After the Election: Thoughts from a Head of School

Solebury Head of School Tom Wilschutz shared the following thoughts at a student assembly on November 9, 2016.

Good afternoon,

I want to spend a few minutes and offer some context and perspective around this moment in our nation’s history. Some of you assembled here awoke with fear of the consequences of a Trump Presidency. Some of you assembled here today would have feared a Clinton Presidency. Some of you assembled here today don’t know how to process what is happening in our country.

I would like to offer all of you five thoughts as we stare into the future.

First. Regardless of who you are, we will protect you. We will protect you from hate and bigotry and injustice. We will protect you if you’re black, white, Hispanic, Asian; if you’re gay, straight, lesbian, trans or gender fluid. We will protect you if you’re a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, an atheist.

We will continue to work diligently to make Solebury School the kind of community that values everyone, is a safe space for everyone and can model for the world what “community” should look like.

Second, President-Elect Trump will soon be president of ALL Americans. And while there is a fringe of bigoted, misogynistic, hateful people who support him, the millions of Americans who voted for him are not bigoted, hateful or misogynistic. They voted for him because they felt left out, left behind, unheard. They voted for him because their government, our government, no longer worked for them in their opinion. They voted for him because they had lost hope in our political system. They voted for him because they wanted a change from establishment politics.

We must hear those concerns, and we must work to make our government, and our economy, work for all Americans, as well as look beyond our shores and ensure our government works to address the global problems that threaten all humanity.

Our challenges are real, and these challenges are experienced unevenly across this nation. If you’re a farmer in the northwest corner of my home state, Iowa, you voted overwhelmingly against the status quo in Washington because annually you see your neighbors sell their land or their farms foreclosed – farmers no longer able to make a living on the small family farm.

If you’re a factory worker in the Firestone Tire Plant in Des Moines where I worked summers in college, you voted against the Washington Establishment. In the summer of 1974, I worked alongside 3000 employees at that Firestone plant. Today, that plant produces more tires than in 1974, with only a couple of hundred employees. Those jobs didn’t go overseas; with automation, they simply went away.

Stories like these are playing out over vast swaths of our nation and among our citizens. We must address these challenges so all Americans have hope that our government hears them, and acts on their behalf.

Students, you sitting here today are the 2%. Only 2% of students in the U.S. have the opportunity to attend an independent school, where quite literally, you are receiving the best education money can buy. You are the future leaders. Your voices, your values will shape our future. You have a responsibility as part of this education to understand our challenges as a nation, to listen to those who feel left out, and to participate in your democracy to effect change.

My third message: we must stand together now, support the democratic institutions that protect us all, accept the outcome of this election, but continue to fight, even harder, even louder, for the values that we hold dear: acceptance, inclusion, respect for all people, truth, justice, fairness.

We must learn how to be better citizens. How to disagree respectfully. How to listen and not just argue. How to find solutions and not just win. You must practice those skills here at Solebury. Hone those skills in your classes, your dorm room, your clubs and your teams. Practice disagreeing without labeling and dismissing. The word compromise is not a four-letter word. For democracies to work, we must learn to work together around difficult issues.

That takes understanding, and practice, and compromise.

Fourth – let’s talk about hope.

Think back to the challenges this country faced in the presidential elections that that unfolded in 1860 or 1865; or the election that took place in 1940, or as recently as 1968. If you were alive and paying attention in the summer and fall of 1968, reasonable people could have reasonably concluded, that our country was on the brink of revolution.

Two national leaders had been assassinated – Martin Luther King in April and two months later, Robert Kennedy in June. Our cities erupted in violence in the summer of ’68. College campuses were torn apart by protests. The TET Offensive in January shook everyone’s belief in the country that we were winning, or could ever win, the Vietnam War. On black-and-white TVs across the nation, we all watched as the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was ripped apart by violence, with hundreds of police beating protesters outside the convention hall with nightsticks.

My point is this. We as a nation have faced many difficult challenges in the moment of presidential elections, and we have prevailed. We will let future historians debate whether the challenges we face as a nation are as perilous in 2016 as they were in 1860 or 1940 or 1968. But there is much reason, and evidence, for hope. Our democratic institutions do remain strong.

And if you take the long sweep, think about how much progress we have made on so many fronts. In my youth, gays and lesbians could not live open lives. Transgender and gender fluidity were not even concepts. “White only” signs were still commonplace outside stores, restaurants and other businesses. We certainly continue to have challenges ahead of us on many fronts, but you attend a school where students, faculty and staff can live as who they are, and be accepted and celebrated, for who they are.

My final message is this: silence is dangerous. To help shape a better world for everyone, you must educate yourself, and then you must use your voice. Events, laws, policies – whether its Solebury School, or New Hope, PA, the state of Pennsylvania or our nation – the world is shaped by those who show up and speak. I have not lost my faith, or hope, in our future. But I acknowledge that the challenges are real, the work is hard, and I must work with all my fellow Americans to create the kind of society I want for my family, and you, my students.

So, your job now is singular and simple – to be the best student you can be. Seize the opportunity of the education we offer. Practice those skills I mentioned earlier. Prepare yourself, now, to be the citizen you want to be in all the communities you will inhabit as adults.

And, keep the faith.

About the Author:

Tom Wilschutz

With an undergraduate degree from the University of Iowa (and still a proud Hawkeye fan) a graduate degree from Michigan State University, and all coursework and exams completed for a Ph.D in Modern British History from Michigan State, Tom began his career in education in Admissions, shaping enrollment at Michigan State and Kent State before transitioning to independent schools. Tom began as Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at Laurel School, a day school for girls in Shaker Heights, Ohio. He rose to the Assistant Head of School role in 2005. During his time at Laurel, Tom steered the school to strong enrollment and increased parent participation. In 2012, Tom was named Solebury School’s eighth Head of School, charged with carrying on the progressive tradition of Solebury while preparing the school to launch the next chapter in its story. In partnership with the Board of Trustees, he recently lead the community through a strategic planning process that engaged hundreds of alumni, students, parents, faculty, staff, community leaders and thought leaders in education and defined the programmatic and financial goals for the future of Solebury School. Tom is married with four adult children and four grandchildren, and resides in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.


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