Sidwell Friends donors have fully funded an endowed faculty chair in African and African American Studies.
Sidwell Friends donors have fully funded an endowed faculty chair in African and African American Studies. The new chair ensures that a gifted teacher with deep expertise in African and African American Studies is always a member of the faculty and available to students, peers, and parents. Endowing faculty chairs and other positions is an uncommon move among independent schools, but it is a core component of Sidwell’s Equity, Justice, and Community (EJC) Strategic Action Plan. Now the goal of creating the new chair is a reality.
An advisory council co-led by DeDe and Dallas Lea P’22 P’25 and Simone and Wayne Frederick P’24 led the philanthropic charge. Many families answered the call with generous support, exceeding the goal of $1.2 million—families like Lesli, John and Jordan Mathewson ’24.
Lesli and John say: “We are excited about the prospects of a curriculum that reveals both the African and African American experience as part of the American story. Complete American history isn’t fully told if it excludes communities that are typically marginalized. This omission depletes an understanding and erodes the empathy muscle needed for future generations of leaders like Sidwell Friends students. They possess the wonderful power to change, shape, and influence tomorrow. They can’t change what they don’t know.”
Full funding of the chair has also enabled an inaugural holder to be selected. Dr. Jewell Debnam, who brings an impressive degree of experience, perspective, and commitment to the field was the selection committee’s overwhelming first choice. Jewell was a professor at Morgan State University before joining the Sidwell Friends faculty and has an accomplished scholarly record.
“Dr. Jewell Debnam is a tremendous leader for Sidwell Friends, and we are thrilled for the opportunities that students will have because of her work,” says Deborah Harmon and Robert Seder P’10, P’12 who helped make the chair possible. “We feel privileged to endow this Faculty Chair alongside other Sidwell families to advance the study of African and African American histories, arts, and cultures. This work is the foundation of building stronger civic leaders at home and abroad.”
Jewell will be collaborating with faculty and staff from all three divisions to support the development of curricula and programs relating to African and African American Studies. Of her field, she says: “African and African American Studies allows us to look at things we think we know from a different view, centering the Black experience. Studying history through a different lens means we can learn something new and perhaps change our perspective.”
Coming from the university setting and having taught in the Upper School, she is eager to understand what students in the Lower and Middle Schools are learning and to be a resource to colleagues there. To develop and implement new EJC initiatives, she will be working closely with Natalie Randolph ’98 and the EJC team. “The work ahead of us is about more than academics, and is something that will help shape activities outside the classroom as well.”
Hurley Doddy ’81, P’17, P’19, whose family also enthusiastically supported the chair, says: “Even well-educated Americans know surprisingly little about the history, geography, and cultures of the 54 countries in Africa. This is a key step to making sure Sidwell Friends graduates have a meaningful introduction to this important region of our world. When today’s Sidwell students reach the prime of their careers, they will be well-positioned in their understanding and appreciation of Africa’s history and significance.” On a personal note, he says: “This chair is particularly meaningful for my family as we have one of the longest histories at Sidwell Friends. My oldest sister started attending the School in 1964, when Washington DC was still segregated and Sidwell’s Upper School was all white, thereby making Cheryl one of the first Black SFS graduates in 1967.”
The new endowed chair is a boon not only to African and African American Studies at Sidwell Friends but to teaching and learning overall, helping to attract and retain the best faculty and EJC professionals. Endowed positions and programs also help Sidwell Friends provide increasing excellence without increasing tuition. The new chair is the third endowed position to be fully funded. The first was the Supervía Endowed Faculty Chair for Spanish and Latin American Studies in 2017 followed in 2020 by The Drezner Family Endowed Chair for Equity, Justice & Community. Funding for an Asian American Studies Chair is also underway.
“We are thrilled to see Sidwell Friends explore this kind of scholarship and continue demonstrating curriculum leadership amongst independent schools,” says Kimberly Johnson P’23, P’26 whose family also contributed to the African and African American Studies chair. “We enjoy giving to Sidwell Friends because we have seen what the School can do with the resources it has. The opportunities for bringing its tradition of excellence to students in a manner that expands their horizons and opens more avenues for thought leadership are truly endless.”