June 3, 2020
Dear McGehee Alumnae,
My intention of writing to you early this week fell apart when I was knocked down by a virus that took me out of commission for the past four days. I am now back on my feet again and wanted to take a moment to address you.
Let me begin by saying how sorry I am for not being “present” yesterday, when many of you needed to hear from me and your alma mater. In so many ways, 2020 has been a disheartening and devastating year. The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked physical and financial havoc on so many, particularly people of color, and remains a threat to lives and livelihoods across the world. And, just as things seemed to be somewhat improving on the public health front, we learned about the brutal killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, along with the racist incident in Central Park. We have to do better, be united, and remain resolved to challenge and defeat prejudice and systemic racism in this country.
Alumnae, from the love and loyalty you have for one another and your alma mater to the many wonderful McGehee experiences that you have had and have shared, thank you for caring so very much for your school. Several of you have spoken up, as McGehee girls do, and expressed concern about the school’s GiveNOLA Day campaign which took place yesterday alongside the social media blackout. While I know the timing could not have been worse, this annual fundraising date was set in stone months ago by the Greater New Orleans Foundation and it is the one day of giving that is crucial to McGehee’s operating budget as it raises the funds necessary to make up the school expenses not covered by tuition. A good portion of this supports financial assistance for students, faculty salaries, professional development for teachers, partnerships with community organizations and much more. This effort was more important than ever this year given the pandemic, which has created significant financial disruption to us all.
For over 108 years now, McGehee alumnae have paved the way to progress and reform. You have spoken up, fought for your beliefs and addressed injustices that needed to be tackled. There are countless McGehee women who have attempted to right perceived wrongs and ventured into careers that may have been out of their comfort zone, yet were the right things to do. And, there are certainly current McGehee students who go out of their way to work to combat inequities in many ways: our 9th grade students work to take charge of their learning and thus their futures; our sophomores examine the way the American Dream has fallen short for so many citizens, especially for people of color, over the past two centuries; our 11th graders find ways to engage in real-world policy issues that mean something to them, fact-checking as they go; and our seniors have the opportunity to put all of those years of study to good use in their mentorship projects.
At McGehee we encourage our ‘leading women’ to find their voices as they learn how to speak their minds. McGehee has a long, respected history of free, open, and vigorous debate, vitally important to our mission and to the education of our girls and yet, we still have a way to go. As an innovative school, it is essential to our mission that we continue to educate our students about the importance of cultivating an environment that is inclusive. While debate and discourse are naturally full of disagreements, we believe the process should also be respectful. The recent riots and violence across the nation have underscored the importance of perpetuating a school environment that is welcoming, safe, and diverse. I am very proud of McGehee. Our mission includes a call to inclusivity, and that is something we take to heart. My sincere hope is that we always stress the importance of expanding our perspectives, and hopefully, increase the acceptance of our differences. This is at the heart of our mission.
Just last week, some of our students received affirmation about a positive change they sought by speaking their minds. Last December, students in the 4th Grade took a stand to right a perceived wrong and received international attention for their efforts. While immersed in a social studies review on the Southeast region of the U.S., the girls discovered a statement they strongly disagreed with in their textbook about how the plantation economy led to the institution of slavery. The statement they questioned was the following, “Tobacco farming took a lot of work. As more farmers grew tobacco, they needed more enslaved Africans to do the work." One student questioned the word “needed,” saying the text should read “wanted.” Teacher Laura Whooley remarked at the time, “What followed was the most beautiful class discussion that made me the proudest I've probably ever felt as a teacher,” and she challenged them to do something about their concerns. “When you see or feel that something is wrong, it is your duty to stand up and do something about it in a respectful way.” The girls quickly dove into action, writing letters to the publisher, McGraw-Hill, requesting this change. With Ms. Whooley’s help on social media, the girls tweeted their discovery and asked for a change, and McGraw-Hill responded quickly that the girls’ letters were impactful and were being sent to their Academic Design team. Ms. Whooley shared the story on her Facebook page, with the thought that if her nine-year-old students could make a difference that quickly then so should she. It is estimated that close to one million people saw or engaged with their post online. Last Thursday, Ms. Whooley emailed her 4th grade students that she has just received word and confirmation from McGraw-Hill that they had changed the wording in the section “Slavery and Opposition.” The publisher,"read your words, learned from them, and changed that sentence to read 'wanted' in the chapter."
On the first day of school, Carolyn Thompson’s Government class was told that unlike Chemistry or even U.S. History, the girls come to Government with a lot of assumptions and preconceptions about politics and government. Their first assignment was to write those down on a note card and throw it in the trash. This exercise encourages them to walk through the door of her classroom with open minds, ready to dive into our study of government and politics. Ms. Thompson explains to students that her job is not to change their minds or undermine what they've learned at home but instead to help them formulate their own ideas and arguments about the role of government and the responsibilities of citizenship based on the knowledge and understanding they gain from the course. The juniors also discussed the importance of taking a course in Government–to learn what they can do to change their world. Throughout the year, those same Juniors are tasked with identifying an area of policy interest and advocating for that issue in their annual Model Congress project. They use social media to engage with politicians and policy experts in real time, using what they learn to better articulate their positions and expand their opportunities for deeper understanding.
These are powerful examples of what Margaret Mead once wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Her words ring as true now as they did in 1978. It is imperative that we continue to challenge ourselves to find our unity and strength through diversity. We are all in this together.
In the coming weeks we will reach out to our alumnae community for your help as we continue the vital work ahead, inside McGehee and within our own communities. Together we will work to build a just, equitable society for our present and our future.
Dr. Kim Field-Marvin
Head of School