On June 10 during Concord Academy’s Centennial Celebration, CA hosted one of several Centennial Speaker Series conversations, “Making Change: Leaders Discuss Empowering Communities and Social Progress,” in the Performing Arts Center. Lara Jordan James ’80 moderated this wide-ranging exchange about social progress through the lenses of education, culture, policy, and politics.

The panelists, some working toward change within government, others critiquing existing systems and structures, all attributed their motivations for action to deep, personal roots. James, chief marketing and communications officer for the nonprofit educational organization Facing History & Ourselves, traced her desire to make a difference back to her first exposure to electoral politics as a student representative to CA’s Board of Trustees.

Tremaine Wright ’90, chairwoman of the New York State Cannabis Control Board and a former member of the New York State Assembly, said she got her start in student government in elementary school and took her first public stand—defying gender expectations by refusing to learn typing—in 6th grade. She later spent 14 years on a community board, an eye-opening experience for her in the lead-up to this era of hyperpartisanship and incivility. Wright gave an example of a combative standoff between renters and small homeowners looking to build generational wealth, and the labels each group affixed to the other, though their interests weren’t mutually exclusive. “Much of the civility that’s necessary for us to actually govern and to come to collective agreements is lost in this moment,” she said. “I’m not saying that because I don’t think government works. I do think government works, but I think our approach has to be about collaboration.”

Family and identity influenced others to become change-makers. “It wasn’t a question of whether I would go into public service, just when and how,” said Dave Cavell ’02, a lawyer and public servant, currently special assistant to the president and director of speechwriting for Vice President Kamala Harris. He began his career in politics working for Devall Patrick’s gubernatorial campaign in Massachusetts before becoming a speechwriter for President Barack Obama. Explaining how he had followed in his parents’ footsteps, he joked that his mother’s choice for bedtime stories had been a book called “Progressive Jewish Feminism.” 

Cavell argued against hopelessness in recognition of real, if incremental, change, citing recent federal investments in climate and infrastructure and advice Obama offered his staff: that “better is good.” Throughout American history, Cavell said, “there have been movements for progress at the same time that there have been movements against progress; there have been people trying to expand rights and freedoms at the same time that there have been people trying to take them away.” The work for cultural and political change might not have yielded “as much progress as one might hope,” he said, but it’s “certainly meaningful progress.”

Activist and documentary filmmaker Catherine Gund ’83 said that, although she had come out as queer at a younger age, the CA environment had a profound impact on her. “My memory of coming to Concord Academy was like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when it goes from black and white to color,” she said, remarking on the “artistic and political and thoughtful and beautiful” people she met at CA. Later Gund spent years engaging in civil disobedience in Washington, D.C., during the AIDS crisis. She also organized with ActUp NY, and started a gay and lesbian activist-arts collective, DIVA (Damned Interfering Video Artists) TV. Her nonprofit social impact and film production company Aubin Pictures aims to illuminate change by creating justice-driven documentary films. “To me, as [director] Ava DuVernay said in one of my films, ‘Art and justice are the same thing,’” Gund said. “They’re about looking at something that doesn’t exist—abolition or a blank page—and imagining something that can be there, and then working to make it so.”

When the conversation moved on to the role bystander documentation has played in the Black Lives Matter movement and the cultural attack on critical race theory, Gund circled back to Wright’s earlier comment: that we need ways of working together. “What we need is to figure out ways to show that, to tell that, to inspire people to vote, to get people to understand complexity, to get people to talk to each other,” Gund said.

Rounding up the dialogue, James announced that Facing History & Ourselves had just released a curriculum about Emmett Till. “This is the work of every generation,” she said. While she hoped her organization might one day no longer be necessary, she said, “We probably won’t finish our work, because unfortunately in each generation, there are people who will be operating against us, so we need to keep going and … have students watching voting in every generation, and seeing these films, and working in government in every generation.”

Watch the program recording »

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