Upper School Welcomes Author & Activist Ishmael Beah

Upper School Welcomes Author & Activist Ishmael Beah

On Tuesday this week, Upper School welcomed author and activist Ishmael Beah to speak to students and faculty about his experiences as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, his rehabilitation, and the ways in which his experiences have led him to find connections across differences and beauty in our shared humanity. Beah came to SCH as the keynote speaker for this year’s first of four “Moments of Understanding,” designed to educate our community about issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion and led by our Student Facilitators.  

To help the student body prepare for the activity that followed his talk, Beah began by modeling a story exchange with co-head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council Finn Seifert ‘21, each sharing a powerful story in the other’s voice.  Afterward, as the two discussed the experience of exchanging stories, Finn commented, “What I love about the story exchange is that you take on someone’s story and you get to hold that for the rest of your life. You get to carry that wherever you go, so you have this new perspective and viewpoint on the world.”

Beah spent the next part of his talk elaborating on the power of the story exchange, a process designed by Narrative 4, a global, nonpartisan network of artists, educators, and students, of which Beah is a founding member and Finn is a student ambassador. SCH has worked with Narrative 4 since 2015; this past Tuesday’s school-wide exchange was our fifth. Narrative 4 is dedicated to cultivating radical empathy through the exchange of stories; their mission is “to harness the power of the story exchange to equip and embolden young adults to improve their lives, communities and the world.” The objective of this year’s first Moment of Understanding was to build community across grade levels and cultivate empathy and authentic connections. 

Our community began by connecting to Beah’s life story, which is profoundly inspiring; he spoke to students about the culture shock he experienced when he immigrated to the US from Sierra Leone, the pain of keeping his former life a secret so that his new American friends would not be afraid of him, and his amusement about the stresses of American high school life such as essay deadlines or lost papers. Most poignantly, he described the way in which he seized the opportunity to make a life for himself in the aftermath of loss and war. In response to one student’s question about how to balance the power of memories and how to keep them from holding him down, Beah responded, “I had to make a decision: whether I wanted the things that happened to me to continue to remain a burden, or I could transform them, even though they were horrible, in a positive way so that I could live well. This other, second chance I had at living, I could do it well.”  

Upper School Diversity Coordinator Victoria Stitt closed the talk by asking Beah what he would say to students who were feeling nervous about sharing a story or anxious that their story was not remarkable. He responded, “All of us have something to give to one another. What hurts one human being has value for other people to hear it and draw lessons from it. What makes one person happy, may allow someone to realize that there’s something happy in their life that they overlooked. One of the ways we can grow is to allow ourselves to be truly vulnerable and be in touch deeply with who we are. Use this moment to start doing that, to start seeing how you can be really truthful to who you are as a human being.” 

Read more about SCH Academy's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts.

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