ms. murr's Upper school social studies classAt this moment in our nation’s history and in the midst of vitriol and violence, I’ve found inspiration in poet Micky ScottBey Jones in her call to create “brave space” where healing can take place in the midst of caring community. At MPA, we seek to build a brave place where students are known and valued and together create a space where we treat each other with kindness and respect. In brave space, students learn to truly value one another and work together to make room for diverse perspectives.

At the same time, we are bombarded day and night on social media and the news with the bitterness of socially and politically charged messages that rend rather than mend the fabric of our society. The political and cultural polarization, already exponentially widening, has only been accentuated by the pandemic. Searing language and personal attacks that characterize contemporary political debate, are words contrary to our school culture. In the lexicon of our Lower School, they certainly would not be CHAMP behavior.

Respectful and constructive civil discourse is at the heart of our democracy. Students develop knowledge, skills, and civic responsibility when they are invited into conversations that are emotionally engaging, intellectually challenging, and relevant to their own lives. As the election heats up and the first debate among presidential candidates approaches, we must recommit to ensuring brave space by grounding ourselves anew in our long-standing school policies of respect and respectful discourse that flow directly from our mission and values.

In preparation for the election cycle, I asked a group of faculty and staff to create a statement to guide respectful, civil discourse at MPA this fall:

As we approach the 2020 Election, Mounds Park Academy reaffirms its commitment to constructive, open discourse, and evidence-based, critical thinking. Additionally, from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, we value and affirm individual students’ stories, experiences, and identities. In many instances, these commitments will work in easy tandem with one another. When they do not, we will stand up for integrity, equity, justice, and compassion.

I’d like to take a moment to unpack that statement and offer a series of norms that will enable us to create brave space where constructive and respectful civil discourse can take place. Jones shares that brave space is not necessarily a “safe place,” one designed to protect children from the world “out there.” Instead, brave space brings the outside into the classroom. It is where students gain the knowledge, confidence, and courage to challenge the status quo and become equipped to make a positive impact on our world.

A welcoming and inclusive community built upon equity is fundamental to respectful civil discourse. Brave space is created when everyone feels a sense of belonging built upon trust. In the midst of strong relationships, students feel welcomed to share their ideas, views, and perspectives.

In brave space, members truly care for one another. For respectful civil discourse to occur, we must develop empathy to understand perspectives and views different than our own. Empathy requires deep engagement to listen for understanding, not simply waiting to make our next point. We may question each other’s ideas but not question or judge each other’s character.

Respectful civil discourse relies upon trust and open and honest dialogue. Political rhetoric must never overpower our shared values. In brave space, critical conversations that are sometimes uncomfortable take place and lead to understanding and empower students to co-create knowledge.

In brave space, students have the courage to try out new ideas, form an opinion, give or receive feedback, all without fear of ridicule or intimidation. Courage is crucial in a brave space to hold each other accountable, to call out ideas, policies, viewpoints that incite or promote hatred and inequality of a person or group of people on the basis of their identity.

Curiosity in brave space encourages students to intensely and critically confront the most pressing issues facing our society through rigorous research leading to opinions and positions that are evidence-based. Intellectual rich discussions, vigorous debate, working together as a group to think critically about a topic, and listening to the perspectives of others, are all integral aspects of curiosity and essential to civil discourse.

MPA welcomes legitimate political speech that affirms or critiques specific beliefs or actions and the activists, voters, and politicians who support those beliefs or actions. We encourage free expression. In fact, we expect it. Respectful discourse and critical thinking prepare young minds for college, careers, and life. As a community of dreamers and doers, we strive to empower all students to recognize and challenge the political, economic, and social disparities that exist within their communities and continue to work toward a more just and equitable world.

As Upper School Social Studies Teacher Katie Murr says, “Democracy will never find its beauty in order or predictability or unity. It is messy, chaotic, hurtful, and even frightening. Sometimes these qualities feel like insurmountable weaknesses. It is these very qualities, however, that are our strength. Divisions can create the basis for compromise. Rancor can become resolve. Debate can drive change. As November 3 draws near, we must create brave space, rise above fear, draw upon our shared values, and embrace our civic responsibilities.”

“An Invitation to Brave Space”
by Micky ScottBey Jones

Together we will create brave space.
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space” –
We exist in the real world.
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.
In this space
We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,
We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,
We call each other to more truth and love.
We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.
We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be.
It will be our brave space together,
We will work on it side by side.

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