National “Identity & Belonging” Project Fails in JNA

Filming confuses students, faculty; legality questioned


Rowan Wallin

Thompson sings “Lift Every Voice and Sing” which is commonly known as the Black national anthem. To Thompson’s right is the American flag, which is rarely on stage during assembly. Students were instructed to stand and direct their attention to the front, as if they were listening to the “Star Spangled Banner.” Students and faculty were filmed for a national project.

Rowan Wallin, Managing Editor

On May 12, students arrived at assembly in the Juliet Nelson Auditorium (JNA) wondering why Lora McManus-Graham, Chair of Equity and Instruction, had emailed some students and not others. 

One day before this assembly, McManus-Graham emailed BIPOC students to let them know that she had “​​reserved seats in the front of the JNA for you all. We invite you to sit in these seats, rather than with your advisors.” Upon reading this, Nam Truong ‘23 thought, “Who is Lora McManus-Graham?” Truong continued, “Race-based seating was outlawed during the Civil Rights Era. This email sounded like segregation to me.” 

According to the email, there would be “a special assembly centered around identity and belonging.” At the assembly, she explained the “MySpace” project would create virtual reality (VR) videos to convey a reality in which one had to “code-switch and navigate white-dominant culture.” 

McManus-Graham remarked, “It’s called ‘MySpace’ to be a pun on the old ‘MySpace’ which no one uses anymore, to my knowledge.” In fact, the “old ‘MySpace’” is currently functional, active, and trademarked. 

Additionally, McManus-Graham utilized a graphic during her presentation similar to a graphic called “the Diversity Wheel” copyrighted by Johns Hopkins University, using the same text as the copyrighted graphic but different colors and order of text. The use of this graphic is direct copyright infringement. 

McManus-Graham stated, “Usually, VR projects like this center trauma narratives. Our project is different and would contribute to our information and would act as a counter-balance or another perspective.” Ironically, this exercise created more harm than belonging for students. 

Altogether, the “MySpace” project filmed four scenes across Blake. First, Umut Gursel’s Algebra II class filmed a video in which Gursel spoke in Turkish while students sat blankly in confusion. Gursel declined to give a statement for this article. 

Carson Clark ‘25, a student in this particular class, expressed, “Most of my classmates were like ‘Why are we doing this?’ We asked and didn’t get a clear answer so we just went on with it.” McManus-Graham explained, “This was supposed to be an aspirational example of what might it be like if the world revolved around your norms or my norms rather than the norms of white-dominant culture.” 

However, this exercise didn’t need to use expensive cameras and the derailment of the Algebra II curriculum; students could have just as easily joined a Chinese class (included in Blake’s tuition) to experience non “white-dominant culture” norms. 

Moreover, fifth graders will be making a vision board to honor Kamala Harris. Affinity groups played UNO during lunch together. The assembly’s audience was filmed as they listened and stood for the Black national anthem. All of these four scenes were filmed by REM5, a Twin Cities-based company which creates educational VR content. 

During assembly, McManus-Graham described the project’s overall audience, “This will be shared nationally. This is bigger than us. This is bigger than Blake. This is bigger than us as individuals.” Anne Stavney, Head of School, added, “[McManus-Graham] has partnered with a number of people who are in the National Association of Independent Schools which is a national body.” However, in a later interview, McManus-Graham said, “Blake will have ownership of this video and will be used primarily internally for ourselves.” 

This ambivalence is extremely concerning. The 2021-22 Family Handbook addresses the use of images: “External – public relations/media, advertising, the website, online photo gallery, social media, etc.” for external communication on behalf of the school; however, the Family Handbook does not address the use of video recorded for REM5 or other outside organizations. 

Students started to ask questions about parental consent to filming. Stavney noted, “As a parent myself, I would want to know when my child is going to be in a film.” However, Stavney’s understanding is that faces are not to be used in the film.

