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Harvard Professor Dr. Sarah Elizabeth Lewis Delivers Equity Day Keynote Address
Ruth Kornblatt-Stier

On Monday, April 12, the Prep School took part in Equity Day, an annual event devoted to reflection on identity, activism and other topics surrounding equity and social justice. "It's important to do this work today so that we can grow and learn together, understand and support each other and be an even better community," said Prep School Director Joanie Dean during her opening remarks. A day of talks, activities and workshops, this year's Equity Day, which was a year in the making, encouraged students and faculty to listen to and empathize with other perspectives. As Ms. Dean stated, "The leaders of tomorrow will listen more and truly value solitude and reflection to allow space for deep thinking and listening." To kick off the day of conversations and workshops, Dr. Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, a Harvard University professor in the Department of History of Art and Architecture and the Department of African and African American Studies, addressed the Prep School community as the keynote speaker. 

Dr. Lewis's keynote address centered on the importance of images in our culture and how visual literacy has never been more important to our collective understanding of belonging and the idea of “who counts” within our society. Dr. Lewis began by asking the Prep School community a number of questions: "How do you see in a crisis? What do you see? Why are you seeing it? What does it mean? What is belonging? Is it simply a legal question? Or one of culture?" Tying these questions into our country's current racial reckoning, Dr. Lewis spoke about the murder of George Floyd, the trial of Derek Chauvin and the power that videos and images have to enforce fundamental change. Saying, "We have never had more access to worlds unlike our own than we have today through pictures," Dr. Lewis emphasized the significance of visual media to our relationships with the world around us and each other. Dr. Lewis also spoke about the private and personal journeys we all must go through to become positive forces for change, using the example of scholar and lawyer Charles Lund Black Jr., who, after witnessing Louis Armstrong perform, was driven to end segregation in the United States. 

Students, teachers and other members of the Prep School community were then given the opportunity to ask Dr. Lewis questions about her work and thoughts on the current state of racial justice in the United States. Students asked several deeply insightful questions, such as "How do changing laws impact changing culture?" and "As someone not of color, what can I do to support marginalized communities and movements?" One student asked the particularly discerning question, "Do you think that we are currently progressing to a more equal world? Or does it seem that we as a culture are regressing?" Dr. Lewis replied that our access to social and visual media has given us "incalculable evidence of violence and justice." This evidence, she explained, contributes to the "increased transparency of inequity that is paradoxically creating a galvanic force for change in society."

Other questions about the role of politicians and laws in shaping our country's cultural norms allowed Dr. Lewis to describe her work on Stand Your Ground laws and delineate what it means to have prominent politicians of color, such as former President Barack Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris and former Congressional Representative John Lewis. Dr. Lewis explained that "oftentimes the work of culture allows us to see who should be in positions of leadership." In the conclusion of her keynote address, Dr. Lewis directed students to always "make listening your priority" and said that she believed tangible racial justice is an achievable goal for this generation. 

Thank you, Dr. Lewis, for your powerful words. 

Please click here to view the full keynote address.

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