Partisan Times

Director Vince Durnan talks division in our community, country, and beyond, and more importantly, how we might bridge those gaps going forward.
Now that an admirable unity of purpose has generated such meaningful progress on the vaccination front, the substantial challenge of seeing value in forming common sense consensus returns. But not to bury the lead — let me report that our second shot completion total of faculty and staff crested 200 this week, revealing an uptake, as the experts say, of what appears to be well over 90% of us working at USN — with all the associated benefits for the immediate and the wider community.

And let me share further that while we’ve missed seeing 10-15% of our students this week as a result of vacation-based self-quarantine (per CDC guidance), at least as I type, we’ve seen no Spring Break spike. The combination of what we all decided to do and not to do, to sacrifice and not to sacrifice, appears in the aggregate to have worked and landed us on a path to now actively embrace the sprint through spring together. Not sure the return on investment for all our worrying is high, but maybe the hand-wringing in advance helped.

What’s weighing heavily on me, and maybe you too, right now is the intense partisanship on display in the public sphere. When wearing a mask during a pandemic reads in many quarters as a political statement, when people fiercely assert their right not to be vaccinated, not connected to actual inequities experienced but as a basic freedom, and when “following the science” is invoked by various leaders to reach diametrically different conclusions, it’s hard not to be frustrated.

Then beyond COVID-19, as herd immunity still builds by the day, we find new reasons to polarize. Witness our state legislature racing to regulate a transgender problem in school sports that from all accounts does not exist. That same group seems poised to extend permitless carry rights for gun owners (invoking the example of my original home state, Vermont, in a way I never thought I’d see) as their federal counterparts conversely consider ways to regulate ownership and use related to the same Constitutional right. And it’s all happening in the aftermath of tragic mass shootings.

We at school are left to manage the fallout of this collective incapacity to agree. We get generally back to fundamentals, focusing on basic safety, on civic engagement, on an unwavering commitment for each member in the USN community to feel welcome bringing their full self to campus, living out our unambiguous non-discrimination policy. The same holds true when we underscore our promise to help teach young people to think for themselves, actually. And to my continuing vexation, even these basic aims can be characterized as partisan—however much we see them as an expression of our simple aspiration to be an outstanding K-12 program, one worthy of the effort it takes to keep us thriving here.

To the rescue come efforts at bridging those divides. Just recently, three such examples popped up, like green shoots of optimism. Have you seen the work of Millions of Conversations, founded by hotshot VU grad and former taekwondo instructor here Samar Ali, an initiative that includes active participation from some USN HS students, and their #PledgeToListen? And might you have seen the Giveback Day conversation between Samar and USN dad Gray Sasser about the Project on Unity and Democracy launching across the street at Vanderbilt? Then, parent of alums and former Board member Jon Shayne ’80 introduced me to (by Zoom) PBS NewsHour reporter Paul Solman, who’s getting an American Exchange Project started—to connect students from different regions and strata of the country.

The emergence of this work says something about the depth of the challenge at hand, and it also may mark a turning point of sorts in terms of progress, with people stepping forward to change the momentum. Reminds me of the quote attributed to Dr. King that “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” Let’s be busy listening to one another, acknowledging the difference in lived experiences across families at USN, remembering why we’re here, and accepting the challenges of this time, together.

Recalling the schism in our school community last summer about the basic question of even being here in person, I take heart in the journey we’ve made toward agreeing that we can do this if we’re thoughtful, trusting, and responsible enough. Remember August? Maybe there’s a lesson worth reflection on a larger scale. At least that’s what’s rattling around for me these days.

Glad to be back and glad to be headed forward,
Vince Durnan

P.S. I know I said these missives would be less frequent, but going cold turkey is hard.

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