Alumni Association statement that makes no mention of racism sparks outrage, resignation

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On June 4, the Townsend Harris Alumni Association (THAA) published a letter concerning “the pain of our current times.” Afterwards, in over 300 comments posted to Facebook, alumni expressed their outrage at how the letter included no mention of the #blacklivesmatter movement, police brutality, or George Floyd, whose death has led to worldwide protests. By the next day, one member of the Board of Directors, 2002 alumnus Jesse Ash, resigned.

In its statement, THAA expressed that the association stands with those working for change during “moments of turmoil,” and offers to support Townsend Harris High School’s efforts to fulfill the Ephebic Oath. Near the end of the statement, the writers say “the Townsend Harris family has always striven for inclusion of all, but there is always room to improve.” 

Hours after the statement’s publication, two alumni created a form letter for others to email to THAA to denounce the statement. In addition to calling for a clear statement of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, the letter asks THAA to take specific actions to address the allegations raised by the #NotMyTownsend group. It also asks for an apology: “I urge you to take greater action than simply circulating this performative message, and apologize for the insensitive statement posted on Facebook and emailed to alumns this morning.”

Friday night, THAA released a second statement and offered an apology.

In an email to The Classic, 2016 alumnus Jason Lalljee, one of the writers of the form letter, wrote: “Neutrality, or in this case, the calculated omission of a stance, is dangerous. You [THAA] are communicating to Black students and alumni that their suffering is something you don’t need to take an explicit stand against, and in that way, you are contributing to it.”

The Classic reached out to over ten commenters from the Facebook post to elaborate on their thoughts.

2019 alumna Oluwafisayo Adeoye said, “I was really surprised to see something like this come out of the Alumni Association, a group that until today I had only positive associations with and was proud to be a part of.” 

“The THAA statement was worse than the generic statements made by out-of-touch brands and corporations this past week,” 2011 alumna Chelsey Pellot said. “This statement was the final nail in the coffin of ‘We don’t care about our Black alumni.’ It’s such a disgrace.”

2011 alumna Candace Burton said the statement reminded her of her experience as a student, where she said she felt there was little support for Black students to discuss their difficulties with the THHS environment. Ms. Burton said she wished the Alumni Association had “reached out to alums of color to see what we are going through, suggestions we have to make Townsend Harris more inclusive, and ideas we have to provide support to current students of color.”

In emails copied to The Classic on Friday, THAA Board Members discussed the backlash they faced from the community, noted communication issues with one another, and made mention of a second statement.

Jesse Ash, member of the THAA Board of Directors, resigned his position Friday morning. He included The Classic in his correspondence with other THAA members over the matter. In his email, he criticized the letter as coming from the Alumni Association without transparency to all board members and without clear authorship. “That is the problem that I mainly have here, that you and those in power are speaking on behalf of others without their consent,” he wrote.

Currently, Mr. Ash is considering withdrawing his resignation as he later acknowledged it was owing to a miscommunication with THAA Co-President Selina Lee. 

In a statement to The Classic, Mr. Ash wrote, “Our volunteer board at THAA had only the very best of intentions with providing a message of hope to our community, but in failing to properly address and condone the systemic violence and racism to communities of color we did not do justice to our Townsend Harris family, we failed them.

Like Mr. Ash, Facebook commenters discussed the authorship of the unsigned statement, with at least three commenters alleging it was written by THAA Co-President Craig Slutzkin. The Classic can only confirm 2006 alumna Kimberly Lo’s involvement. In one email written in response to Mr. Ash’s resignation and copied to The Classic, Ms. Lo wrote, “I certainly take responsibility [for] being a part of the initial group that approved the first statement but I strongly believe in a second one and believe in including voices of all board members.”

In a statement to The Classic, Ms. Lo wrote, “I won’t speak for anyone else but myself and I would like to state this not as a member of the board, but as a member of the THHS and greater community that I am listening, acknowledging missteps taken along the way, committing to continued education on the matter and striving to do better, and taking action in making positive changes. Black lives matter. Period.”

Other alumni also commented that they would’ve liked to see a more direct statement on how the Alumni Association was aiming to offer support to students of color at THHS, with many citing the #NotMyTownsend group’s recent allegations. 

“The #NotMyTownsend team is disappointed with the THAA…We choose to be active, vocal, and decisive even when it is difficult. While our leaders in the THAA accept complicity as bystanders, we will proclaim that Black lives matter,” the group wrote on their Instagram. 

Mr. Slutzkin, Ms. Lee, and Principal Brian Condon did not return requests for comment as of Friday night.

Update: THAA released a second statement on Friday night, offering an apology for the previous statement. In it, the Board of Directors commend the school community for sharing their “experiences, perspectives, insights, and resources.” It goes on to say, “We are actively listening and are processing. Thank you for holding us accountable.” The Board describes its choice not to mention the #blacklivesmatter movement was an expression of privilege and pledges to learn from this experience. Though it does not directly address the actions described in the form letter, the statement invites Black, Brown, and Latinx alumni to be part of the conversation that “address(es) the systemic shortcomings that continue to harm our community.”

This is a developing story, we will update with additional comments as we receive them. 

Additional reporting by Samantha Alzate, Nikki Ng, and Amanda Renzi