Why is Colum McCann coming to speak at Waynflete?

Many of you have already noted with great excitement that Colum McCann, the widely read and highly acclaimed Irish author of six novels and three collections of stories, is coming to speak at Waynflete during the evening of February 6, and again to an Upper School assembly on February 7. Not surprisingly, given his stature as a writer, the public event on the 6th is already sold out.

While Waynflete’s interest in hosting such an important writer would seem self-evident, you may be wondering why Mr. McCann is interested in coming to Waynflete, particularly since his public appearances are rare these days. It turns out that he has another mission in life besides creating great art. He is a co-founder and president of Narrative 4, an organization dedicated to equipping tomorrow’s leaders “to use their stories to build empathy, shatter stereotypes, break down barriers, and—ultimately—make the world a better place.” The Narrative 4 motto is “Fearless hope through radical empathy.” Check out the video on the Narrative 4 web page describing their signature program, “the story exchange” (linked here).

Mr. McCann was inspired to speak at Waynflete after he learned of the school’s ongoing efforts—much of it student-led—to cultivate the mindset and skill set necessary to engage in productive dialogue. Dialogue has long been part of Waynflete’s approach to learning, in and out of the classroom. In recent years, the school has taken its efforts into the broader community in the form of the New England Youth Identity Summit (NEYIS), which will take place for the fourth year in a row in early April, and the pilot year of The “Can We?” Project, an experiment in political dialogue involving students from Waynflete and six public high schools. Mr. McCann learned about those initiatives last spring when we contacted Narrative 4 about bringing the story exchange to Waynflete.

Upper School advisors started the academic year with a Narrative 4 story exchange. In January, the Narrative 4 team will be at Waynflete to train students and faculty to run a story exchange for the entire Upper School during special programming on February 7, the day after Mr. McCann’s public appearance. The programming that day is intended to build community by cultivating empathy through the story exchange and to give all Upper School students an experience in the spirit of the Youth Identity Summit, which has become a signature program for the school. Mr. McCann will be back in the theater the morning of February 7 to speak to Upper School students and kick off the day.

Waynflete’s work in this area is driven by our mission, which calls on us to “encourage (in our students) their responsible and caring participation in the world.” This core tenet describes a notion of citizenship that touches every aspect of our curriculum, programs, and culture. As Narrative 4 envisions, such a notion of citizenship begins with empathy, without which one is unlikely to be either responsible or caring. Our efforts to promote this conception of citizenship outside of Waynflete were recognized three years ago by the Edward E. Ford Foundation with a grant to support NEYIS.

Last spring, in recognition of the success of NEYIS and the pilot year of the “Can We?” Project, the foundation invited Waynflete to submit a preliminary proposal to the foundation’s Leadership Grant Program. The most prestigious award available to independent schools, the E.E. Ford Leadership Grant Program supports initiatives that:

  • promise a significant impact on the practice and thinking in the independent school community throughout the country;
  • are innovative and replicable;
  • have a “ripple” effect where the benefits of the successful pursuit of an idea will not be limited to a single school;
  • encourage bold, new ideas that address challenges faced by independent schools;
  • represent original thinking and can conceivably catalyze change;
  • inspire creative problem-solving and incubate novel approaches.

In response to this invitation, Waynflete submitted a preliminary proposal to establish a center for civic engagement. Matching the foundation’s criteria and embodying the school’s mission objective to cultivate responsible and caring citizenship, a new center would benefit: 1) our students, by coalescing current efforts to cultivate habits of positive civic engagement and a sense of life purpose; 2) the public, by deepening and expanding our community outreach initiatives; 3) the school, by reinforcing core values through extending them externally; and 4) other schools, by providing a replicable model.

In late November, we received the exciting news that we had been invited to submit a full proposal for the Leadership Grant.

Colum McCann may well have chosen Waynflete for a rare public appearance because he senses that we may become a fellow traveler in the quest to spread human connection as a healing balm potent enough to mend tearing social fabric and, in so doing, make the world a better place. He just may be right.