As administrators and organizers at New Trier High School face fierce opposition toward its upcoming February 28th all-day seminar, Understanding Today’s Struggle for Racial Civil Rights, one vocal opposition group in particular, referring to itself as Parents of New Trier, created this website with the tagline, “Because New Trier’s All School Seminar Day is Biased, Unbalanced, Divisive, and Costly.” In response, four recent 2016 New Trier graduates, all feminists, defended their alma mater with this groundbreaking piece.
To begin unraveling the nuanced complexities of white privilege at New Trier, let’s start with something we can all relate to: the ubiquitous American high school rivalry.
HIGH SCHOOL RIVALRY
The longstanding rivalry between New Trier High School and its socioeconomically and racially diverse neighbor, Evanston Township High School (ETHS) is sometimes vicious, with trash talk flying in both directions. And as an ETHS parent and twenty-year resident of Evanston, Illinois, believe me — I hear plenty:
•New Trier cajoling ETHS from the sidelines: “That’s alright…That’s okay…You’re gonna work for us someday.”
•ETHS referring to New Trier students disparagingly as “The beautifuls.”
•New Trier parents cautioning kids: “It’s dangerous near ETHS. Lock the car and text me, just so I know you’re alive.”
•ETHS Wildkits calling New Trier’s Trevians “Those rich, white assholes.”
Just sticks and stones? How about we dig a little deeper to learn why these two particular groups might say what they do…
And while there’s no overnight “solution” to dismantle socioeconomic disparity, a team of advocates at New Trier, comprised of teachers, parents and students, have planned the upcoming all-school seminar day, titled Understanding Today’s Struggle for Racial Civil Rights (Feb 28th, 2017).
According to a page on New Trier High School’s website: “The purpose of the seminar day is to help students better understand the history and current status of racial civil rights in the United States, not to promote the philosophy of one political party or another, or to connect a political party to the history of racial civil rights. Every student is entitled to hold personal political beliefs. To that end, the seminar day will not portray any political party as good or bad or promote the views of one party. Such an approach would be just another example of stereotyping and would ignore each party’s complicated history with race and civil rights in our country.”
When asked for New Trier’s position on the upcoming event and the resistance it’s drawn, Director of Communications and Alumni Relations, Nicole Ziegler Dizon shared these comments:
“New Trier High School is proud to host two National Book Award-winning authors as keynote speakers for a day in which students will examine the history of civil rights in our country and how that history connects to the present day. New Trier has a long tradition of using seminar days to discuss and think critically about important topics, from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States to the effects of competition on our society. We are committed to our mission, reflected in our curricular goals, of creating global citizens prepared to engage in a diverse society. Our students tell us that while New Trier prepares them extremely well for the academic courses they will take in college, they are less prepared to participate in communities that are more diverse than New Trier Township and to talk about race in an open and constructive way. Students point out that too often conversations about race can devolve into labeling, finger-pointing, and anger. The seminar day offers more than 70 workshops led by faculty and approximately 30 led by outside speakers who are scholars, artists, and leaders chosen for their work in civil rights — of which students choose two — as well as a common lesson plan meant to promote discussion and debate in a format that allows students to learn together and from each other.”
But critics, like the Illinois Family Institute which published, “New Trier High School Avoids Diversity Like The Plague,” (Jan 10, 2017), cite detractors like attorney Joseph Morris, who specifically described the event as “a rather bold and raw effort at hard-left propaganda with decidedly anti-American, anti-free-market, anti-family, anti-parent, and bigoted biases on display.”
ParentsofNewTrier.org, upon launching this petition in February denouncing the all-day seminar — set social media ablaze with questions, criticism, and a curious lack of acknowledgment about New Trier’s challenges.
On February 6th, in response to ParentsofNewTrier.org’s petition, four 2016 New Trier alumnae — Francesca Gazzolo, Cookie Belknap Fernández, Gracee Wallach and Mia Neumann — posted this incredible piece: An open letter advocating the importance of New Trier’s Seminar Day, “Understanding Today’s Struggle for Racial Civil Rights”.
Here, in their own words, are the New Trier grads’ views on advocacy, diversity and the future of our country.
