Thursday, June 15, 2017

An Open Letter to Students Who are Tackling Racism

A letter written by me to our high school drama students in response to their incredible performance of Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird. I am posting it here to spread the great news about the impact engaged students have on the world. It is our responsibility to foster a culture in schools where ideas turn into action. Kudos to teacher-extraordinaire Lori Thompson for her direction of this production and her remarkable leadership helping all of us make meaning through our struggles. This letter was given to each member of the cast and production team.
The Dream is Now, Detroit. By Nick Gregory

You are an all-star.

I figured since a few of you have been on the receiving end of my high-fives in the hallway or praise in my classroom, you should know why I am so fired up about your role in the FHS performance of, To Kill a Mockingbird.

I am writing this letter to you because you pulled something off that some people spend a lifetime trying to do; you significantly moved the needle toward progress. I do not say that lightly.

Working for progress is tedious work and it tests our patience.

The fight for progress can make us feel isolated. Striving to get to a better place can be lonely.

A true commitment to progress makes us vulnerable as we reflect on our own imperfections and flaws.

The process of making progress can be discouraging at times.
Voice of Hope, Detroit. By Nick Gregory 
Your performance and the honesty with which you delivered it brought all of the above truths about progress to light. You revealed the complicated layers that make confronting bigotry and racism challenging. All aspects of the evening - the acting, the character development, the video montages, the set and direction, the Q & A - it came together remarkably. You reached hundreds of people directly from the theatre alone. Add to that your interactions with guests, in Flint, with your families and among your peers and the scale of your influence expands dramatically. More importantly, you will continue to fight for good ideas and so will many of the people who shared this learning experience with you.

Never underestimate the power of ideas and our capacity to evolve as human beings.

Your effort, focused study and the exhausting rehearsal that went into authentically delivering To Kill a Mockingbird demonstrates respect for your audience and your belief in something bigger than the “show” itself. I admire your dedication. Truths about hate and love that have existed for more than the eighty years since the story was set, came to life in the theatre Saturday night.   

You did that. You helped people think and feel the tough stuff. Your work creating positive change in our world is only beginning and that excites me.
A few other ideas came to mind in the days since I enjoyed your performance.


Judge Not, Detroit. By Nick Gregory
Putting yourself out there to be a part of a team is a risk. Collectively, you got to a deeper level of understanding by opening yourself up to learning from new experiences and difficult conversations. It is inspiring to me and makes me want to keep reaching for more.


We can never have too many reminders about the importance of “walking in another’s flip-flops” and opening our hearts and minds to the experiences of others. Empathy is a function of love and there’s no such thing as a surplus of love. You reminded me that empathy is greater than a set of actions or deeds. Empathy can be taught and modeled.  As a teacher and a dad, that’s a reminder I appreciate. Thank you.


We have the power to change. Every person, regardless of age or background, is capable of change and forgiveness.

When I was in college, my uncle referred to a good friend of mine as a “Sand-N-word”  and it shook me up. My friend is Indian and has dark skin. My uncle was looking through some spring break photos I brought to a family gathering and he spewed his hate so casually that it caught me off-guard. He said it as though he was describing an obvious feature like his jet black hair or his goofy smile and I remember feeling helpless. My uncle’s bigoted slur hung in the air the entire day. I struggled for a long time with the fact that I never spoke up back then. I don’t remember exactly, but I am sure I was weary of creating tension with someone I loved.

At that time, I was not willing to go there.

I told myself for a long time that my uncle was just set in his ways and he was still a good guy (which is true). I questioned why he volunteered his hate so easily when it was not even solicited. It’s not like there was a heated discussion or a relevant topic that at least provided some context for his toxic attitude. Years later, the stench of his insulting remark has mostly evaporated, but traces of it still hang around in my mind. I began challenging myself to think about things like, how do we unlearn hate? I never wanted to feel helpless about speaking up again.     

Fast forward seven years and I had fallen in love with Beata, now my wife of eleven years. Beata is a first-generation Iranian-American whose parents immigrated to the United States in 1978. Like my college friend, my wife has dark skin, dark hair and her ethnic features are striking. By the time we got married, I decided that the discomfort my uncle might feel around my wife’s family with their accents and cultural customs was his burden, not mine.

Horrible slurs and insults like the one I heard years prior would never happen again in my presence. At first, I was not sure if my uncle changed or if he just toned down his rhetoric around me. Today, I believe that he has changed. He thinks differently than he did a decade ago.  

As I have fallen more in love with my wife and her beautiful family (they’re now my family too), I appreciate how their unique life experiences as US immigrants have influenced Beata. My in-laws have opened my eyes to an American Dream that I never had to contemplate growing up. They have also opened my eyes to valuable experiences that have shaped their view of our nation’s struggles. When we gave birth to our own children, I began re-thinking my own ideas about love and hate; bigotry and inclusion. I guess you could say that like my uncle, my ideas are evolving.

What has changed most for me is that I no longer feel that the racism others have learned is their burden alone. The hate and baggage others carry is my burden too. It is also your burden.
Racism and prejudice are rooted in sins that our nation has been living with for centuries and acknowledging that truth is a critical first step. This hatred cannot be denied, nor can it be justified. As we have learned, silence in the face of hate is support. Sometimes the bigotry is softly disguised as indifference, but it is still wrong. We know that prejudice can be  expressed in both subtle and overt ways. Neither are acceptable. I am learning though that there is such a thing as a “recovering racist” and that people can change. People do change. We learn how to change - some slower than others - but we learn with experiences and we learn with practice.

Your performance was a testament to that practice. It takes practice. The work does not end with one act or an epiphany. Commitment to helping others doesn’t really end,  it just changes as we grow. You reminded me of that truth. Thank you.

You appear to have examined so much of this long before many adults do and I am grateful. It helps me remain optimistic. Hopefully your feelings about diversity and tackling our differences by listening with open hearts is reflective of your generation. We, the adults, need your help. I got to witness your leadership on stage and in the conversation that followed.

One Step at a Time - Building Bridges, Detroit. By N Gregory
Keep this conversation going.

The good ideas will always be worth fighting for, even when all of the usual indicators might say those good ideas are losing. The ideas only lose when people give up. You put on display a favorite quote of mine: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” (Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt and I believe the origin is from a Chinese proverb).

You reminded me Saturday night that it is important for me to keep my candle lit, especially when the nasty winds of hatred are swirling all around us. I am committed to contributing to “going there” to “get there.”

I am inspired that you are elevating your voices and providing the light we need so badly in our nation right now.

Grateful. Proud. Fired up.


Mr. Gregory   

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