By Anna Sipowicz
Earlier this year, members of the OES alumni community sent a letter to Head of School Mo Copeland, asking her to speak out against President Trump’s travel ban. The Episcopal Church of Oregon and Catlin Gabel, our sister school, both issued statements supporting their communities and specifically condemning the racist ban.
A portion of the alumni letter sent to Mo reads as follows.
We believe that the consequences of remaining silent through this moment will far outweigh the costs of taking action.
At some point, an institution of learning — especially one as powerful as OES — must take a stand or become superfluous. We firmly believe that we are now at that point. Continued inaction and appeasement makes a mockery of the idea that we are “Always Open.”
Yet no stance was made by Mo, who chose to focus her response on “Inquiry and Discourse at OES” in a message that she sent after the travel ban but drew no explicit lines as to where OES stood on this unconstitutional ban.
In Jethro’s analysis of the Alumni Letter in the Dig, he highlights a major issue in the OES community.
Since November 8th, the Upper School community has tried to poke and prod these large, influential issues, and get people to talk about what’s happening. But nothing has seemed to really work…morale around the school seems down; teachers and students aren’t speaking honestly. Maybe that’s because it can’t work unless we have clear direction from our administration.
Teachers and students are unable, afraid even, to have truthful conversations. What does that say about a school that claims to value the very word “community” so much?
Student Council has been among the many community leaders who have failed to speak up. As a member of StuCo, I was livid at the complacency of my peers in the wake of the alumni letter, but I was afraid to take a stand alone. And life went on, as it does at an academically rigorous institution like OES. And so I forgot. I fell into complacency as well. I had other work to do, other things that I thought were more important.
On Monday, I learned that there was a swastika drawn in the men’s bathroom right off the Great Hall. And I realized that there is nothing more important than taking a stand when bigotry and discrimination impact our communities.
The swastika is an internationally recognized symbol of hatred, and I am enraged and heartbroken that it was drawn in a place and community that I want to think of as home.
After an incidence of two acts of restroom graffiti earlier this year, Community Board made a statement in Gathering, in which I spoke about the impact of disturbing, angry language in such a public place. Hannah W. ’19 spoke about the effects of carelessness of the student body on the maintenance workers who care so deeply about us–as Thomas H’s recent Dig article highlights.
Last week, Mr. Edge made an announcement in Gathering regarding a drawing found on his whiteboard. It was of Pepe, a meme-turned-hate-symbol. I, along with many of my peers, was surprised; last I had heard, Pepe was an innocent, sad frog. My follow up research after Edge’s announcement showed that my initial impression of Pepe had been horribly wrong — the meme now represents racism and discrimination. While the whiteboard Pepe was not necessarily graffiti in the permanent sense, it was unwanted, and it spread a message of hatred, even if the artist happened to be as oblivious as me.
The difference with the swastika, however, is its immense history, one that should prompt a stronger response than a sole gathering announcement. These incidences of vandalization of our shared spaces, of the violation of our community standards of compassion and respect, should prompt us to take a long overdue stand. We must assert our commitments to the students, faculty, staff, and larger community of OES. We must protect safety and well-being of each individual, whatever their place in the school.
This brings me back to my frustration with current students, myself included: complacency. How can we say these events are all unrelated? How can we claim to support our student community if a member of our community decided it was acceptable to draw a swastika on the wall of a public space?
It is about what the students and administration deem is acceptable in our shared spaces. At the time of the travel ban, OES administration should have taken a stand to reflect school community values. But they didn’t, and when students failed to call them out, a group of alumni worked from afar, drafting and sending a letter to Mo Copeland. That letter gained more than 100 signatures from alumni, ranging from class of ’80 to ’16.
OES’ administration was asked to take a stand for our shared community values, against bigotry and discrimination. But they didn’t. Now we see an obtrusive incident of hatred in an extraordinarily public space at OES. Anyone who walked in that stall had no choice but to see that swastika. And so I have no choice but to respond.
The swastika drawn on the wall in the bathroom was not necessarily an indicator of a rise of neo-fascism at OES; the symbol was likely drawn in an attempt to kick up dust and draw attention, and maybe even to laugh at the school’s response. Regardless of the original intent of this action, we must address the impact as an attack on OES’ stated core values of equity and inclusion.
And so we must all be accountable. We must recognize bigotry and immaturity. We must understand the gravity of each instance of inequity, and we must continue to address each one even after it has been, in this case, cleaned off the wall.
The community values listed on the OES website — awareness, dialogue, courage, and commitment — are values that current students are struggling to uphold. Jethro S. noticed it in his article, noting the lack of truthful conversations, alumni noticed it when they wrote a letter that students did not think to write, and I noticed it again this week.
Sara B, Rachel W, and Anna B, (all ‘18), noticed it too, and they shared their frustrations with StuCo on Thursday in response to the swastika. They shared their ideas for encouraging dialogue, and they noted that whether or not the dialogue is systematic, it is important.
We need to be talking about what is happening, and we need to be honest.