What does it mean to be an advocate?
Francesca Gazzolo: The simplest way to describe my personal brand of advocacy is “standing up.” I stand up for myself—as a woman, as a queer person—and for the people I love. I make sure my voice is heard, and I stick pretty fast to my principles. After leaving New Trier and coming into a more diverse community at Wellesley, I’ve also learned to “step back.” As a white and cis person, I carry privileges that many of my peers do not, and I’m learning when to step out of the spotlight so their voices can be heard too.
Cookie Belknap Fernández: An advocate is someone who cares deeply for others, fights for justice, and uses their privilege to amplify the voices of those who have been quieted throughout history.
Gracee Wallach: An advocate is standing up and speaking out for what is right. Whether it’s hard or uncomfortable or easy or enjoyable, the work of advocacy is doing what is right. Recently, I have better been able to understand my role as an advocate by thinking about how I would want others to advocate for me, as a woman and a Jewish person. I think about this when I advocate for any marginalized group that I am not a part of—I have to understand my advocacy as intentionally working toward the needs and wants of marginalized people.
Mia Neumann: Being an advocate, to me, is working both within and outside systems that oppress people in order to create positive and meaningful change. Being an advocate and an activist is putting yourself on the line in order to stand up for the causes you find meaningful, with full knowledge and acceptance of the consequences that may follow. To advocate for your own rights is important, but to advocate for the rights of others is imperative.
When did your own advocacy start?
Francesca: My mom has a PhD in feminist theory, so she raised us to be feminists, even when that word wasn’t embraced in parts of suburbia. My junior year, when Ferguson was happening and there was more light shed on police brutality, I realized that my feminism wasn’t as inclusive as it should’ve been—I needed to educate myself about racial prejudice and be vocal about racism in my community. I’m still learning about this stuff, and I will be for a very long time.
Cookie: I don’t think there was ever a distinct moment or anything; it was just the natural progression of how I was raised. My mom moved to Chicago from Cuba when she was 16, and my siblings and I grew up with reminders of the challenges of being an immigrant and the difficulty of learning an entirely new language. I don’t think I knew about social justice until probably 7th grade, but right away I was on board.
Gracee: A long time ago. I was big into the environment when I was younger, and later in middle school I became deeply invested in feminism and gay rights (with the help of the dear Francesca Gazzolo and Mia Neumann, two of my friends who were socially aware and active early on). When I was a sophomore at New Trier, I did a TEDx talk about white privilege, and became so invested in race and racism and privilege and inequity from the information I learned there. There was almost a sense of betrayal that I felt, and I asked myself how I could have lived my life without knowing about the pervasive injustice in the world. At that time, I became more invested in Student Voices in Equity, an organization at New Trier that I was a part of through all four years there, and dug deeper into this equity work, mostly having discussions with other students about their experiences with these issues and how to rectify them on a larger scale. I felt this urge to shake all of my peers to open their eyes and see the inequity for themselves.
Mia: I’d say my work as an advocate in the New Trier community really began when I founded New Trier’s first Feminist Club & Open Forum in 2013, which is still going strong today. Our mission is to push New Trier to ask critical questions about our morals as an institution and as classmates, as we moved through our daily lives as Trevians. We would have weekly discussions, hold open forums and screenings that welcomed the New Trier community at large, created fundraisers to support femme postitive organizations in the Chicagoland area and frequently used art and zine-making as an outlet for our discussions to reach students who weren’t able to take part in our conversations about feminism.
What inspired you to work on a diversity program for New Trier?
Francesca: I left New Trier my senior year because my dad got a job in Michigan, so I wasn’t able to take part in [this year’s event]. I’m so proud of the people who made it happen.
Cookie: I was not one of the people who worked on [the event], but I watched as my friends were putting together seminars on top of all of their regular schoolwork and extracurriculars, which was darn impressive.
