Through the Arts, Students Raise Awareness and Funds to Combat Systemic Racism

Distraught by the number of Black lives lost at the hands of police officers and stories of racism in schools posted on social media, a group of Hotchkiss students decided to do something about it by putting their talents into action.

Twenty Hotchkiss students worked virtually over the summer with students from Loomis Chaffee, Phillips Exeter Academy, Kingswood Oxford School, Deerfield Academy, and Choate Rosemary Hall to create an interscholastic performance group, Renaissance Ensemble. Their first concert, “The Key to Change,” was a fundraiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)  Legal Defense & Education Fund (LDF) in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and was livestreamed on YouTube on Sunday, August 30. (Watch a full replay below.)

Benjamin Weiss ’21 helped spearhead the effort at Hotchkiss, along with Torrin Murray ’22. Together, Hotchkiss students worked collectively with more than 40 student actors, musicians, filmmakers, and visual artists to create a 40-minute-long virtual production.

“We wanted to do what we can to help raise awareness for the movement. The production raised $2,500 for the LDF, an organization that works to achieve racial justice through litigation, advocacy, and public education,” said Weiss.

But the production wasn’t just about raising money or awareness, he said. He hopes the production will encourage more student-driven action and demonstrate how the arts have the power to bring people together to enact change, even during a pandemic.

Along with the seven musical performances during the concert, students took the opportunity to speak directly to the topic of racial inequality. During the middle of the concert, student activists and leaders from the represented schools also spoke out on how their communities can and must change and on how each individual can become a better ally and change-maker. Renaissance Ensemble also implored viewers to visit student initiatives aimed toward education, such as BLISS (created by Hotchkiss students last spring), and read and sign school proposals with policies that all schools could adopt. 

Weiss hopes the production will draw a more engaged audience who are passionate about the BLM movement, interested in musical theatre and the arts as a vehicle of social change, and excited to see what current students from their schools or peer schools are doing to combat racism.

Aleema Kelly ’22, who spoke as one of the student leaders during the event, said, “I think that this effort was incredibly important given our current social climate, with the many different movements that are arising around Black Lives Matter. As I mentioned in the video, every act of support counts, and there is a lot that can be done, whether you are showing up at protests, drafting proposals to your community's politicians/school administrators, signing petitions, or making donations to the various causes that are truly helping to make a difference.” 

For Kelly the work is personal. “I have both witnessed and been on the receiving ends of a lot of hateful, discriminatory, and racist acts. I think that creating a society where everyone can authentically be themselves is really important, starting small in your own community or school and working to make the institutional and systemic change can have a great impact.”

Torrin Murray ’22 also stepped forward early on in the planning stages of the production. 

“The whole idea came about in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests spanning the United States and beyond in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Students from six different schools came together knowing that we had to find a way to show support for these movements,” she said. 

“One of the biggest parts of this project was emphasizing unity and bringing people together while we were physically separated by the coronavirus pandemic. The arts have always played a key role in strengthening communities during their most difficult times, and we felt it was our responsibility to use our shared passion for music and do our part to fight the racial injustices that exist all over this country. We hope that this concert was the first of many, and we will continue to use both the Hotchkiss and the wider New England prep school community to use our voices and help bring change where it is needed most.”

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