During Peace Week 2019 (Feb. 4-8) at Friends Seminary, community members explored the theme of “Justice and Mercy: Transforming Conflict into Connection” through a series of lectures, programs and workshops.
On Wednesday, Feb. 6, activist Akeem Browder, who leads the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers, shared his family’s story of incarceration and injustice with Upper School students. The event began with a clip from Time: The Kalief Browder Story
, a documentary series co-produced by Jay-Z that spotlights the the inhumanities of the criminal justice system. It traces the experiences of Akeem’s brother Kalief Browder, who at 16 was accused of stealing a backpack and was imprisoned for three years — two of them in solitary confinement — on Rikers Island without being convicted of the crime or going to trial. He endured brutal beatings, starvation and paranoia. After his release, Kalief dedicated himself to academics and attempted to maintain a normal life, but ultimately committed suicide in June 2015. Akeem founded the Kalief Browder Foundation
to tell his brother’s story and illuminate the injustice of the prison industrial complex and the need for just and merciful alternatives. Kalief’s death was a catalyst for abolishing solitary confinement for 16 and 17-year-olds and illuminates the injustice that’s behind closed doors. 6.7 million adults — or 1 in 37 — are under correctional control, and his story attempts to put a human face on a staggering statistic.
Akeem returned to Friends on Thursday, Feb. 7 for a deeper discussion on criminal justice reform and advocacy with the Upper School. He walked students through the complexities of the judicial process and the cruelty of placing young adults on Rikers Island despite having access to youth facilities. Browder stated that “we have to learn to change our mindsets,” and challenge racial bias. He advocates for this in schools and the community by organizing peaceful protests and fighting for better due process through the creation of new bills focused on bail reform and the right to a fair, timely trial.
Also on Wednesday, Feb. 6, Middle and Lower School students were treated to a visit by KK Peabody
, a certified mediator and restorative circle-keeper, and Friends parent. She explored conflict and harm as opportunities to establish more peaceful relationships with others and discussed what happens when conflict and harm are left unaddressed or are tackled in unproductive ways. Students were encouraged to develop their own useful tools for successful conflict resolution, including feeling words, action steps, and an ‘upstander’ mindset.
The spirit of the week also made its way into the classroom. Lower School Art Teacher Andrea Aimi used this time to inspire students to explore the Quaker testimony of Peace. Second graders made “Peace Plates,” turning ordinary paper plates into colorful displays adorned with messages of what Peace means to them. Grade 4 students crafted“Peace Pockets,” a project done in memory of late Friends teacher Maureen Mullen. Students were asked to reflect on Peace with shape, line and design. Finally, a series of activist signs were created after studying the art of lettering, graphic design, graffiti and classic sign painting, along with an exploration of modern protest movements like the 2017 Women’s March.
As the week came to a close, students and members of our community participated in an immersive, haunting virtual tour of solitary confinement, simulating both the physical environment and the psychological disorientation of prolonged isolation. Following the VR experience, participants were encouraged to utilize the Quaker practice of silence to reflect and consider the testimony of peace and its connections to justice and mercy.
During this time, the Student Service Committee hosted an advocacy table with informational materials to education students and the community on the disparages of the criminal justice system and the need for just and merciful alternatives. Friends also collected signatures in support of a call for Governor Cuomo to sign the HALT ACT, S.1623.
The Peace Week theme will extend into the spring with a talk from Bryan Stevenson on Feb. 23, the Day of Service on April 23, and more to be announced.