Gracee: My desire to shake my peers and expose them to what they were ignoring made me evermore excited for the day. After talking about the day in Student Voices in Equity, I couldn’t help myself but get more involved. I (and a few of my peers in the group) attended the monthly planning meetings, worked alongside administrators in coming up with ideas for the seminars, and advocated for what I felt like needed to be included in the day. I was lucky enough to be able to lead a seminar with my dear friend Amanda Wong, and the two of us discussed the intersections of race and gender, something that I felt like was an important bridge for many students at the school who were working towards gender equity, but not necessarily intersectional feminism that was inclusive of and paid attention to the experiences of women of color.
Mia: Throughout high school I was also a member of New Trier’s Student Voices in Equity, whose mission was to find tangible solutions towards racial equality in the walls of this very privileged community. We asked critical questions about how we could move our conversations outside of our meetings, which were always met with adversity. When word came out in the fall of 2015 that we would have school on Martin Luther King Day that school year, we realized that would be the best way to get involved with the New Trier community at large. We were ecstatic to have that kind of opportunity, where different perspectives could come together to have honest and open conversations about race and privilege. It wasn’t until we began getting backlash for this day that I really saw how important it was for New Trier.
What do you make of the longstanding rivalry between New Trier and Evanston Township High School?
Francesca: My dad went to ETHS, and so did most of my extended family, so we just laugh about it at home. I think the “rivalry” is more of a disconnection—Evanston is so much more diverse than a lot of the northern suburbs, and there’s this very weird dynamic where some New Trier students view Evanston as almost unsafe, even though it’s ten minutes down the road. I think that’s about internalized bias more than anything. If you don’t have diversity (racial, socio-economic) in your community, you might unconsciously associate it with danger.
Cookie: Honestly I never understood or knew much about school rivalries, but that’s probably because I was never into sports or anything competitive. All the kids I’ve met from ETHS have been super cool, they have a lot of great art to contribute to the world. It’s incredible how many talented people that school has produced.
Mia: I have to say, I spent a lot of time hanging out with people outside of my hometown of Wilmette. I have always felt disconnected to the New Trier Township, and where I couldn’t create the spaces I wanted to see in my high school, I looked elsewhere to find them. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t uncomfortable explaining to other people outside of my community where I am from and the privileges that has served me throughout my life, but I found that introducion to be much more difficult when introducing myself to Evanston students. What separates us, I believe, is definitely rooted in our own stereotypes and blind understandings of each other’s communities. While I do understand and sympathize those from Evanston who categorize the average New Trier student, I am also the direct result of that stereotype being utterly incorrect. And while I work to redefine what it means to be a just another North Shore girl, know that I am not the only one. In contrast, I think the general consensus of my high school’s lack of understanding and acceptance of the complexity of Evanston is a clear roadblock for our communities coming together. The great racial, ethnic, and income diversity is not the only thing that makes Evanston such a unique place. Evanston has a deep history of pushing against the status-quo to come together to create change, which runs through the community as a rallying cry to come together on the issues that face their families, like issues of Gun Violence, Gangs, Drugs, etc. The general New Trier community not only refuses to see that, but they refuse to emulate it which to me is a damn shame.
What, if anything, might be done to address the tension that such a rivalry brings?
Francesca: Education is where everything starts. There are some arguments that we shouldn’t talk about race at all in school because it perpetuates prejudice, but the reality is that kids notice when someone looks different from them, and they need to understand the complex history behind those differences. We need to teach kids to examine their own biases, understand where they come from and deconstruct them. This takes a lot of time—it doesn’t stop with adulthood. Still though, we have this lack of diversity in our student body at New Trier that can’t be remedied by curriculum. I don’t know how to solve that; that’s more of a systemic issue. But it all starts with the individual.
Cookie: Starting an open dialogue is a good way to address any tension, or building bridges. I was in New Trier’s Integrated Global Studies School (IGSS), which is similar to Evanston’s Senior Studies program. We had some of the Senior Studies kids visit us during IGSS at one point, and another time we went there to watch them give their final presentations. They were super easy to talk to and I found a lot of likeminded individuals in them. I wish we could have collaborated with them more!
Mia: It is clear that New Trier lacks diversity, and it is clear that Evanston Township prides itself in its ability to celebrate and learn from communities of all different backgrounds. While this is easier said than done, our communities need to work harder on understanding that we are all complex beings that come from complex backgrounds with complex privileges and disadvantages that has brought us all together in this complex period of time. Instead of reducing one another to archetypes, let’s learn how to accept each other’s introduction at face value, instead of allowing the baggage as something as petty as a hometown keep us apart.
