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Deerfield Community Confronts Racism
Sunshine Chen '23 Staff Writer
August 3, 2020

As Black Lives Matters protests spread across the nation, the Deerfield community has been discovering its own voice in the conversation about social justice. Current students and alumni alike have promoted online conversations and social media initiatives, brought to light the experiences of Black Deerfield students through @blackatdeerfieldofficial, reincited demands to improve the disciplinary system for dealing with acts of discrimination, and formed the Deerfield Anti-Racist Coalition.

In the beginning of summer, Jerry Zhou ’22, Jerry Yuan ’22, and Holden Woodward ’22 received a CSGC grant to create Youth Global Action, an initiative focused on hosting online symposiums regarding racial injustices and COVID–19. Over the course of June, more than 45 students in different schools from China, Australia, India, and the UK attended the event to discuss “Racial Injustice Among [the] Covid-19 Pandemic.” Panelists included Washington Post award-winning author John Pomfret and DEER advocate Sam Crocker ’19, among others. Yuan explained that the purpose of the conference was to “raise awareness and encourage discussion amongst people of our age.” 

While the Youth Global Action team helped educate students around the world, Abby Lupi ’18 focused on demanding change from the Deerfield administration. Lupi organized a campaign called “Flood the Inboxes” that invited students to email the administration to respond to the demands of students and alumni. These petitions asked Deerfield to prove its dedication by making monetary contributions to Black Lives Matter, match student donations to the Massachusetts Bail Fund, divest from racist organizations, and donate to other organizations focused on addressing racism. 

As blackat_pages swept through the private school system, a group of Deerfield alumnae, Alexia Baker ’19, Jennifer Brown ’19, Chelsea Egu ’19, Jada Howard ’19, Chenelle Jones ’19, and Aminata Ka ’19, were inspired to create their own, @blackatdeerfieldofficial. The account posts anonymous submissions from current students and alumni detailing their encounters with racism. 

The posts on @blackatdeerfieldofficial span thirty years of racism at Deerfield. “It is shocking at times… The content remains the same because little has been done by the administration to foster the change we wish to see on our campus,” the account’s team said.

“We have received lots of gratitude from non BIPOC for opening their eyes to the reality of campus life and for causing them to reflect on their time at Deerfield and how their words and/or actions may have negatively affected someone,” the team added. CNN, the Boston Globe, and Boston Magazine have featured the account, which has now amassed more than 2,200 followers.

The jarring experiences presented on @blackatdeerfieldofficial galvanized many people to take concrete actions. Adebisi Akilo ’21 said, “After people started reading about George Floyd and [@blackatdeerfieldofficial] took off, we have had a total of 400 people, [including] half the student population, sign the DEER petition.”

DEER stands for Discipline, Education, Empowerment, and Reconciliation. One of the most heavily demanded changes from current Deerfield students and alumni, DEER is a proposed new disciplinary committee focused on addressing identity-based discrimination as a part of the disciplinary process. The concept of DEER was first presented to administration last October by five students and alumni.

“Unfortunately, the school did not see DEER as a necessity as they didn’t think it was a pressing social issue,” Akilo said. “After the disturbing hate speech in the Hess in winter, they became more interested in DEER.”

A lack of conversation in the past has been a source of frustration. “We are tired of the same old Deerfield,” Akilo said, “After a racist, homophobic person scrawled hurtful words on the Hess’s windows, the administrators were not responsive enough. That Wednesday, during the school meeting, they let us out 25 minutes early. They could have taken the time to denounce what happened.”

To educate more students about the racism at Deerfield, another group of students and alumni founded the Deerfield Anti-Racist Coalition (DAC) in the wake of @blackatdeerfieldofficial’s efforts to foster a social, academic, and institutional anti-racist culture on campus. According to its website, the Deerfield Anti-Racist Coalition “serves to unveil past discrimination and demands thorough guidelines, measures, facilities, classes, and overall rhetoric that is explicitly antiracist and that uplifts the voices of students of color in our community.”

As part of a teach-in series, the coalition is hosting webinars to educate the community. The first webinar, the “Legacy of Slavery at Deerfield,” featured Joanne Melish, a professor of U.S. history at the University of Kentucky, and alumnus Osman Khan ’91. Melish and Khan talked to approximately sixty students about the history of slavery in broader New England as well as the histories of enslaved people who lived on Main Street on sites that Deerfield currently operates on.

“It is an uncomfortable but necessary discussion…” said one of DAC’s founders, Fernanda Ponce ’19. “The relationship between slavery and New England is much harsher than we might believe. There are many things we need to uncover.”

A recording of the first webinar as well as a second webinar which occurred on July 29 titled, “Black Voices in the Curriculum,” can be found on the IGTV section of the Deerfield Anti-Racist Coalition’s Instagram page, @daantiracistcoalition. The Coalition will be hosting a town hall on August 5 to create “a space for students and alums to discuss what they want from DA, and an opportunity to hear and provide input on the demands that will be presented to DA admin,” as stated on their Instagram.

On June 23,  Head of School John Austin responded to the testimonies on the @blackatdeerfieldofficial page. “Deerfield can and will do more… I will listen and hear you,” Dr. Austin wrote in a statement sent to students, faculty, and parents. The administration did not respond to our request for comments. 

While the administration has not officially responded to calls to implement DEER, they have met several times with various alliance leaders, including Akilo, to discuss how Deerfield can do better next year.

Since the initial course listings, Deerfield introduced a new senior history class “Africa through the Lens” and renamed ninth-grade English class from “Voice and Vision” to “Voices and Visions of Justice.” These course additions and modifications echo calls to “educate students on how to navigate increasingly diverse spaces” as brought by Angela Osei-Ampadu ’21 in her Scroll article “Uprooting America’s Second Virus,” and supported by many others.

Additionally, the Student Life Office hosted two webinars, one for all students titled, “Making Sense of the Moment We’re Living” as well as one for students of color titled, “Being a Person of Color in the United States and at Deerfield.” Both sessions were led by Rodney Glasgow, Head of School at Sandy Springs Friends School in Maryland and founder of the Glasgow Group – a group of consultants guiding schools towards change with a lens of “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” as described on their website.

“It was really interesting to hear the persepctives of the white Deerfield students, and how they are going to try and be more helpful as an anti-racist advocate… [Dr.] Glasgow taught me that an ally does not stand in front of the people, protecting them, but stand behind or next to them — it’s not about the ally, we’re just there for support,” said William Sussbauer ’23.

While these conversations are helpful, Ponce wants more community participation. “The institution needs to provide students facing inequities and discrimination at Deerfield a voice. Yes, the school hosts discussions, but the people who go to these discussions are POC and allies, not the people who need to be there,” she said.

So where can we go from here? “Allow this moment to radicalize you,” said Akilo. “Engage with your parents and older generations who aren’t being exposed to the news and tell your parents to sign the DEER petition.”