This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Something very special happened this past Friday. And I am not referring to the inauguration of our 45th President. I rediscovered my dormant activist in the company of 5-12 year olds. ‘Black Friday’ instead of a day for indignation or despair, turned into a day of healing and hope. I was part of a march (although much less a march, which connotes stridency, and more a promenade) involving a collaboration of three independent schools in the upper west side of Manhattan. The theme was not of denouncement (which had its place) but one of peace and kindness. It was in fact, a march representing the principles of the republic for which we stand.

Against the backdrop of a stern and damp grey day of intermittent rain, at least 300 young children, parents, teachers and school administrators, took to the streets in solidarity with a scintillating aura of joy and determination walking the circumference of 110th street until arriving at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. What was so elevating, was that as our new President so unpresidentially railed with an ominous sense of divisiveness and vitriol, was the innocence (from The Latin innocentia, meaning, not harming) of children and their sense of hope, as they proceeded through the rain swept streets with their placards and banners proclaiming peace, happiness and goodness for all on earth. Like heroes they were cheered by elder residents and neighborhood shop owners standing in doorways, and traffic cops giving them the thumbs up. I felt like I was witnessing the unveiling of new generation of social activists. I was.

At the church, in the hushed and solemn air of worship, the sacredness was punctuated not by defiance (there will be a time for that) but glissades of lovingness and civility. Song filled the majestic space, and the words of Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Peter, Paul and Mary flowed with the incandescence of moonlight. There was something both sacred and civic in what was happening. To take a line from Buffalo Springfield: “There’s something happening here” and that was the burgeoning of the civility, civicmindedness and critical thinking that will be required for this nation to stand up for what matters. No. It was not a march on Washington. Or a mass movement to end an unjust war. Or all the global marches that took place the following day. These were children, with their parents and teachers, showing up, luminous and alert, praising and acknowledging our shared principles and shared truths. This was more like the gestation of an awareness that at this moment in time we are all the children of Thomas Paine, and that this is how we learn the true responsibilities of citizenship.

The last time I was in this cathedral was on the eve of the first invasion of Iraq. It was eerie and laden with uncertainty. There was no sense of burgeoning ideals but the helplessness of not having choices. This time, the weight of anxiety was no less. But in the company of children, there was hope. Here there was song and the transformative power of a human gathering reminding me that with the energy of children, the efficacy of ideals and the urgency for decency and goodness– that we will overcome.

This is what democracy looks like.

About David Penberg

David Penberg is an urban and international educational leader. He has held leadership roles in non-profits, community-based organizations, independent, international and charter schools, and in higher education. He has a deep grounding in progressive education, the cross-cultural experience and leadership development. Dr. Penberg has a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He was a fellow in the Carey Leadership Program at Bank Street College (1982-84) and Klingenstein Fellow for International School Heads at Teachers College, Columbia University (2008). He was the founding director of the nationally recognized Liberty Partnerships Program at Bank Street College. Since then, Penberg has held posts as Head of Studies and Head of School in international schools in Mexico City and Barcelona. He was most recently the Head of School at Innovate Manhattan Charter School in the lower east side and is an adjunct at Pace University’s Teaching Fellows program. He abides by Auden's dictum "We were put on earth to make things."
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