In recognition of Black History Month, Grace Farms Foundation invited civil rights icon Ruby Bridges to New Canaan, Connecticut. In this conversation with our Community Initiative Director Karen Kariuki, Ms. Bridges discussed how she became the only black child to integrate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, what she’s been doing since that historical moment in 1960, and what children can do today when “unfair things” happen to them and others.
Grace Farms Foundation produced this conversation in a 45-minute film called Then and Now, which is being shown in local schools and organizations throughout Fairfield County during the month of February.
We are grateful to our CEO and Founder Sharon Prince who spearheaded this effort and to our community sponsors that helped underwrite and support this program. Grace Farms Foundation brings together diverse audiences to advance good in the world and since our founding, we have been committed to advancing racial equity and gender parity.
Below are reflections from taken from Then and Now.
Using our voice
One of the lessons we can take from the conversation is the importance of using our voice – that we need to speak up not only for ourselves, but for others when we see things that are unfair. Using our collective voices has the power to make a difference and make the world a better place. Sometimes, it starts with one voice.
The story of how Ruby came to New Canaan started when an eight-year-old boy took action as a result of something that happened to him on a baseball field in Mead Memorial Park, in New Canaan. This third-grader experienced an incident that made him sad, but instead of staying mad and responding to hurt with more hurt, he looked for a way to make a positive change. He wrote a letter asking Ms. Bridges to come and speak to the kids and grownups in our area. “I want to do more to help kids like you and me” he wrote in his letter.
This little boy chose to respond to this level of hurt with hope. He responded with optimism and action. And that individual action led to community support and then sustained community action. By fostering more inclusive communities and how we acknowledge the relationships and connections between us, we can advance good in our communities and the world.
This boy’s letter rallied our community to have this important conversation.
Change doesn’t happen in a corner
How we make change comes in many ways and forms. Ruby used her presence to make a positive change that would last for generations to come. At the time – it was during the 1960s civil rights movement – six-year-old Ruby didn’t realize she was making change by integrating an all-white school in New Orleans. As she said during our conversation, the only way to make change is to “step out of the corner.”
Going from the familiar all-black school, where she had friends, to an all-white elementary school where she had no friends, was stepping out of a corner. Now Ruby didn’t have to stay there. But she had an open heart and the innocence of a child. So, imagine on your first day of elementary school, four white federal U.S Marshals sent by the president of the United States, showing up at your home to escort you to school. In the short drive to school, with her mother and accompanied by the marshals, they were met by a crowd of angry people held back by barricades. In her young mind, Ruby thought it was a parade, while photographers were documenting this historical moment.
Ruby became the only black child to integrate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School. While Ruby didn’t know it at the time, just by showing up was a historical step out of the corner. Her presence in the school was a monumental step toward making change. For context, of the 500 white students that were enrolled in the school at the time, their parents, fearful and resistant to the change that was taking place across the country, pulled them from the William Frantz Elementary School. In 1954, the year Ruby was born, the year the Supreme Court passed Brown versus the Board of Education, [Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)], a unanimous decision that said racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.
While Ruby didn’t have the friends like she had at her former segregated, all-black school, she had the support of her new teacher Mrs. Henry and her parents who wanted a better life and education for Ruby. Her parents were share croppers and neither of them finished elementary school because they had to work in the fields to survive. Mrs. Henry, a white teacher from Boston, opened her heart when she met Ruby. This connectedness is reflective of the work we do in our Community Initiative. By recognizing our connectedness and mutuality, we can foster more inclusive communities. Opening ourselves to new and different people brings hope and change. Our ongoing work at Grace Farms Foundation is reimagining what a thriving community might look like: how we support and engage each other; how we include and advance each other; and, most critically, how we see each other.
“I think the lesson that I learned is the lesson that Dr. King died trying to teach all of us is – that we cannot look at a person and judge them by the color of their skin. We have to allow ourselves an opportunity to really get to know them.” – Ruby Bridges
It’s important for us to mark these moments, not only during Black History Month, but also look at these moments in a continued way. The moment Ruby walked up the steps to her new school – a school that was much bigger, much nicer, and much cleaner than compared to her old school, surrounded by four federal U.S. Marshalls – was a moment that informed her life in a continued way. Ruby would go on to become an activist, working with schools and all types of children from different backgrounds across the country.
“Do not be afraid. This is your time in history. Keep your eyes on the prize. And at all costs, stay united.” – Ruby Bridges
Over the course of Ruby’s career, she’s has gone on to write children’s books, including This Is Your Time and Through My Eyes. She has received the Presidential Citizens Medal, and has spoken all around the country to schools, children, and organizations. Having the opportunity to speak with Ruby gives hope. This is a moment where together, we can catalyze change and where we can sustain change. We can harness that invitation that Ruby is extending to us and to everyone – an invitation to do good. There is no need to wait for that invitation either. This is all of our time.
As Ruby said during our conversation that if we are going to move forward together, we need to come out of our corners. “And that’s hope,” she said.
In our work at Grace Farms, we talk about how creating a hopeful space can lead to action and outcomes that address our humanitarian issues and social injustices. Our CEO and Founder envisioned that an intentionally-designed and hopeful space could communicate a set of values and advance good in the world for years to come. But first, you do have to step out of that corner and put your stake in the ground.
There are so many sponsors and individuals who linked arms with us to bring Ruby Bridges to own communities. We are so grateful for your partnership on this program and helping us make the world a better place for everyone.
Special thanks to our sponsors
B kind Foundation
East Elementary School PTC, New Canaan
Fairfield County’s Community Foundation
Grace Community Church
NBC Sports Group
New Canaan Community Foundation
New Canaan Library
South Elementary School PTC, New Canaan
St. Aloysius Church, New Canaan
Temple Sinai, Stamford
The Children’s School, Stamford
The Congregational Church of New Canaan
West Elementary School PTC, New Canaan
Emily Courtiss, Ridgefield Alliance
Brittney Crystal, Ridgefield Alliance
Elizabeth Hanson, Ridgefield Alliance
Kristy and Darryl Jefferson, Ridgefield Alliance
Lindsey Kershaw, Ridgefield Alliance
Cait Lunn, Ridgefield Alliance
Michelle and Frank DiMaria
Karen and Omar Kariuki
Sara and Spencer Schubert
Jocelyn and Josh Walls
Meg and John Walsh
and all anonymous sponsors