Friends' Central Dives into Water, Equity, and Justice

The New Justice Core Team, Inaugural Distinguished Visiting Justice Leader Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, and an Inspired FCS Community

Is access to clean water a right or a privilege? Who can be a changemaker? Friends’ Central sought the answers to these questions in a yearlong study of water equity and justice.

Water equity and justice provided the perfect backdrop for the new Justice Core Team – a group of over 20 Middle and Upper School students, faculty, and staff who are working to weave justice and inclusivity into the fabric of the School in significant ways – and the Team’s inaugural Distinguished Visiting Justice Leader, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha.

Dwight Dunston ’06, wrapping up his second year as Coordinator of Equity and Justice Education at Friends’ Central, helped found the Justice Core Team. “It had been two years in the discussion and strategizing process before the Justice Core Team was borne. [Head of School] Craig Sellers and I had been doing a lot of thinking about diversity and inclusion and wanting the announcement of the Justice Core Team to correspond with a speaker – someone actively working in the field of equity and justice. We wanted someone whose work we could study and whom we could bring to the community to inspire everyone – students in all three divisions, as well as faculty, staff, parents, and the greater community.  We are so grateful to Lankenau Hospital for co-sponsoring her visit.”

Flint, Michigan, and “Dr. Mona”

In 2014, the city of Flint, MI, made the decision to switch their water source from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River, a less expensive option. Due to insufficient treatment and testing, the lead levels in the water skyrocketed, affecting over 100,000 Flint residents, including many young children. Residents complained about foul-smelling and discolored water and faucets, and there were outbreaks of rashes. A pediatrician in Flint began to notice the effects on her young patients but found that public health officials weren’t willing to look into the issue.

The local pediatrician was Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha – affectionately known by many as “Dr. Mona” – a professor, noted public health advocate, and author of What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City, a dramatic account of the Flint Water Crisis.

Distinguished Visiting Justice Leader Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

Dr. Mona – in conjunction with other experts – demonstrated that the proportion of children under five with lead in their blood had doubled and, in some lower-income neighborhoods, even tripled since 2014. When she released her findings at a press conference, the State of Michigan sought to discredit her work, with government officials calling her an “unfortunate researcher” who was causing “unnecessary hysteria” with her “spliced and diced” data. That didn’t stop her, though.

From a Lower School Theme to an All-School Exploration

Each fall, the Lower School embarks on a school-wide theme, chosen the previous spring through faculty consensus. Grounded in a belief in the value of presenting content and curricula in an integrated manner, the fall theme shows students the interconnectivity of academic disciplines, the arts, and their lives. The Lower School chose Water as its fall theme this year, and teachers devised a broad and creative array of water-related projects and programs for each grade and classroom. For example, Nursery studied oceans and sea animals, complete with ocean-inspired yoga; first graders focused on the art and energy of water, constructing water wheels and generating their own watercolors; in “Project Oasis,” fifth grade created societies, spending time focusing on issues of green energy (hydro, wind, solar, geothermal) and using renewable energy sources to power houses, boats, and cars.

Inspired by the Lower School’s choice of water as their Fall Project theme, and guided by this year’s all-school theme of integrity, the Justice Core Team decided to focus on water equity in its inaugural year. Dwight Dunston explained, “We were informed about Dr. Mona and her work – particularly her new book and how people didn’t initially believe her research about the water in Flint – and in this our inaugural year of the Justice Core Team, it seemed not only appropriate to bring her in but also amazing how it all fit together, building this curriculum around water, something so essential to our everyday life that we should all have equal access to it. The students in all three divisions just got it and were really fired up and inspired by her.”

The fourth grade took Dr. Mona’s visit and her work very seriously as they began preparing for her arrival. They watched Hanna-Attisha’s TED talk and interviews she gave to the media and the water departments, with some images of the water in Flint. They also had a visit from Dwight Dunston, who talked to them about being advocates for change, even at a young age. Fourth grade teacher Alice McBee shared, “Hearing from Dwight, watching the videos of Dr. Mona, and seeing the photos and clips from the water and water departments helped get the students excited for her visit. Some were also quite sad after seeing some of the images, but they turned that sadness and empathy into action. Dr. Mona had inspired them to become activists.” Then it came time for Dr. Mona’s visit to FCS.

