies, and to build a truly welcoming community for everyone.
My husband and I raised our four children in Wilmette. They studied at New Trier and its feeder schools where they received a strong academic education in many ways. However, we have always known deep in our hearts, and we’ve seen during the past year that not all students in our local schools thrive. Students of color have learned an unspoken curriculum when they don’t see teachers who look like them, they do not feel safe or supported when confronted with unspeakable acts of racism. I invite you to look carefully at both the beauty and the hurt that exists beneath the surface in our community and in our schools so that we can build a better, supportive community for all students.
When I think of Hidden Stories, I am reminded of a visit I paid to Fredrick Douglass’ homestead in Washington, DC decades ago while I was a graduate student in DC. Perched high above the Potomac, Cedar Hill was Douglass’ home until his death in 1895. All of his possessions were carefully preserved by his wife Helen Pitts who lived at Cedar Hill until her death in 1903. Nearly alone with the tour guide and only 3 or 4 other visitors, the quiet Douglass homestead stands in stark contrast to crowded Mount Vernon and Monticello, the homesteads of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson that receive visitors from around the country. The lack of attention Cedar Hill receives allowed me plenty of time to talk to our docent and carefully inspect his legacy. Inside Cedar Hill, one gem particularly caught my attention: a framed letter from the famed abolitionist to New York publisher Horace Greely. In 1846, Douglass wrote from Scotland, “I am one of those who think the best friend of a nation is he who most faithfully rebukes her for her sins—and he her worst enemy, who, under the specious and popular garb of patriotism, seeks to excuse, palliate, and defend them.” Douglass’ inspiring words feel ever so relevant to us here today.
Let this American hero be our inspiration today. I invite all of you here today, friends, parents, teenagers, neighbors, and residents of New Trier Township, to be our community’s devoted friends and critics. Let’s work to recognize both our local triumphs alongside our tragedies, explore how they are intertwined, tangled, and interwoven to make up our neighborhoods as they are today.
Let’s look within our local community, our faith organizations, our schools, our networks, and our homes, inside our four walls and inside ourselves, to both celebrate our achievements and reckon with our shortcomings. Begin with the past! Consider the local wounds of the legacy of slavery, of segregation, Jim Crow, and redlining here in the New Trier Township as we meet in this space where Dr. Martin Luther King spoke 56 years ago about his dream for a Beloved Community.
Let’s learn from South Africa and Germany, who have created cultures of remembrance in the countries of the perpetrator. Let’s realize John Winthrop’s call to be a true beacon, a “city set upon a hill” that has to courage to reckon with its nuanced past, the courage to untangle its tragedies from its triumphs, in order to create a more equitable future for all Americans. Once we explore and talk about our local history, the history of race and racism, we can see how this history shapes our attitudes toward race, then we don’t have to be hostage to it. The echoes of the past hidden histories can energize us to find hope in the midst of hostility, triumph over tragedy and love over hate.
Let’s faithfully critique our local government, schools, and institutions rather than excuse and defend their failings. Let’s create an inclusive, respectful identity in the New Trier Township. Let’s do our best to talk about our history of race and be willing to commit ourselves to truth and reconciliation. Truth must come before reconciliation! Let’s pause on this day, Juneteenth, a national holiday, to commit to learning beyond our limited, whitewashed understanding of our local history and delve into the history of all Americans.
Before we can sincerely celebrate Juneteenth, the day that announced legal emancipation and freedom to enslaved people in Texas, we must pause to reflect upon the deep human toll of slavery and examine a wide range of issues that are relevant to addressing ongoing discrimination here in our community.
Fellow white residents, we don’t have to care about racism in our immediate, daily lives. However, when we don’t care about racism, our positive accomplishments of our excellent schools and community organizations, our scientific and artistic accomplishments are diminished and shadowed by our shortcomings, by the fact that these opportunities of education and safety are not shared by all. Let’s consider the words of Vaclev Havel, the Czech and global civil rights leader who spoke of the orientation of the spirit, a willingness to engage in both our mind with our creative and scientific achievements, as well as our heart to care about the excluded and dispossessed. Let’s embrace this mind-heart connection Havel spoke of to move beyond our past and current segregation with more equitable local governance and education. Let’s move beyond our indifference to racism to allow more Americans including people of color to enjoy the wonderful things that our neighborhoods offer our families.
As a white woman standing here, alongside you, there are literally countless ways that I cannot ever understand the world as people of color have to navigate it every day. How have we made so little progress in the 56 years since Dr. King spoke here in the very space? I recognize and reflect on this tragedy and injustice as I embrace summer with days at the beach and the pool, outdoor concerts, BBQs, and picnics, while people of color in the Chicagoland area brace for violence with hyper surveillance and more aggressive policing than in our community. People of color who come to and through our neighborhoods cannot relax and feel safe as we white folks do without even considering this unearned privilege.
Raised with a white-washed education, I learned an unspoken curriculum that life would be easier, safer, more comfortable for me because of the color of my skin. As white people, we were taught a presumption of not just innocence but exceptionalism. But that is not authentic, true, or fair. Not based on trust, but rather unearned advantage and selective, incomplete histories we learned in schools.
I invite you, neighbors and friends, let’s work together as allies to explore our hidden histories, search for truth that leads to reconciliation, so we can choose change. Let’s engage in dismantling racism. Racism hurts all of us. Not one of us can truly thrive if everyone cannot thrive. I’ll end with a quote from Lilla Watson, an Indigenous Australian artist who says “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Let’s work together. Let’s learn together. Let’s educate ourselves together! As Dr. King said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” If you can’t find a partner, be a partner. If you can’t find an ally, be an ally. If you can’t see the light, be the light. Friends and neighbors let’s step up. Let’s begin with the past. Let’s get more involved, make a plan, define next steps, take action and reimagine our community as an example of a strong, inclusive community. Engage with our community partners here this morning to identify specific actions we can each take to fight racism.
Join me in this courageous, imperfect journey to remain faithful to our township and each other with our faithful yet critical mind-heart orientation as we forge ahead to leave an honest legacy that will make our children proud. Thank you!