What Our Schools Can Learn From Maya Peterson

Johara TuckerJohára Tucker is the Director of Social Justice & Multicultural Programming at The Cambridge School of Weston (CSW). She received her B.A from Wesleyan University and a J.D from New York Law School. Before coming to CSW, Johára was the Assistant Dean of Students for Community Life at Pomfret School, where she also taught and was a dorm parent. Johára is also a doing research on retention levels for faculty of color in independent schools. She spends her spare time traveling and blogging.

Earlier this year, Maya Peterson, a student at The Lawrenceville School (Princeton, NJ), posted an Instagram photo that sparked a firestorm on social media. Titled “Lawrenceville Boi” the photo showed Ms. Peterson, who was also student body president, in a Yale sweatshirt and L.L Bean boots, holding a hockey stick. According to reports, Peterson shared the picture as a response to her fellow classmates who were not comfortable with her senior photo in which she and others raised their fists in a Black Power salute. Eventually, Ms. Peterson stepped down from her student leadership position.

Screen Shot 2014 09 15 at 2.22.25 PMI have been analyzing and even over-analyzing this situation for a good part of the summer. How would your school handle this? Who would be involved in the decision? Do other schools have the agencies and people in place to deal with something like this? How would a school tackle the important conversations necessary following sensitive incidents like this? Can your school confidently assess how they would have handled the situation? Would it be the same if she wasn’t student body president? If she were white? If she were a he?

Though this may be an unpopular consensus, I applaud her—not for her method—but for her being able to force the conversation. In one picture Maya Peterson was able to confront two huge issues that are silent confidence killers in independent schools: racism and sexism. I went to prep school right down the road from Lawrenceville, and I was also involved in student government. However, I don’t know if I had the moxie at that time to do what Maya did.

As I’ve been researching and talking to many students, former students and faculty at independent schools over the years, I’ve learned that this is not a stand alone event. Dances are held with “ghetto” themes, students dress up for Halloween or other holidays offending other students cultures, and mockeries are made of community member’s beliefs. Yet, across the board, institutional responses have been few, if any.

Oftentimes adults are silenced when confronted with issues like this, and it’s my opinion that this lack of response is damaging for our students. All students—especially students of color—become confused when adults can’t answer their questions or address their concerns. Allies don’t understand how they can help, and students who think the pain is “not a big deal” get to yet again exert privilege and ignore the issues.

If this situation does nothing else, I hope it pushes schools to talk openly and consistently about issues of difference. I encourage schools to train all faculty and staff, so that this becomes an “all in” response, rather than relegating such issues to just diversity personnel and faculty of color. Have the much-needed uncomfortable discussions with your faculty throughout the year around issues of difference; this can no longer been treated as a ‘back-burner’ agenda topic.

My hope for Ms. Peterson is that she learns from this experience, but that she also continues to be the bold, outspoken young woman she is (albeit more thoughtful about how she communicates her opinions). Now a freshman at Wesleyan—I think she’ll be just fine.

Maya Petersons are at every school. I believe that is a good thing. But is your school ready, willing, and able to learn and grow from kids like her?

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