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Perspective | A letter from Durham about grieving and healing together

Dear friends and neighbors, 

Yesterday I saw the news about the 19 children and two teachers killed at an elementary school in Texas 20 minutes before going into our listening session with Durham educators to talk about mental health in our schools. I thought about the families experiencing unimaginable loss in that moment and I thought about the children, the parents and the educators and school staff across Durham who are experiencing the grief and fear that comes from witnessing violence in schools. I thought about the compounded grief and fear for Black families who witnessed targeted violence of white supremacy that killed 10 people in a New York supermarket just a week ago.

I sat in my car and cried.

I have a three year old and have been teaching her breathing exercises for learning how to regulate her emotions. In teaching her, I’ve realized how much I need these breathing exercises.

I sat in my car and breathed.

Then I went into a conversation with educators from across Durham Public Schools to talk about how we can reimagine the role of our schools in supporting the mental health of both students and staff. We are so fortunate to be led in the WHOLE Schools work and in listening sessions by Cecilia Polanco, one of the most skilled and empathetic facilitators I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. Cecilia creates space that feels safe and that makes people feel brave. The educators who gathered on a Tuesday evening on yet another Zoom responded with generosity and creativity and love for what they do and why they do it. The conversation we had was full of dreams of schools that are joyful and healing and where play as learning is abundant. And the many people across our community who we’ve talked with already through WHOLE Schools have lots of ideas of how to make these dreams a reality. We can do this.

I sat in my office and felt hopeful.

In moments where the challenges and the politics of our country and world feel overwhelming, I re-center on my community here in Durham. I believe that when we shift power to historically marginalized students and families, we will move toward a more just community. I believe that when educators and students are given space to dream fearlessly and have resources to build those dreams into reality, we can fulfill the promise of public education. I believe that when our community rallies together, we can do incredible things.

I believe together we can heal.

Tonight over 20 people who make up the WHOLE Schools Advisory Council will meet to talk about the urgent work of making our schools trauma-informed, culturally-affirming, joyful, and healing places for every student, educator, and staff member. And across Durham today people will be doing what we do here — caring for each other, healing together, dreaming together, and building toward something that helps make Durham a more just community for everyone. 

Today, I feel ready to do the work ahead of us to make those dreams I’ve been hearing from our school communities a reality across Durham.

Together we will build healing spaces that make us whole, starting with the heart of our community — our public schools.

What are your dreams for schools that nurture the whole child? Please share them with us.

In love and community,


Magan Gonzales-Smith

Magan Gonzales-Smith is the founding Executive Director of the Durham Public Schools Foundation. She has dedicated her career to working in public education to dismantle barriers to success for students of color and other historically marginalized students. Most recently, Gonzales-Smith served as Associate Director of Insights & Impact for Hill Learning Center. She received her B.A. in Political Science from George Washington University and her Master’s in Public Policy from Duke University. Gonzales-Smith grew up in Eastern North Carolina and she and her husband now make their home in East Durham.