DA Students and Alumni Advocate for Racial Equity Reform

Story by Leslie King

"Suddenly, last summer, it seemed everyone became aware of the world Black Americans live in. It took a man’s senseless murder plastered on every device to awaken those who believed racism died with the 13th Amendment. Friends took to social media and to the streets, protesting and attending vigils shocked at the historical injustice unfolding before their eyes. But Black Americans had known this. … I needed to act, and I believed that any sort of change I could truly enact had to start in a community that I love." 

Raguell Couch '21

In July, a group of current students and recent graduates proposed a series of concrete short-term, mid-term and long-term racial equity reforms that Durham Academy could implement to become a more inclusive and fair school community. Their plan was shared with all current students in grades 5–12, all DA alumni, all current DA faculty and staff, all DA trustees and all current DA families. To date, more than 500 members of the DA community have read and added their names in a show of solidarity with the group’s initiatives. The DA Administrative Team, along with the leaders of the Board of Trustees and Parents Association, endorsed the plan and started working toward those goals.

“These young adults have stepped forward with courage, clarity, commitment — and a healthy mix of idealism and pragmatism,” Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner wrote in a July 22 email to the community. “After reading their recommended reforms, considering the implications, and meeting directly with the students and alumni, we older adults are united in endorsing this initiative. We support the authors as loving critics of their school. We share the vision they have for a more equitable and just Durham Academy. We have already begun to discuss the collaborative work that will be necessary to hold ourselves accountable to these worthy goals.”

The students and alumni who created these proposals united across four graduating classes, and invested with significant vision in their school: Daniel Park ’21, Davi Sapiro-Gheiler ’19, Alayah Tedder ’20, Mira Pickus ’21, Hebron Daniel ’18, Madeleine Genova ’20, Raguell Couch ’21, Jaspreet Bhutani ’18 and Tharindu Fernando ’21. To show your support, you can add your name to the initiative.

We asked several members of the group to reflect on what motivated them to become activists and what it was like to engage with their school’s leadership to achieve positive change. Seniors Park, Pickus, Couch and Fernando shared their thoughts in the video below.

As I reflect back on my time at Durham Academy, I’d like to recognize the amazing willingness to sign on and get involved from the community,” Park said. “Student support and activism drove this initiative, but I don’t believe this could have been accomplished without the fantastic support of DA teachers and faculty members who were willing to help in any way they could. Just as this year has reminded me of the prejudice that still exists, it has also reminded me of how fortunate I am to go to a school that actively encourages the activism and open-mindedness necessary to solve the issues facing our society.”

“The work does not end here — it only continues with those willing to continue to make Durham Academy the best it can be,” Couch said. “As a senior, I see the future of Durham Academy in the upcoming classes, who continue to push for an education that represents them and tackle issues that are important to them without hesitation. That not only includes dedicated students, but also supportive teachers and faculty who believe just as much in these initiatives. As I look forward to college, I hope to continue to see the influence of what we began with this journey within our curriculum, our programming and our incredible community as a whole. Lastly, to my fellow Black students, I admire your strength, grace and character within this racially tumultuous time for our country. I am proud of you.”

Their proposals, in addition to input from three parent groups focused on equity and inclusion, have helped inform the work of DA’s Administrative Team, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement (led by Director Kemi Nonez) and the corresponding DEE committee of the Board of Trustees, which is working on a schoolwide strategic plan for fall 2021.