Truth to Power – Everyone Has a Voice

The Lower Schoolers were brilliant during Dr. Mona’s visit. It was incredible to hear their questions and to see how upset they were that people didn’t believe her scientific research and how the water was literally poisoning people.

Dwight Dunston ’06, Coordinator of Equity and Justice Education

When Dr. Mona walked into the Lower School building, where she began her all-day visit to Friends’ Central, it was as though a celebrity had arrived. The fourth and fifth graders, who had been learning about and studying her work for almost two months now, were so excited to see her and hear what she had to say. Her message to the Lower School was that you are never too young to speak up. Dwight Dunston shared, “The Lower Schoolers were brilliant during Dr. Mona’s visit. It was incredible to hear their questions and to see how upset they were that people didn’t believe her scientific research and how the water was literally poisoning people.”

Dr. Mona was inspiring in her talks with students and adults, sharing with the community what led to uncovering the truth and dangers regarding the water in Flint, as well as her thoughts on the reasons behind the inequity and what students can do to speak out about these injustices. She explained, “Flint is a great example of a world-wide problem in our country – how people in poorer communities don’t have the same access to basic amenities, like clean water, as others. What I want you to go away with is the importance of speaking up. You are all powerful people, no  matter how old you are.”

Alexa Quinn, Middle School Principal, said, “Dr. Mona  Hanna-Attisha was inspiring and uplifting. Our students were enthralled not only by her story but also with her intellect, warmth, and the way she tied issues together with her message of hope. She encouraged students to speak up for what is right, even when it’s hard, and to see themselves as being responsible for and connected to the well-being of other people.”

Inspired to Take Action

Dr. Mona’s visit was a catalyst for change in the FCS community. In the Lower School, fourth graders formed what they called the “Junior Service Committee,” a group of about nine students who partnered with the faculty service committee to start a fundraiser for the Pediatric Public Health Initiative, which, led by Dr. Mona, works to address Flint’s community-wide lead exposure and help all Flint children to grow up healthy and strong. To promote their fundraiser, entitled “Help Us Help Them,” Committee members choreographed an announcement that was presented in the Lower School sharing assembly. They brought in shoeboxes and, during recess, decorated them with photos of Dr. Mona, kids from Flint, and the toxic water in Flint, and they distributed the boxes to the different classes. Lower School students performed extra chores around the house to raise money, and together, over $700 was collected from the Lower School community! Alice McBee explained, “There was a huge response from the Lower School. And their reaction was like, ‘wow, we actually did something.’ It was so powerful and empowering for them.”

During her meeting with the Justice Core Team, Dr. Mona encouraged students to start working to make change right in their backyard. In that vein, the Team is hosting a speaker series in honor of Earth Month. Dwight Dunston shared, “We are working with the Upper School Sustainability Committee to host a speaker – focused on sustainability, equity, and justice – each week during the month of April. We wanted to bring in people interested in and doing environmental work in our community and around the city of Philadelphia.”

Friends’ Central is also working on a number of projects related to rainwater runoff, flooding, and increasing the number of native plants. One of those projects, which kicked off at the beginning of the school year, is the new Middle School Rain Garden. Led by science teacher and Science Department Chair Chris Guides, former Lower School science teacher Peter Grove, and a team of Middle School students, the Rain Garden, located between the Rex Gym and the Middle School, is an eco-friendly garden that uses rain that runs off of streets, roofs, and walkways to help water plants instead of directing the rain into the sewers. Included in the rain garden are plants native to the Friends’ Central area, helping insects, animals, and the environment. Other projects being considered on City Avenue include using cisterns for the Middle School to collect and use rainwater, installing a green/blue roof on Shallcross Hall, adding porous paving where possible, and reconfiguring parking lots to allow for the creation of bioswales.

Members of the Middle School Rain Garden team with Peter Grove (not pictured: Chris Guides)

In May, Middle School Earth Force Projects will also be focused on the environment and environmental justice. An exciting element of these projects is that Dr. Mona will be brought back into the fold to talk with Middle School students after they complete their projects in mid-May.

Dwight Dunston believes that there is a role for everyone who wants to make a difference, whether in their community or in the world, at all levels of involvement. “You can do something big or small to be advocates for change – you just have to find the role that’s right for you,” said Dwight. “We want all of our students to feel empowered to make change.”

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