How does the rivalry between the two high schools resemble the current political climate?
Francesca: One thing that I can say for New Trier is that it’s politically diverse. In a school that big, you’re bound to get kids anywhere on the spectrum. I would hazard a guess, though, that there are more liberals and progressives in Evanston—again, because a demographically diverse environment often yields more liberal people (not always, but often). I can’t say that New Trier is all red and ETHS is all blue, because that’s just not true. It really depends on who you surround yourself with, what kind of people are in your circle.
Mia: I think this clearly reflects and emulates changes that need to happen on both ends of the political spectrum. In this trying time, I found the most meaningful interactions I’ve had have been about trying to see the value in our complex perspectives, especially those I don’t agree with. I think what has been most evident in this political cycle has been that voters are starting to spill outside of their previously accepted partisan boxes. With Republicans who rely on the Affordable Care Act and Democrats who refuse to accept large corporate campaign donations, the status-quo of the establishment is crumbling beneath us. To continue to try to stuff those needs into the same boxes and structures that have failed them time and time again has proven not only stunt our collective growth, but has made it easier for those who know how to manipulate those system easier to gain more power. I think the most evident connection between the animosity of our two communities and the political climate is that, once we begin to see the merits of collective efforts to create change, there’s no going back. We are more than just Democrats and Republicans; we are humans with needs that surpass those of political agendas and bipartisan conflicts.
What inspired you to write the piece about New Trier’s All Day Seminar?
Francesca: I saw a lot of my friends writing really emotional, impassioned letters to Parents of New Trier. I appreciated their efforts, but I’m all about creating dialogue across the aisle (as a person of privilege, I’m able to do that comfortably), so I decided to take a more analytical approach. I did some research and addressed each of the website’s points, as well as their criticisms of particular seminars. Gracee is a close friend of mine, so when she saw what I wrote she wanted to incorporate it into the open letter. I’m glad—I think the efforts of a group are more effective than the efforts of one person.
Cookie: When they announce some terrible thing on the news, you feel like you just want to give up, you feel powerless. When we found out that this was going on right at New Trier, we felt we had the power and a significant role in supporting the all-day seminar. It was personal enough that I felt qualified to be angry, that it wasn’t just some school in some town, but I was removed enough from it that I could see it from a constructive point of view. It was not fair to all of the students who were still in high school, and I would have appreciated someone standing up and doing the same for us.
Gracee: Last year, when the — if I may say — embarrassing piece about New Trier’s Diversity Day from Breitbart came out, I wrote a long Facebook post that was shared by many, emphasizing the importance of the day, as well as the harm that denying racism and privilege can do. I wanted to make a public, shareable document, directly responding to arguments using truths that I hold to be self-evident. I wanted to create something that community members could reference, whether it’s in a conversation with their child, co-worker, or at the board meeting. I wanted something to also come out and assure parents who were advocates for [an all-day seminar on diversity] that there were people on their side, and show the opposition that there are people on the other side who are strong and smart and competent and who see them and refuse to accept the agenda they preach.
Mia: Cookie posted something on social media that referenced their desire to write something, and I asked if they needed any help. When it comes to addressing partisan politics that has any connection with New Trier, I learned the hard way that there is power in numbers, and so we started drafting.
What do you make of the group called New Trier Parents, which includes some members who are not, in fact, New Trier parents?
Francesca: When people are asked to give up power, they can get defensive. In a way, reserving a day to talk about issues of prejudice in our community, giving the floor to people of color who are underrepresented here—that’s taking away power. We’re all guilty of this defensiveness; I just think we should all examine where it’s coming from: is it really about getting “diverse viewpoints,” when the people from whom we hear every day are white teachers and students? Or is it about not wanting to give up our own power?
Cookie: I think it’s bogus of them to call themselves the “Parents of New Trier” when they absolutely do not represent the values and interests of the majority of New Trier parents, and the fact that some of them are not even parents of New Trier students is almost laughable. It’s unfortunate that they don’t even have the guts to slap their names on the organization. There’s no credibility in anonymity, and even less so when the curtain is pulled back to reveal that the organization has backing from people who are so unrelated and shouldn’t even be involved.
