Nov. 23, 2016 12:53 pm

Black lives, social justice and a Quaker education

Michael Gary took over as head of school at Center City's Friends Select School this summer. Here's how he's reminding students of the Quaker commitment to social justice.


(Photo by Tony Abraham)

Editor's note: The phrase "meeting for worship" was styled incorrectly in a previous version of this story. It has been corrected. Edit 11/23 @ 6:00 p.m.
“Imagine with me.

Lincoln Financial Field, filled with African-American males and police officers from the Philadelphia area. You have to sit next to a person from the area you police and have a meaningful worship, have people share what’s in their heart. It’s about the common experience of coming together and wanting to speak your truth.”

That’s what Michael Gary, the new head of school at Center City Quaker school Friends Select, stood up and said during a meeting for worship at a Quaker meeting this past July, just days after the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. Meeting for worship, Gary said, is a Quaker practice of reflecting silently in a group with no set sequence of thought and speaking your personal truth.

It’s whatever moves you during that time of meditation. For Gary, it was Black lives in America’s urban centers.

He had just started working as head of school the month before the shooting. He was still the new guy, but he needed to speak his truth. And it resonated.

“I was sensitive to it. [Police] don’t know I went to Harvard. I’m just another African-American male behind the wheel,” he said. “All this stuff is just real to me. It’s a part of me. It’s who I am. It makes a difference if you know the people you’re policing.”

Community policing is the kind Gary is familiar with. It was the kind of policing he experienced growing up in low-income housing in New Haven, Connecticut, with his single mother and five siblings. He doesn’t understand why it isn’t implemented more frequently.


(Courtesy photo)

“It dawned on me that because we don’t really interact with each other, we don’t really know each other and we’ll continue to have this problem,” he said. “How can we get past that?”

After the meeting, those in attendance were asked to present Gary with their wishes for the future of Friends Select. One mother brought him a #BlackLivesMatter quilt, each panel depicting a Black male whose life was lost. She asked Gary to display the quilt in the hallway of the school for Black History Month.

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Gary was all about it.

If you were to spend a day or two hanging out in the hallway at Friends Select — a school where 38 percent of students are students of color, where 62 percent of that 38 identify as Black and 14 percent identify as multi-racial — you’d likely hear conversations about social justice happening at different times throughout the day, Gary said.

“It’s not about Friends School making social justice a priority,” he said. “That sense of social justice and peaceful resolution to issues have always been a part of the ethos of Friends School.”

They’ve also always been a part of Gary’s personal ethos. When he was working in admissions up in Exeter, New Hampshire, he launched a nonprofit called Inner City Lacrosse.

He never played lacrosse himself. It’s not a sport that’s particularly diverse. But the mission was to get Black kids into college.

“There are more scholarships geared up for lacrosse than anything else,” he said. “That was my social justice, if you will. It’s always been my passion to do that. Coming to a Quaker school in Philadelphia, the stage is just larger for me to do that.”

That makes for a particularly welcoming educational environment for those who have felt disenfranchised in America, Gary said, and Friends Select gives students an opportunity to put that social justice ethos into practice. One student is organizing a march for women’s rights next month. Gary calls it “tangible teaching.”

“We need to be a place where we’re allowing kids to practice what they’re learning,” he said. “They’re not only going to retain it, but they’ll be able to move it forward on their own.”

Gary said he’s “living the dream.” But what do the students think?

Walking out of his office, a young student spots him and lunges in for a hug. Everything seems peaceful inside the school. But it’s how the students will come to take those lessons and impact the world outside campus that matters most. Each class is one step toward reaching that massive imaginary gathering inside Lincoln Financial Field.


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