Doing the Fruit Tree Work with "Fearless Dialogues"
Posted 03/02/2017 11:46AM

As students filed in, the crisp, clear notes of a cello wafted through the air in the Hendrix Chenault. Two well-dressed men stood on the stage, one nodding along to the other’s melody. White, three-foot long rulers from IKEA were passed around the slightly confused crowd. On the projector screen, white, bolded letters read: “Fearless Dialogues.”

The men on stage were Okorie Johnson (the cello man) and Gregory Ellison (the man nodding along), and they came to the Lovett School as a part of our annual Black History Month celebration.

“Today, we will do an experiment,” said Mr. Ellison on stage, who went on to explain that our high school was now participating in a greater search for knowledge. He called up two students, one dressed as a pregnant Juno from a movie of the same name for Character Day, and had them read out the definition of “research.”

He asked students if we’d ever researched for the sake of knowledge, rather than just writing a paper (most students raised their hands), and declared that this assembly would be an exercise in true research, following the path of four papers written over the course of his and Mr. Johnson’s education. The rulers were still unexplained.  

We listened to a series of short lectures, alternating between Mr. Ellison and Mr. Johnson, each ending in a short time for reflection between students and a minute or so for Mr. Ellison to write words describing the reflection (provided by students shouting suggestions) on a whiteboard. We explored the concepts of feeling different, invisible, unheard.

At the end of this series, Mr. Johnson took up his cello, and began with the first group of reflection words, composing a melody. Gradually, he added musical layers to the song, until he was playing the song that reflected the Lovett community’s  feelings about such topics as “What does it feel like being invisible in a crowd?” and “What does it feel like to be a problem?”

“It was absolutely amazing,” says Kailyn Gibson, a junior orchestra student who attended the assembly. “They were just so wonderful. It felt like everyone could relate to their message.”

According to diversity counselor Mrs. Ellice Hawkins, relatability was of the best aspects of the assembly. “I liked that their message resonated with everyone, especially with the ‘Three Foot exercise. I’m hoping people are being more cognizant about who they see. We are a small community, but people can still feel unseen within the larger Lovett,” she says. “I had a lot of students stop by and say that this was one of the best assemblies of the year.” She said it resonated with a lot of people on campus, students and faculty alike.

Having this assembly serve as our Black History Month presentation was a happy coincidence, explains Ms. Hawkins. One of Lovett’s main objectives during Black History Month is to educate us on recognizing diversity among our peers. She wants the speaker to offer a message we can relate to, and ideally to be interactive.   The panel that night included Martin Luther King III and a retired police chief.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to make a Black History Month celebration that can engage the entire student body. “We’re not trying to have you think in any way, just to introduce different viewpoints and take from their your own assumptions. It’s kind of hard, because we need to introduce a lot viewpoints, from conservative to liberal, and have dialogues around it,” she says.

Beyond the assembly, Fearless Dialogues has had multiple smaller sessions with students, parents, trustees, alumni, and faculty and staff.  There have been a few sessions so far, each with different discussions. The “Three-Foot Challenge” was used for the first session.

I attended the most recent session on February 27th. The room was full of administrators, admissions officers and Lovett parents. There were a few students in attendance, juniors Mimi Norton, Isabella Seminara, and I.

The session, led by Greg Ellison and other Fearless Dialogues staff, started with a discussion on the book Them by Nathan McCall. Them is a story about how the Old Fourth Ward, a community in Atlanta, is affected by attempts at gentrification, and the social politics of the neighborhood.

A few passages were read aloud, and then participants broke into groups to discuss questions stemming from the text. Questions included “When has a stranger become your neighbor?”  and “How do you find your place in the greater community?”

One of the most striking points of conversation came from student participant Isabella Seminara. “I recently quit sports because of my school workload,” she began. “Since then, I’ve been volunteering at a few places, really finding what I’m passionate about and people who do it too. Even though it wasn’t my intention, I feel like I’ve created a space for myself in the world.”

Isabella is one of many students that was touched by the assembly. “I don’t know quite how to explain it, but hearing what [Mr. Ellison] said, and how he talked about taking control of your education really changed my life.”

After the book discussion, participant split into separate groups for the next activity, which brainstormed inclusivity messages. Five different prompts were posted on the walls around the room, and groups went around with one color of pen to respond. The prompts included “Name a time that your identity has been affirmed” and “What institutions at Lovett foster diversity?”

My group included Mrs. Coleman from admissions, Mimi, and two parents of lower school students. It was really interesting to hear how the idea of diversity and inclusion is different depending on your place in the school. For Mrs. Coleman, it’s something she creates. For Mimi and me, it’s the environment in the classroom and at Lovett extracurriculars. For parents, it’s various luncheons and ways that new students are integrated into the school. I was interested to learn that this year’s kindergarten class is the most diverse in the school.

The meeting ended with a large group discussion on what the most pertinent themes were when brainstorming. For some groups, it was the idea of intentional inclusion and diversity. For another, it was how to create space for marginalized groups without pushing existing groups out.

At the end of the meeting, the Fearless Dialogues staff announced that the last session would be on March 21st, and act as a commencement on how Lovett can take action to foster diversity and inclusivity for community members (not just students) of any identity. Any students who want to attend the meeting are invited to send an email to Mrs. Hawkins. The initiative was described as “fruit tree work” by Mr. Ellison.

“My mentor was a preacher and a congressman,” he said, “so he always had a message. One day, he told me about a small tree he’d bought at Home Depot while waiting on election results. He planted it, and it was small at first, but after a few years, it grew to be big and strong. It flowered beautifully. The work we do here today is not going to bring about change in the next ten minutes, but years from now it will bear fruit. He told me that is the legacy we leave behind. He said that it is not pretty work, it is hard work, but it is ‘fruit-tree work’, and will one day flower beautifully for all of us.”

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