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Courage and Community: A Valentine’s Day Reflection

I recently had lunch with another school head from the neighborhood, who was asking me about managing fear following the terrible shooting that occurred two weeks ago today near the school.

I talked to her about my own fear – as a private individual who both works and lives in Edgewater, am I afraid, and how do I think about my own personal safety? I talked about the ways in which I am using math and statistics to understand how very rare such shootings are, despite them feeling very close and immediate. I talked about how I’m talking to friends, family, and a mental health expert about my own state of mind.

But then I talked to her about how I’m thinking about the shooting as the head of a Quaker school. There is a Quaker idea of a “leading” which is a strong values or faith-based prompt. The clear leading I have had since the shooting is that I will not allow the school to model fear of the many black and brown high school kids who we share the neighborhood with. Why is this important? First and most essentially because Quakers believe that every human being has “that of God” in them. Each person we pass on the street has a unique gift to give the world. And we owe it to them and ourselves to recognize this in them and react to them with curiosity about who they truly are, not stereotypes or fear.

But there are other, larger, equally crucial reasons why I feel so strongly that we should not model fear, and these are related to our commitments to the Quaker values of community and peace. Of all the human emotions, I firmly believe that fear has the capacity to be most destructive to all we hold dear. When we fear, we close ourselves in from others. Fear kills curiosity and replaces it with avoidance. Fear allows us to “other” people we don’t know. When we fear the stranger, it erodes the casual ties that bind communities together. If we fear, we don’t greet our neighbors, stay out on our porches or gardens, ask to pet each other’s dogs. Community thrives when we put aside our fears and embrace connection instead.

But even more, at its extremes, fear justifies violence and prevents peace. When I think about situations of intractable violence in the world right now, from Gaza to Chicago, I see violence that is rooted in fear. I see people acting out to hurt and kill others because they are afraid for themselves and assume violent intent on the part of the other side. When people are afraid of being hurt, they lash out, and feel they are righteous in doing so.

Which brings me to courage. The word “courage” begins with “cour,” the French word for heart. On this Valentine’s Day, when we are thinking about the heart, I am remembering that not all love ends happily ever after. When we love, we open our hearts to the possibility of hurt. We open our hearts in love and also in courage, accepting the risk of heartbreak because we need to love. This is true of love and courage in community as well. It takes courage to welcome the stranger, to give the benefit of the doubt to someone we don’t know. To live in a better world, first we put aside our fear. We open our hearts a bit. And in that comes a little risk. But just as in romantic love, the risk is worth it.

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Karen Carney

is the head of school. Karen’s career demonstrates a rich and diverse set of skills: project oversight, curriculum development, educator training and mentoring, and classroom instruction. Prior to coming to Chicago Friends School, she worked as a senior specialist in science curriculum for American Institutes for Research. Before this, she oversaw educational programming at the Adler Planetarium, first as its director of education and then as associate vice president for visitor experience and learning. She has also worked in instruction and teacher development at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Learning Sciences Research Institute and has authored more than 20 scholarly papers, book chapters, and conference presentations.

Karen is an active, dedicated Friend (Quaker) and has held various leadership positions at the Evanston Friends Meeting. She enjoys baking, cooking, and painting and is a member of the Playmation improv comedy team.