Lee, who teaches at Germantown Friends School, has committed his life to “building an army of change agents.” He says that the best way to dismantle systemic inequity and racial bias is to be vulnerable and honest when discussing tough topics. His films, including The Prep School Negro, Virtually Free, and The Road to Justice, are designed to reveal new perspectives and prompt meaningful conversation.
“If we sit back and just watch inequities, we are being a silent witness, the theme of the day,” Lee explained to students. “But until we do something – until we say something – it will stay exactly the same.”
Filmed before the pandemic began last year, The Road to Justice grapples with the United States’ history of slavery, oppression, and anti-Black violence in the South through a civil rights tour with The Nation magazine. Guided by Lee, two groups – middle school students from Chicago and senior adults who lived through the civil rights movement – visit significant sites like the Mississippi Delta and Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, where 14-year-old Emmett Till was accused of whistling at white shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant in 1955. Shortly after, two men violently attacked and killed the boy, sparking uproar and the start of the American civil rights movement.
As they travel, the tour groups engage in transformational talks with people who participated in or witnessed the civil rights movement, including Freedom Rider Hezekiah Watkins and activist Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957. The students reflect on modern racial pressures and biases while the older participants analyze the extent of their involvement in an oppressive system.
In his sessions with students, Lee invited the middle schoolers to consider the world around them, asking, “What do we silently witness?”
The students responded with thoughtful commentary on inequity in education, economic divides and differences in opportunity, unfair treatment and punishment based on race, and implicit biases.
Several students of color spoke to offensive words and actions they’ve experienced, as well as racial divides in Baltimore City. While many of the middle schoolers acknowledged that they are privileged to attend a school like Calvert, they noted that not everyone has the same opportunity.
“When we witness it silently, we don’t say anything about it. And when we don’t say anything about it, it continues on,” Lee said during his keynote address.
“This school is full of people who are going to change the world,” he shared with Tenth Age and Fifth Grade students. “There are a lot of adults who have never thought the way that you are now.”
After speaking with Middle School English classes, Tenth Age and Fifth Grade students, and members of Allies and Diversity Club, Lee worked with faculty, staff, and parents to build on the children’s discussions and identify ways to improve equity within the Calvert community.
Middle School Head Matt Buck ’87 praised the faculty and staff for creating a safe school environment where students could feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and experiences.
“From the moment our kids started asking questions, I was overwhelmed by how safe the space you have created for them truly is,” he told teachers. “I could not get over the honesty and vulnerability, and insight, expressed by our students throughout the day in numerous groups.”
Like students, parents and employees viewed The Road to Justice before engaging in meaningful discussions about racial and economic disparities with Lee. During the parent talk, Lee also spoke about how to discuss sensitive topics with younger students, sharing that gentle honesty and understanding may be the best approach.
For parents of children of color, he also recommended the book I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla by Marguerite Wright, which offers tips for helping children gain healthy self-esteem and prepares parents for age-appropriate discussions of racism.
“When we go beneath the skin, we all are so similar,” Lee told Middle School English classes. “There are cultural practices in place that make us think we’re different, but we’re truly not.”
Thank you to Director of Academic Affairs Sarah Crowley, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Timika Tyson, and André Robert Lee for making this day possible!
Lee’s appearance launches Calvert’s Luke Stone ’86 Speaker Series, an Institute for Leadership & Purpose program sponsored by a donation from the Kahlert Foundation.