Gracee: Usually I would brush it off as ignorant, but these parents were organized and loud and were being referenced left and right (figuratively, I don’t know of any on the left who aligned themselves with “Parents”) by any and all who were against [the event]. Liberals try to preach this idea of tolerating the other side, hearing them out, yada yada. But there isn’t another side to racism. There isn’t another side to privilege. White people have privilege, and people of color face racism and prejudice on a daily basis. There is no use in hearing out the “other side” when they preach rhetoric that allows those with socioeconomic power to stay in power, or think that promoting stereotypes about the black community is a good way to create a “balanced dialogue.”
Mia: As alumnae who were directly involved with the creation of MLK Seminar Day, I felt that we needed to share our perspective in the same way those parents felt the need to share theirs. In no way do I think that parents aren’t allowed to have an opinion about what their children learn about, and I don’t pretend to understand what that might feel like. But I do understand in a very direct and real way what it feels like to be a student at New Trier. Not just a student in a classroom, but a student in a lunchroom, a student in a locker room, a student walking the hallways of New Trier. I have heard extremely troubling things not just whispered in quiet conversations between students, but proudly shouted and applauded by their fellow classmates without conflict. I think to excuse conversations about race by claiming they are in any way related to partisan interests is incredibly invalidating and can only come from a place of great privilege. While I struggled to understand the perspectives on those parents and community members, we still listened and sat with their responses and proposals in order to learn from them and attempt to honestly hear them. I would hope that they would simply do the same with us and our needs as students who have been through the school, directly engaged with this day of learning and advocates of the rights of all people.
Any thoughts on Senator Elizabeth Warren being told she should sit down?
Francesca: Conservative legislators complain about curbing freedom of speech, yet they violate the spirit of the law when they tell someone they don’t agree with to stop talking (based on the flimsy idea that you can’t criticize the policies of a fellow senator).
Gracee: I think Francesca said it best! I also can’t help but feel totally grossed out by Senator Hash who felt that Elizabeth Warren’s speaking against Jeff Sessions was unfair to his wife who would never want to hear him talked about that way….Just baffling that the right continues to consistently recontextualize women’s work and women’s issues to their relationship with the patriarchy (as a wife, mother, daughter, etc).
Did you march on Janurary 21st?
Francesca: Yes, I marched with my mom and aunt in Chicago.
Gracee: I couldn’t make it to the Women’s March as I was traveling back to school, but my mother marched, and I also was out in the streets at an anti-Trump protest on the evening of January 20th. We made our voices heard and stopped traffic on Michigan Avenue and Lakeshore Drive!
From where and how do you consume daily news?
Francesca: Most of my news comes from The New York Times or The Guardian.
Gracee: I like The Hill as my favorite nonpartisan news source, also rely on Politico, Vox, CNN, and the New York Times. I also love The Young Turks (shoutout to Mia) for their spot on political commentary (and very important and informed responses to current events).
What are you doing with your life these days?
Francesca: I’m at Wellesley, an all-women’s college near Boston. Being in an environment of nearly all women has been so inspiring; my confidence has soared in just a few months. When you’re at Wellesley, you’re not bogged down by sexism. All the professors are here for you; all the opportunities are here for you; when a woman raises her hand in class, she doesn’t have to worry about not getting called on just because she’s a woman. I’m planning on studying history, particularly pre-Columbian and early colonial American history. I’m taking a class on Native America for the first time, and it’s kind of earth-shattering to realize how diverse and advanced American societies were before Europeans came over. That part of history gets glossed over a lot.
Cookie: I’m currently studying Film & Television at DePaul University and it’s incredible to finally be able to do what I’m passionate about. I was involved in the film scene in high school, but being able to focus all of my time and energy on it has allowed me to go creatively deeper and work on more “passion projects”. I’ll definitely be implementing my intersectional feminist values into all of my films and I’m excited to change the world around me!
