'Hill schools' shouldn't be isolated from community


Public schools are now reopening for fall classes under a cloud of confusion and concern over safety and equity. This chaos is in contrast to the recently depicted scenes from the Riverdale Country School campus, in which tents, chairs and tables were in place for classes in early August, and students were oriented early to adjust.

This divide is neither new nor unique to the three “hill schools” of Fieldston, Horace Mann and Riverdale Country. The perpetual irony, however, is that these schools center equity and democracy in their curricula.

Riverdale’s core humanities curriculum is “Constructing America,” an overview of how race has shaped the United States. Horace Mann is named for a leading proponent of public education.

Fieldston, my alma mater, states that they “examine the systemic power structures that create inequity, focusing on disbanding them both on an institutional level, and in the wider world.”

The point of highlighting the hill schools here in this moment of extreme inequality and breakdown isn’t to shame them. All educators, parents and schools want the best learning environments for students. The point is these schools have the potential to do even more to leverage their resources to challenge the systems they claim to be invested in challenging.

The inequalities that pervade life in New York City — and whose fruits are the images of manicured campuses with tents while thousands of Bronx families face displacement, eviction, poor health and food apartheid — require deeper institutional commitment and far greater discomfort.

Now — not when things have “calmed down” — is the moment to take the progressive commitments of applied ethics from those like Fieldston founder Felix Adler beyond the classroom. It’s time to address the hill schools’ relationships to the land they sit on and the dollars they control through their spending, procurement and endowments.

What can current “nice white parents” and alumni do in this moment to advance the cause of Adler and Dewey’s “democratic ideal,” and further dismantle the political and economic foundations of white supremacy? They can match their aspirations and practices of enriching political democracy with aspirations and practices of economic democracy.

In the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd uprising, nearby Fordham University released a racial justice action plan that not only sought to address matters of race on campus, but went beyond that by admitting its complicity in an increasing division between the campus and the surrounding Bronx community. Proposed steps include localizing their purchasing to include and prioritize minority-owned Bronx businesses, among other institutional investments.

The steps announced in the Fordham plan are just a beginning, and time will tell whether they hold themselves (and are held) accountable for these commitments. Statements on Black lives are generally just that: words.

What is useful here is the turn to “the anchor mission,” which argues that institutions can engage and invest in place by understanding and responding to the assets and leadership of neighboring communities. The two most high-impact areas in embracing the anchor mission for community wealth are localizing procurement and aligning endowment portfolios with mission.

Individually, small portions of a school’s endowment and procurement budget isn’t large enough to move the needle on building community wealth and shared ownership in the Bronx and New York City. Pooled together with the resources of other anchor institutions in the Bronx, they would have greater impact.

Investments in social and cooperative enterprises and community land trusts for permanently affordable housing and commercial space in the Bronx could have a substantial socio-economic impact.

How would this be any different than traditional philanthropy? How would these practices not just reproduce and further entrench the power and influence of wealthy New Yorkers over their neighbors? How is this not a recipe for disaster?

Maybe it is, but that’s up to the democracy part.

Why don’t Bronx residents have a role in designing and governing the endowment and procurement resources of these institutions? I imagine families from my own Fieldston co-designing investment principles with Bronx families, community leaders and organizations.

Students researching local Bronx businesses alongside Bronx community economic development organizations, digging into the procurement budgets and endowment of their own school.

An enriched curriculum for wealth, race, economics and democracy would center the school itself as an object of inquiry.

Core to the mission of advancing democracy and applied ethics is sharing resources, decision-making, and power with people from the rest of the borough, and moving away from the undemocratic enclaves of “nice white parents” whose wealth sustains them.

Would it be uncomfortable? In innumerable ways, yes. As Sabeel Rahman, president of the think tank Demos, argues “that discomfort has less to do with the supposed limits of democracy or the virtues of technocratic governance, and more to do with our deep-seated phobia of genuine democracy, particularly democracy that centers the power and voice of Black and brown communities.”

Hill school leaders might fear a loss of major donors, or families choosing other schools under such an arrangement of economic democracy. I would argue that schools founded on ideals of democracy and the public good are resilient enough to survive such a transformation.

If it becomes clear that advancing the cause of the democratic ideal, reconstruction and dismantling of white supremacy is irreconcilable with the existence of some private schools, where better to learn such a valuable lesson about race and wealth in the United States than a progressive school on the hill?

The author is a member of Ethical Culture Fieldston School’s Class of 2003, later receiving his doctorate in urban planning and public policy from Rutgers University. He is the program director for the Economic Democracy Learning Center at the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative, but views expressed here are his personal opinions only.

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