17th Annual Bissell Grogan Symposium

17th Annual Bissell Grogan Speaker Series
Resilience in the Time of Change
This year’s speaker series explores the concept of resilience during challenging times through the lenses of race and social justice, climate and the environment, and how the arts and creativity have managed to pivot and thrive. “In the upcoming months, our speakers will share topics designed to make you think critically about how your individual actions can help have a positive impact on the world in which we live,” said Symposium namesake Kennie Grogan ’76. “As a school that develops lifelong learners who are informed, engaged, and ethical citizens, we hope you find the entire symposium inspiring and that you will feel empowered to live out our mission.”

Social Justice, Race, and Resilience
Carolyn Chou, Executive Director of the Asian American Resource Workshop

Carolyn Chou advocates tirelessly for the Pan-Asian communities in Greater Boston as Executive Director of The Asian American Resource Workshop (AARW), a member-led organization committed to building grassroots power through political education, creative expression, and issue-based and neighborhood organizing. The rise of anti-Asian violence during the pandemic has shown a real need for education, change, and action. So how can we better understand the issues impacting Asian American communities and work together to make sure that those most impacted are at the center of our efforts?

She shared with students the idea that racism, and oppression in general, functions at many levels. On an ideological or cultural level, it makes up one’s belief system – one that is maintained at an institutional level by laws and public policy. At an interpersonal level, the idea that one group is better than another becomes internalized. Challenging students she asks, “How do we unlearn what is internalized?”

She shared three key lessons as well as a tree analogy to acknowledge the work ahead. “If the roots of the tree are the systems, then the branches and leaves reflect how they show up. We know we need to change the systems, but we also need to know that they show up differently across marginalized groups.” She also reminded students that there are many ways to get involved. “Volunteer with a nonprofit or become an intern at a grassroots organization. Knocking on doors and talking to people in their homes helps to ground this work,” she says.

Strategies for Climate Resiliency in our Municipalities
Caleb Stratton, Chief Resilience Officer, City on Hoboken

We welcomed keynote speaker Caleb Stratton to our Speaker Series to share how he addresses the climate crisis every day in his work and to give students insight into managing uncertainty and finding hope, even as we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Often asked what a chief resilience officer does day to day, Stratton says it is a role that emerged from the Rockefeller Foundation immediately after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, one that organizes collective efforts and finances around climate related events. Working with a team of public and private stakeholders, including architects, web designers, meeting moderators, environmental specialists, and lawyers, Stratton identifies shocks and stressors in the system daily. “There are so many opportunities for resiliency and overcoming challenges in this role,” he said. “And the pandemic really shifted the dynamic of the work environment. Adaptation is a key tenet of resiliency.” 

During the Q&A session, we asked if Stratton had any advice for students interested in advocating for environmental change. He stressed the importance of getting involved with organizations at the city level that encourage teen participation. Community Emergency Response Team was one such example. “When students look to local government for ideas that can grow into national solutions, it’s a way for them to have a real impact,” he said. When asked how far we have come in the past decade, Stratton’s response was hopeful. “Hoboken is ten years ahead of the curve, but Boston is catching up! The city of Boston has a CRO on board and they are focused on these same issues and practices. I’m very optimistic for the future.” 

The Resiliency of the Human Spirit Experience Through Poetry
Liza Zayas (Luna del Flor), Spoken Word Poet

Vibrant poet Liza Zayas joined us on campus to inspire and encourage our students to delve into their inner writer and appreciate the creativity and honesty that unlocks when they do. Zayas began writing at an early age. “In writing, there is release,” she said. “You are struck by inspiration, and you must write it down!” What began as simplistic rhymes and songwriting later turned into poetry inspired by her Puerto Rican roots, life’s challenges, and her quest for justice and equity. “It’s my walk and my talk.”

Zayas treated the audience to a reading of three commissioned works, including Huntress, a poem commissioned for International Women’s Day and dedicated to her grandmother. She followed that with a reading of Descendants of Genocidal Colonization, written for an Afro-Latinx event and celebrating the cultures of both Latin America and Africa while also addressing the prejudice of colorism. She also shared a personal piece entitled You are Real, written to give voice to the experience of depression. “We often feel like we must be masked and hide our pain,” she explained. “We aren’t trained to hold one another in that space and simply ask, How can I help?” In a powerful closing moment, Zayas had the audience repeat her three favorite assertions: I am powerful. We are united. We are never alone.

The Role of the Written Word in Challenging Times
Ross Gay, Author and Poet

Author and poet Ross Gay closed out our Speaker Series with a beautiful reading of We Kin, an essay from his book Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, that he read aloud for the very first time with our students. He describes his book as “a sustained meditation on that which goes away—loved ones, the seasons, the earth as we know it—that tries to find solace and resilience in the processes of the garden and the orchard. These are poems that study the wisdom of the garden and orchard, those places where all—death, sorrow, loss—is converted into what might, with patience, nourish us.”

While he admits to not having a firm daily writing process, Gay did share the success he had when working on his 2019 anthology, The Book of Delights. “My natural inclination is to get consumed by my work. But for this project, I decided I would write for 30 minutes a day for one year. It was the first time I had a real routine,” he said. The result was “a spirited collection of short lyric essays...reminding us of the purpose and pleasure of praising, extolling, and celebrating ordinary wonders.” (Algonquin Books, February 2019)
Before closing, Gay treated students to a reading of one of his earlier poems, To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian. It was a wonderful way to wrap up our Speaker Series for the year.
As an inclusive private school community, Brimmer welcomes students who will increase the diversity of our school. We do not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, sex, gender, gender identity and expression, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, or any other characteristic protected from discrimination under state or federal law, in the administration of our educational policies, admissions practices, financial aid decisions, and athletic and other school-administered programs.