Story and Photo by Melody Guyton Butts
Tackling racism — with its tentacles reaching into seemingly every facet of our society — can feel overwhelming. But, for anyone feeling that way, rising Durham Academy senior Zoe Sinclair wants you to know two things: that you can get started in this work with just a conversation. And that taking action is important — because there are life or death consequences.
“It starts with you,” said Sinclair, who identifies as Black. “And that might sound cliché, but it really does start with teaching yourself and making the effort to learn from others.”
She first got involved in diversity and inclusion work as a ninth-grader, when she learned about the Triangle Diversity Alliance, a coalition of students and faculty from five local independent schools. Each year, one of the member schools hosts a conference for students and faculty to learn more about how they can advance diversity, equity and inclusion work, as well as to share about their experiences on their own campuses. Sinclair recalls her first TDA conference, held at Cary Academy her ninth-grade year, as being eye-opening.
“The Black affinity group has been my favorite part of TDA — seeing all of these capable, strong, Black, young individuals who all want to make change in the world, but also just be seen,” she said. “And we’re able to talk about that in a safe way where we all understand each other.”
In January 2020, DA hosted the TDA conference with the help of student leaders like Sinclair, who led an African dance workshop for participants. It was so well-received that she followed up with two more African dance workshops for DA students and faculty in honor of Black History Month this year.
Sinclair is now on the leadership team of RAISE (Raising Awareness for Inclusion and Social Equity), a committee of DA Upper School Student Government that works to identify ways to help make DA an ever-more inclusive, welcoming community. Committee members work to implement programs and activities that promote diversity across all divisions of DA. Through RAISE, she has helped lead Black History Month and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day assemblies for younger students.
Diversity and inclusion work took on a heightened level of urgency for Sinclair after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in spring 2020.
“I was immediately impacted. I knew there was more to what I was feeling and especially what I felt I needed to do,” she said in a speech recorded for the Upper School’s virtual “This I Believe” assembly. “Although the past few months have been filled with great sadness and despair at times, they have also been a wake-up call. A call for me to educate myself on issues of racial injustice, police brutality, systemic racism and what we can do to make our communities more inclusive and safe for all. And a call for me to engage in difficult but meaningful conversations with people who have different viewpoints.
“I believe that this work must start with me,” Sinclair continued. “That it has to start with me. I have learned that internal change and self-education are crucial for change to happen. Because internally is where all of the fear, bias, hesitation, discomfort and misunderstandings reside.”
She leaped at the opportunity to share her thoughts on diversity and inclusion work with the entire Upper School community “to really convey that it is life or death work,” even as racism and police brutality may be viewed by some people as distant problems that don’t affect the daily lives of people they know. In reality, as Sinclair explained in her speech, racism is a part of daily life for so many.
Before either of her brothers — DA alumni Pryce ’16 and Cole ’21 — leaves the house, she said, her mother implores them: “Keep your wits about you,” out of fear that a police encounter could end badly.
Sinclair understands that eroding systemic racism will require policy-
level changes. But she believes that change must begin on the individual level, and that starts with reaching people when they are young.
“If we can get more students of all backgrounds, not just white and Black, but all colors, all ethnicities, religions — if we can just get everybody in one central place to just discuss microaggressions that we face, racism, discrimination, even outright disrespect — then I feel like we can really start to change these problems on a social level, if not the big changes in government,” she said. “... It’s hard to make policies when you are young and don’t have a job, but we can change the way [DA’s] culture looks or Cary Academy’s culture looks, or Carolina Friends’.”
Sinclair and fellow RAISE committee members have worked with Assistant Director of Diversity, Equity and Engagement Jeff Boyd to host cultural competency workshops for students and faculty, and she hopes to eventually expand that programming to the parent population. The RAISE committee has also been advocating for increased BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) representation on the faculty and in the curriculum, and Sinclair said she was excited to learn that Upper School history teacher Paul Slack will teach two new courses next year: Jay-Z’s America and Caribbean History.
“Your work to create change doesn’t have to be so big like policy or law, but it could just be asking your friends of color or asking your friends that have different religions than you how it is for them or what they’ve gone through,” she said. “Have they experienced any microaggressions or discrimination and then go from there — ask how you can support them. … It really does start with people learning about differences.”