Gracee: I am a first year at Grinnell College, hoping to create my own major in Social Policy. I recently started an organization at Grinnell called “Grinnellians United” that seeks to use community building as a tool for resistance. We are working to create an intersectional alliance of student groups that can work to support each others causes and efforts and create visibility for as many issues as possible. We also want to work on bridge-building with the town we are in, Grinnell, Iowa, which is a rural, Republican town that faces a lot of poverty. We both want to have conversations with them, question their beliefs and allow us to interrogate our own, better understand what is important to them and what they feel like they are missing, and allow these conversations to better inform our activism on campus and make sure that it is aware of the environment, intentional, and most of all effective.
Mia: I am currently a freshman at Rhode Island School of Design, getting a Bachelors in Fine Arts. I am also a freelance cinematographer at SoFar Sounds in Providence, as well as the Managing Editor and Designer of an independent magazine, Noisy Kids.
What are your thoughts about our country’s future?
Francesca: I’m scared, but not fatalistic. The resistance is strong. Terrible things have happened before, and terrible things will happen again. We all need to take action—and that starts with examining ourselves and our own communities, and where we find prejudice here at home.
Cookie: I consider myself an optimistic pessimist, in that everything seems terrible and like it’s only getting worse by the minute, but then I see middle schoolers actively advocating for what they believe in, going to protests, discussing politics with their friends, and being proud of the things that make them stand out. I distinctly remember learning about checks and balances in 8th grade and just not caring, just hating history. I’ve had to go back and reteach myself that all of that actually matters, and it does affect our lives. I know that should be obvious, but I think as younger generations grow up learning the importance of government, we’ll see a lot of interest in that. Things will shift, and it takes time, but we’re already seeing it.
Gracee: I think the resistance is alive. I think that, as messed up as it is, Trump was a wake-up call. A terrifying, fascist, toupee’d wake-up call, but a wake-up call nonetheless. I am terrified for myself, as a woman and a Jew, for my friends of color, for my Muslim friends, for my queer friends, for my trans friends, for my non-American friends, for my disabled friends. But I try my best to do the labor, to be on the frontlines, to be loud and angry and aware. The people are angry and they will fight for what they want. We need to continue to hold our politicians accountable, and we also need to reestablish our faith in the power of the people to make a change. The change begins with us. We persist, we fight, we choose.
Mia: I find great need for change in this country, and I hope to keep working towards becoming, empowering, and creating that change for the future.
Over here, you have New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, one of the best high schools in the country, making repeated efforts to address some of its biggest challenges — white privilege and the fallout from its lack of racial diversity.
And over here, you have the obstructionists, screaming, “We don’t like your message about diversity, New Trier! We don’t think your message is complete! It’s not balanced! Add our perspective! This isn’t fair! Look at all these people who agree with us!”
Here’s the thing. I applaud everyone for trying to deliver their perspectives to the future leaders of our country. Clearly, there’s a lot at stake.
But I recommend that the obstructionists stop criticizing others and derailing their own message.
Stop making yourselves out to be “victims”. If you have a message to deliver, then organize yourselves and deliver it. But don’t try taking down others who’ve worked tirelessly and done the hard work of self-examination, who’ve allowed themselves to be vulnerable and willing to say, “This isn’t working. We’re not doing this right. We’d like to make it better.” You don’t have to agree with the other side, and chances are, you probably wouldn’t, even if you wanted to. Even on a dare. Because that’s pride speaking.
So, let go of pride and ego and all the other crap and just focus on your message. Then let’s see where things go from there.
And for Pete’s sake, quit using kids — in this case, the students of New Trier — in your model of triangulation, because here’s the thing:
Kids need to learn from everyone.
A day-long seminar won’t brainwash kids into believing one position. Give the students more credit and quit being so paranoid.
A day-long seminar won’t provide the key to the Universe.
A day-long seminar is a day-long seminar.
Now, get out there. Design your own day-long seminar. Remind yourselves that students are savvy enough to figure things out for themselves.
Come to think of it, maybe you already have…
Tags: advocacy, Diversity, Evanston Township High School, feminism, feminist, future of America, haters, immigration, inspiration, New Trier High School, New Trier Parents, race relations, student advocates, systemic racism, white privilege, youth