“How are you?” A question simple, in nature, but one that of late, I struggle to answer.
Recently, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion around leadership and equity. The audience was filled with parents, students, and educators — some of whom I consider to be the ‘greats’ in the work of equity and inclusion. My panel, two heads of school and myself, a current associate head of school, fielded questions about student affirmation, faculty voice, and leadership during a time of crisis.
During the final round of questions, one participant said that her cohort had carefully crafted their questions. And they wanted to know:
How are you?
The question shook me. How are you? (Did I hear that right?) While I listened to my two co-panelists discussing their levels of stress and exhaustion, I was still slightly unprepared when she finally called upon me to answer. Unlike my usual method of carefully practicing my inner thoughts before speaking them aloud, I let the words spill out of me: I am bone tired.
The participant, a Black woman and educator, closed her eyes and nodded in a way that made me feel she knew I was going to say this before I actually did. As a fellow woman of color, she made me feel seen.
I was bone tired, but still alive. Not so for many.
On July 20, 2020, 19 days into his second year as head of school, Ernie Robles-Levroney died from a heart attack. He was 46 years old.
Ernie was a fierce advocate for all that should be right in our world. One of my closest friends described Ernie as someone who was, “friendly and smart and respected and relentlessly trying to do good.” On social media, I see good friends talk about Ernie and his bright spirit, and how he worked nonstop. It’s worth noting that of all reporting National Association of Independent Schools, only 8% have a person of color as head of school. Ernie, a Black man, was among that small group.
Earlier this summer, Dez-Ann Romain, a Black woman and principal of the Brooklyn Democracy Academy, passed away from COVID19-related complications. She was 36 years old.
In a NYT article, a mentor of Dez-Ann described her as “one of the most innovative school leaders I’ve ever worked with — her students just adored her… She was a healthy, vibrant, energetic 36-year-old woman who had one of the toughest jobs anybody could have, and she did it with resilience.”¹
Ernie and Dez-Ann are seared into my mind. I did not know either one personally, but I knew them. I know of them. They were my role models, my mentors, my colleagues, and my friends. In reading descriptions of who they were, personally and professionally, I see every single Black and brown leader in my world. When I look at pictures of Ernie and Dez-Ann, I see two individuals with warm smiles, with bright eyes, and with open and inviting souls. I see my people.
And, so, I worry.
Adia Harvey Wingfield recently wrote a piece for The Harvard Business Review looking at the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus in Black health care workers. In looking at data available in the spring, she found that although “blacks are only 22% of New York City’s population, as of mid-April they constituted 28% of fatalities from the virus. In Chicago, where blacks are 30% of the population, they comprise 70% of those killed by Covid-19. In the state of Louisiana, blacks are 32% of the population but 70% of those dead from the disease.”²
The impact of COVID19 should shine a light on the reasons why my Black and brown community is afflicted with almost any and every stress-induced health issue, mostly heart-related. It should shine a light on how the systems of oppression — systems we did not create, but are now tasked with dismantling — are killing us. It should shine a light on just how stressed out we are right now.
In a spring 2011 article for Yale Alumni Magazine, writer Ronald Howell wondered about the number of deaths of Black men in his class of 1970 from Yale, including Clyde Murphy, the father of my husband’s friend. Mr. Howell writes, “I believe that racially based stress, of the kind many black men suffered and still suffer, is akin to a hypertension that becomes fixed in one’s system over time, leading to death if it isn’t treated.”³
When I read this article in 2011, I remember immediately thinking about several people in my life. People with drive, with ambition, with a desire to do good in this world. I wondered, in 2011, if they were taking care of themselves. If they were meditating, drinking water, and taking multivitamins. All things that we currently label as ‘self-care.’ But what if no amount of self-care can alleviate the tightening of the chest, the weight on the heart, the pain in the gut, when we constantly bear witness to acts, both visible and invisible, of not being accepted and loved?
I am one of the lucky ones. My personal and professional communities constantly check-in on me and find ways to support me. I know that my levels of stress, and the impact it has on my physical health, will never be the same as my dark skin peers.
And, so, I worry.
I worry about Black leaders in education, who are working nonstop to make plans for the fall, who are creating anti-racist programming, who are sacrificing rest in order to make sure that we — students, faculty, and families — are physically, emotionally, and spiritually safe. I worry about their levels of stress. I worry that “self-care” has just become code for “stay alive.”
At the end of his article, Mr. Howell states: “There is a faith in me that this change will come, and that it is maybe arriving even as I write. Of course, as with anything else, such social improvements require vigilant attention and the hard work of correcting imbalances. For this hard work, I will always honor our brother Clyde Murphy, who set about doing it some 40 years ago, and continued up until the very end.”⁴
I, too, have faith in change. But I worry that change will come too late for those I admire and love.
A text arrives: How are you? It’s from my friend, the one who first told me about Ernie’s death. I pepper him with questions to deflect from a sadness that I don’t feel I have the right to own. He knows me well, so he responds: Answer me.
I type a bunch of words. I tell him that worry has become a constant companion, one that does not allow me to remember what it feels like to take a deep breath anymore. I tell him that I dream of building a town called Priscillaville, where all of my loved ones live in peace and comfort. I tell him that I want to reach through the phone and hug him tight. I tell him that I just want to solve all of the big things. If only I can solve all of the big things.
And then I delete it all. I tell him I am okay.
How are you?