August 25, 2022
We thank Norman Kim-Senior for making himself vulnerable in the service of better understanding equity and belonging in the independent school world through his life experiences. This letter is the first of a multi-part series exploring Norman’s journey. For those who do not speak Spanish, ‘una voz de abajo’ means ‘a voice from below’.
“I am that child that you hoped to save. I am that brilliant and poor dreamer.”
I hope that you are well. Thank you in advance for sharing your time with me. For a while now, I have been trying to understand my journey and the forces shaping the available options of the adults around me as they tried to guide me from childhood to adulthood. I also want you to know that I come from the working poor. Inadequate access to food, shelter, and healthcare are intimate memories for me and not just theoretical concepts. As such, I carry with me a clear vision of the dignity and determination of every parent who wakes up before sunrise to go to a low-wage job with the hope that they will make enough to take care of their family.
These experiences form the filter through which I see my current world, and should you choose to read beyond this point, this is the space that you are choosing to inhabit. In reflecting on my story thus far, I hope to discover and share some insights about the ways that independent schools could become more effective partners for more positive transformation in society. Ultimately, I am also assessing the ability of the independent school system to be a worthy partner with which I can collaborate to help construct the inclusive future that I hope we all can enjoy. This matters to me because I have students who need this inclusive future. It also matters to me because I, my family, my kids, and many of my dear friends need this inclusive future in order to live a joyous, purposeful, and dignified life.
I wonder about these details because I see too many families who are still struggling the way my family did. I have wondered if I might be able to help put an end to these struggles by better understanding my own journey. Like many of you, I am an educator, and I believe that education is supposed to be transformative. But what and for whom is that transformation? As a child in Jamaica, I was always told that “education is the key” to ending my poverty. I believed that idea completely. And yet, in the independent school world, I often feel that the very idea of a “transformative education” seems to cause real institutional heartburn. I have learned through experience and reflection that educational institutions can be powerful “conserving forces” that cement existing power flows in place instead of liberating and democratizing that power through opportunities to improve society. Are independent schools delivering an education that produces expanded options and opportunities, or are they diligently—knowingly or not—maintaining the existing division of power within society?
At some point along your educational journey, you may have come across the idea of “a private school with a public purpose” concept. This is another idea that appeals to me. However, it remains a theoretical construct that I have yet to see come to full fruition. In fact, I have been stuck staring at this apparent contradiction for a while. Education is supposed to be transformative, but some of the best-funded schools seem ambivalent at best about pursuing and welcoming that transformation. Education is supposed to be a social good, but many independent schools do not prioritize ending poverty, which is one of the biggest challenges that we face. What am I to conclude about our schools and this industry that I have worked in since graduating from college? When I look at the major challenges that we face today and the ones that are expected in the future, I am left wondering what role the independent school community will play in generating good solutions that benefit everyone. Are we equipping our students to create an inclusive future, or are we merely training future replacements to be the gatekeepers for the opportunities that will exist down the road?
During my time in independent schools, I have led service-learning programs abroad, organized community service programs within the U.S., organized silent auction fundraisers, run many miles to raise funds, and attended a good number of fundraising charity events, all in the name of helping to build a better community and world. I will continue to do these things because they help in the same way that administering first aid buys an injured person more time before better assistance arrives. However, a splint will not cure a broken leg, and CPR will not reset the disrupted rhythm of a heart in afib. In the same way, community service, service learning, and small-scale fundraisers will not by themselves address inadequate affordable housing or unaffordable quality healthcare, to name two major challenges in society today.
Realizing that these “market failures” or “failures of the social safety net” are often intentional design features rather than accidental oversights of the status quo has been one of the hard lessons with which I have had to come to terms. The further realization that the alumni of independent schools are well represented among the designers behind the social, political, economic, legal, and cultural norms that have created these “market failures” and “failures of the social safety net” is a reality that has also been difficult to digest.
So, if it is the case that I am that brilliant and poor dreamer that you hoped to save, I am now asking the question of “why?” What did you hope to create when you extended your hand over the years to help me survive the limitations of the poverty that I experienced growing up? And what of the thousands of kids like me who sit in your classrooms or live just outside the fences and walls of our beautiful campuses that we go out to mentor and tutor today? Should I be content with service learning missions? Or should the lessons and the education that I co-create with my students also teach them how to wield the power that they possess to transform the society around them? I believe the latter has a better chance of effectively healing the wounds that generations before them failed to address.
I take an iterative, prototyping approach to discovering the answers to these questions. I am open to and commit to changing my mind as I learn more about the world around me. I hope that my self-interrogation leads you to your own reflections. I hope that our collective discoveries will help us better prepare our students and communities to create an inclusive and prosperous future that has space for everyone to live a life of dignity and purpose.