To put it kindly, the project was not received well by the audience that day in the JNA. Several faculty members expressed confusion. Anil Chandiramani, English teacher, reflected, “I was definitely puzzled, I was trying to find out the purpose of this assembly.” 

McManus-Graham’s email was sent to any student whose VeraCross profile indicated that they were BIPOC, but not all BIPOC students were notified due to this technique of sending which only created division among students. In addition, the confidential LGBTQIA+ group was also asked to sit in the front rows, causing unease for these students and threatening their right to privacy. 

Elle Sovell ‘23, who identifies as a BIPOC but didn’t receive an email, stated, “I don’t know why they wouldn’t email me because I am a person of color. I was confused because everyone got emails and I didn’t.” Sovell was one of many students who questioned her belonging in the community. 

Two days prior, McManus-Graham consulted Student Diversity Leadership Council (SDLC) students for feedback on her project who warned her about many of the concerns students felt after assembly. Suzy Higuchi ‘23, SDLC member, explained, “We were like ‘Oh this seems like another one of those things where we’re making a show by putting all of the BIPOC in the front.’” 

Higuchi went on to say, “She told us that she consulted a lot of BIPOC adults while she was planning this all out and had originally planned for BIPOC students to sit normally with their advisories but after consulting other people, they brought up the idea to put BIPOC in the front. For [SDLC members], that explanation didn’t really reassure us because we still thought that the exercise felt exploitative.” 

McManus-Graham sent the assembly email after the SDLC meeting, where many members were left feeling uneasy. After hearing further feedback the morning of the assembly, McManus-Graham then rescinded her invitation to BIPOC students in the front row of the assembly. 

After McManus-Graham explained the project, filming began. Students and faculty were directed to stand and face the American flag (something the Blake community rarely does) to welcome Anisa Thompson ‘22 who would sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Thompson didn’t respond to interview inquiries. McManus-Graham said, “The way that VR works is that realistically beyond about three people deep from the camera, you won’t be able to distinguish faces.” McManus-Graham intended for BIPOC students to be in the front rows of the assembly to be most visible for the VR camera; however, all were welcomed in the end. Few moved toward the camera and a handful of students moved away. 

Clark, who had already been filmed in math class earlier in the day, walked out. He justified, “I stand for our national anthem which represents everyone, not one particular race when we have multiple races in school. It makes everyone uncomfortable to sing a song when it only represents one race.” 

Thompson had to sing twice due to impatient applause from the audience. When McManus-Graham announced that Thompson would sing a second time, the audience groaned and complained nearly unanimously. 

Following the assembly, most students and faculty were confused and displeased. William Connor ‘23 reflected, “If they wanted to do this, why wouldn’t they sing the Black national anthem at a sports game where we usually sing the national anthem?”

Many thought this activity was a sign of disrespect to America altogether. Truong explains, “I feel like [McManus-Graham’s] delivery was almost a tactic to catch all of us at a time where we can’t leave… We were sort of like hostages who had to act out a play.” 

Charlie Weyerhaeuser ‘23 agreed with Truong, “The national anthem isn’t discriminatory at all… It’s literally for everyone. So why did they have to turn it into a symbol of discrimination by singing an alternate version that was supposedly less ‘white-dominant’?” 

McManus-Graham explained her reasoning, stating, “We were trying to make people stop and think about how US-centric they are: Other countries, cultures, and groups have national anthems too.” 

In the end, McManus-Graham acknowledges that the project was poorly communicated to the community. McManus-Graham even hosted an open house on May 16 for students to voice their concerns or opinions on the matter. Three students attended this open house. Chad Woerner ‘22, one of these students, said, “[McManus-Graham] apologized for her miscommunication, but not for the actual idea of separating people by race through her email and the seating.” 

Stavney acknowledged the turmoil that this impactful exercise has created, “The main omission here was not thinking about what was the teaching and learning experience for our Blake students in the audience at that time.”

Despite the confusion, questions of consent, and the various copyright infringements, it seems the “MySpace” project is moving forward.