With Election Looming, Community Leaders Discuss Political Culture at GDS

The Forum of the GDS high school. Source: GDS.

In anticipation of what many are calling one of the most consequential elections in American history, the GDS community has looked into how to make the institution more aligned with its mission that “honors the integrity and worth of each individual.” In an age of political polarization and explosive debate, how can GDS model what positive political culture looks like in centering itself in its values and remaining nonpartisan as an institution?

Head of School Russell Shaw remembers as a 6th grader, in the aftermath of Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election, an example of how schools can help develop values that students can ground themselves in. Shaw remembers the impact a “bleeding heart liberal” teacher had on his development.

“Reagan won and I knew that my teacher was very disappointed. In March of that year, John Hinckley tried to assassinate the president. I came to school that day when I learned about it, and I found Mr. Garon. ‘Are you happy?’” Shaw remembered asking his teacher. “And he said ‘no.’ And I said, ‘Why not? You don’t like him.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but I don’t think anybody should be shooting a politician.’” 

“I was learning values from a teacher,” Shaw said, “not about his political alignment, but just about how we think about humanity and people.”

Thinking about how to make GDS more inclusive, administrators believe sharing political affiliations is partisan and excludes perspectives; however, how the policy applies to teachers is debatable.

“Teachers have never been allowed to affiliate themselves with a party, to wear t-shirts that align with one party or the other because the teacher[’s opinion] carries weight,” High School Principal Katie Gibson said. In her experience, “the teacher has power in the classroom over the students,” so even without official, sanctioned support, there is a power dynamic that makes teachers expressing their affiliation unacceptable in her opinion.

“I think if students are used to hearing one perspective, a teacher being able to, in a thoughtful way, push those perspectives and share different perspectives that challenge our students to think is healthy and good,” Shaw said. 

In recent years, students have noticed an increase in political interest among the GDS student body. Non-partisan groups such as Student Voices, the Student Action Committee and the Voter Mobilization Initiative provide ways students have become more involved in the political process through conversation and action.  

“Nowadays, you’re seeing a lot more of these politically active clubs at GDS,” Student Voices club head Corbin Buchwald said. “If you look at the actual attendance of so-called political events at GDS, whenever they focus on something the Trump administration has done, the attendance, in my experience, has typically been higher.”

In a time of intense political debate, whose increasingly polarized participants frequently dehumanize the other side’s people instead of challenging their policies, GDS instead hopes to improve on teaching students how to see humanity in ideologies they don’t agree with. 

With the growing phenomenon of people’s identities predicting their political beliefs, discussions can become more challenging when the humanity of others and policies become more intertwined.

Assistant Principal for School Life Quinn Killy said that in the past, “you could focus more on political issues, like bigger governments, open economies, and fair trade, and it wouldn’t necessarily be personal attacks that would make a person feel less than or more than, for their identity or because of their political beliefs. I think what’s really complicated now is those lines becoming blurred.”

GDS has an overwhelmingly liberal student body. In an Augur Bit poll on political party affiliations completed in March, 86 percent of the 138 poll participants self-identified as Democrats. Various administrators and students have expressed that at times, GDS can act like an echochamber, preventing community members from interacting with perspectives they aren’t accustomed to, with little room for conservative perspectives.

“I recognize that we don’t hear the other side because that’s not the space that GDS is, generally speaking,” SSC President Ella Farr said. “So I do hear more very liberal points of view.” 

“We [the GDS community] need to develop, when appropriate, the skill to talk across our differences and figure out how to educate one another, and see each other’s humanity and not jump right to a sort of sense of cancel culture,” Gibson said, “and so how do you create space for conservative voice if that conservative voice becomes aligned with something that shuts down someone’s humanity and right to exist? I don’t have an answer.” 

The complexities of uplifting conservative voices at GDS was seen last fall in an incident with a club. The leaders of the club said it was associated with the national organization Turning Point USA, when the school said it was not affiliated. TPUSA’s connections to alt-right, extremist perspectives caused controversy among a portion of the student body. Some students’ frustration stemmed from bigoted statements made by the national organization’s members. The club is not currently active for the 2020-21 school year.

“I do believe that GDS has such a significantly high amount of liberal viewing individuals that it [the backlash] was bound to happen,” Buchwald said. “And I do believe that some of the outrage against it [the club] was reasonable and worth it.”

An email by Viraj Prakash ’20 inviting students to TPUSA’s first club meeting. Initially, GDS was listed as a chapter on TPUSA’s website, but it was later taken down at the administration’s request.

Incidents like the TPUSA controversy reveal a sentiment among students that GDS needs to improve on protecting marginalized identities in the community. In the past, similar ideas have surfaced after bigoted actions occured in the high school in the form of etchings of a swastika (2018) and the n-word on school property, causing a sense of insecurity for some students.

“I think a lot of people might take actions or say things that they don’t intend to be hateful and can be perceived that way,” Killy said, regarding how hateful actions occur at GDS. “It shouldn’t be a surprise to you when you come to GDS, that we have a mission. So you’d think everybody would be aware of that, but maybe that’s not always the case.”

GDS isn’t the only school facing occurrences of hate symbols and words. In educational institutions across the country, hate-related incidents have been on the rise since the 2016 election. Media commenters have dubbed the simultaneous ascension of Donald Trump to political office and the rise in reported hate crimes the “Trump Effect,” in which his nomination has been hypothesized to validate and embolden perpetrators to commit hate-crimes.

“[Hate] is very largely associated with power, and what people feel and feed off of when they feel power over anything and anybody,” Director of Diversity and Inclusion Marlo Thomas said. “When folks value power more than they value humanity, it is what has lended itself to an unfortunate history of self interest versus communal interest.” 

Sparked by by discussion about what being Black at GDS entails, GDS’ leaders have emphasized putting greater consideration on anti-racist ideals at the school to combat discrimination within the institution. Measures included are the reevaluation of curriculum, a third party audit of the school and listening to student perspectives about how the institution can improve.

GDS administrators have said that the school is working to develop students’ ability to bridge differences and help students cultivate their individual perspectives through critical thinking. GDS has provided students in the last few years with the opportunity to stay engaged with political affairs, including live viewings of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and the Trump impeachment proceedings.

GDS community members at a March for Our Lives protest in D.C. Source: GDS Facebook page

GDS has also been providing new opportunities to engage with perspectives students would otherwise not come into contact with at the school. A few years ago, Gibson, Thomas and Shaw visited the “Can We?” Project at Waynflete College in Casco, Maine that brings together students from different schools across the state’s rural and urban areas to learn from each other about democracy through disagreement, discourse and collaboration. GDS has recently received a grant from the Clark Foundation to implement a similar program at GDS, in the hopes of increasing GDS students’ ability to engage with people in the D.C. area who have different perspectives from theirs. 

“We have to continue on to create the spaces for educational democracy, spaces that you all are deserving of, in order to cultivate that while you’re developing,” Thomas said. “Your skill set is rooted and grounded in the identity of each and every one of you, because your identity brings with you your experience, your worldview, and how you’re even informed about these topics.” 

By knowing how to use GDS’ values to identify and root out bigotry within the institution and creating more spaces for positive political discourse, Thomas believes students will center their skill sets and beliefs in their identities. 

“So while I have my hopes around what I hope the election outcomes are, what I know is that I don’t control that,” Thomas said. “What I want us to do as a school community to know is that our work will continue to be rooted and grounded in our values, no matter what the outcome is.”