Remarks from the Board Chair, Spring 2021
*Editor’s note: the following comments were recently delivered by Board Chair Roseanne Saalfield to our trustees and advisors at our spring board meeting, and again at our weekly staff meeting.
Over the last eighteen months, we here at Chewonki have endured much. And we have accomplished much. Our achievements outnumber our challenges and demonstrate our strength, resiliency, powers of creativity, and stubborn determination to be joyful and successful in the face of unexpected and singular obstacles.
Thank you for joining us in this critical work. We are a hard-working but very friendly and supportive force for change. The difference you make will be felt by your colleagues and the young people we are here to serve.
For those of us who have known and loved Chewonki for years, we have heard – and perhaps ourselves sometimes said – that Chewonki is “a place apart”. The very first Chewonki booster I met was a gracious man who shared his lovely home in Cambridge for a Boys Camp reception and slideshow. He described the “near-religious importance” that Chewonki- its place and its people- had in his life since his childhood. His passion was palpable and I remember thinking, “wow, this is intense.” I, too, came to share a similarly strong passion and look forward to spending days at Chewonki and building relationships with friends and colleagues.
Of course, Chewonki never was a place apart. As an institution, it was born of a time, in a culture, and belonging to a historical moment and system, that only offered its many blessings to a very small segment of humankind.
I do not need to enumerate, for Chewonki’s devoted fans, hard workers, and generous trustees and advisors, all of the many ways in which Chewonki has changed and grown over the past 100 years, improving all the while. Many of us have together celebrated some of those changes, and will celebrate even more this summer season as we anticipate welcoming girls to residence on the Neck, as we follow renovations and expansion of new educator housing in Wiscasset village, and look forward to a fall return of Outdoor Classroom participants to campus and to Traveling Natural History programs to Maine communities and schools.
Thank you to Willard for his sage, compassionate, insightful leadership, and to staff leaders and their teams for the hard work that leaves me so confident that this summer’s programs will be a resounding success. Thank you to all our governors for the long hours and care they have brought to their work in committee over these many months. Chewonki is lucky to have each and every one of you and to welcome those newly-elected advisors and trustees who are joining us this spring.
For me personally, some of our most important work this last year is the learning we have done to advance our social justice mission, one referenced in specific detail in the new DEI roadmap that is now posted on our website.
To continue trustee and advisor learning and growth in this area and support and sustain a working environment I feel is part and parcel of our imperative to improve, I am drawing your attention to the evolving norms of our work culture that I want to name and accelerate.
As your Chair, and with deep respect for all of you, I am asking you all to acknowledge that our careful and intentional work toward greater social justice at Chewonki puts us firmly in a learning space. As learners, we can expect to fail. In fact, I invite you to accept and even welcome those certain failures as a necessary and inevitable part of our progress.
The particular learning and cultural change I hope to encourage here requires us all to bring great empathy for other perspectives to all of our work and to make space for all voices and every person.
Our learning will be evident in the language we use, and the care we chose to bring to the way we express ourselves in groups small and large, across staff, trustee and advisor borders, and of course without bias toward age, gender, sexual identification, or race, physical appearance or ability.
The watchwords I have often heard are these: We assume good intent, and we will attend to consequences.
Our words are important because they signify what it is in our hearts and our minds. I invite you to call each other in, as often as necessary and as bravely and boldly as you need to, to the space of our shared learning.
I invite you to interrupt the proceedings at hand, when you feel compelled – in committee meetings, in one-to-one communication, and at board meetings – and flag a comment someone else has made that lands in a painful way for you, and to be prepared to explain why. This is not going to be easy. This is not going to feel comfortable, especially in the early days.
I also invite you to interrupt yourself, to “take back” your words, as we all used to say on the playground, and give yourself a “do-over” when you fear your own expressions may have given offense, or perhaps have been understood in ways other than you intended. The rest of us have the time and the patience to wait for the clarity you seek.
One of the great joys of our Chewonki work together is our capacity for relentless kindness. Let’s keep that up, with the understanding that sometimes the greatest kindness includes a bluntness and directness we may not be used to using with each other here.
Nothing will be gained in evasiveness, euphemism, or sugar-coating. As a society, perhaps even as a foundation, we have been delinquent in advancing social justice. Let’s waste time no longer.
And for those who may worry that this stated change to our working norms may derail us from our mission-centered, agenda-driven, deadline-required projects, fear not. This, too, is our important work. We will be mindful of all the tasks we need to accomplish, I promise and bring focus to bear exactly where and when it is needed.
Even as we have lately celebrated the conviction of Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd, and even as we celebrate the Federal hate crimes charges that have been brought against the killers of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, let us remind ourselves that these are judicial victories in a society where so much more must change.
Boston University professor and anti-racist activist Ibram X. Kendi reminds us there was a time when people thought there could be no America without slavery. He suggests, with hope, that if we could end the toxic and tragic institution of slavery, we can also imagine and create an America that has put an end to pervasive racial injustice. Let’s do our part at Chewonki to continue working toward that end.
Noted writer and Duke University professor Nathaniel Mackey refers to us humans as “rough drafts”, and proudly admits to being a rough draft himself. I was reminded this morning while sharpening a pencil that, “the eraser always gives out before the point.”
It is in the spirit of a writer refining her work through multiple changes while aiming for an ever-better result, I call you all into the learning space I inhabit and ask for your help and your participation.
Thank you for the very good work I know you will do.