NYC Trip Sparks Student Action Back in Wolfeboro

NYC Trip Sparks Student Action Back in Wolfeboro
Kara McDuffee

Twelve students and two faculty members traveled by bus to New York City to explore culture as part of the Interim Studies period at the end of February. Six days later, they returned to campus with far more than memories of their experiences in the well-known urban landscape. They carried lessons that transcended location, and lingering questions they wanted to continue exploring at Brewster.

The Interim Studies experience, titled “Culture and Privilege in NYC,” tasked students with exploring the intersection of culture and the ways that access to it is granted or denied in our society. Their itinerary was packed with notable museums and theater, including the Met and the Richard Rogers Theater on Broadway, but they also explored expressions of culture that are lesser known, such as free-access theater spaces that showcase underrepresented voices. Stops included the Stonewall Memorial, the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Historical Society, SoHo galleries, and the Artechouse. Throughout their experiences, they considered the question: “Whose story is being told, and whose story is being left out?”

“New York City has a very rich and diverse history, and you have hundreds of years of people and stories that have been forgotten,” said Steven Davis, one of the faculty on the trip. “We talked through questions like, ‘What forces have shaped this urban landscape and why?’ It helped students see not only what specific forces mold an environment, but who ends up getting left out of the conversation and how that happens.”

When discussing this central question, one term resurfaced throughout the trip: “eminent domain.”

“This trip was the first time I heard the term eminent domain, and it became a recurring political phenomenon that was constantly being brought up,” said Elisha-Grace King ’23, one of the student participants. “We learned about how the government can come in and take private land from you for ‘public use.’ Then, the government can choose how much it’s worth. We learned  how that’s been used as a tool of political and racial oppression throughout history.”

The most notable example of eminent domain for Elisha-Grace came during their tour of Central Park. The group walked around the site of Seneca Village, which was once home to the largest community of freed Black property owners in the pre-Civil War era. However, when the city wanted to develop the park, they invoked eminent domain, forcing the community to give up their land with little compensation.

As the students explored more examples of eminent domain throughout the city, they expressed the desire to make T-shirts with “Eminent Domain” displayed boldly on the front. This desire to shine a light on a concept that students had just learned about—and were disturbed by—speaks to the power their Interim Studies conversations had on their understanding not only of culture, but land ownership.

“Understanding the people who were there before you, and what they did for the land that you’re living on now, might bring a purpose to what you do for that land,” said Elisha-Grace. 

It’s not the first time Elisha-Grace has considered the importance of the land's cultural roots. For an English project her sophomore year, she designed (and won) a class awareness project by researching the indigenous people in Wolfeboro. She also respects the connection between a land’s history and environmentalism. “Understanding the land that you’re on and having a connection to it ties into environmentalism,” she said. “Everything ties into everything.”

The New York City trip inspired these connections even more for Elisha-Grace and for all the students. Just as they learned to look at their environment more critically in New York City, they began to look more critically at the history and untold stories of the land Brewster is on. 

“It was inspiring to listen to them make that connection between instances of eminent domain in New York and how that might apply at Brewster Academy,” Mr. Davis said. “In our debrief of the trip, several students brought up the history of the land of boarding schools and what that means.”

These questions didn’t merely prompt good conversation—they prompted real action. Sparked by the group’s inquiry, a group of Brewster faculty, staff, and students is collaborating to acknowledge the history of the land our campus occupies. They are researching and developing a land acknowledgement statement with the goal of including it on Brewster's website. Faculty are also considering how to develop more curriculum that incorporates the culture and stories of indigenous peoples who called Wolfeboro home.

Through these actions, Brewster might be able to answer two of the central questions of the NYC trip: Whose stories are being left out of the American narrative, and how do we bring them to life again?

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