From the Headmaster

Sailing in the Wake of Our Ancestors

Alfred F. Dugan III


We sail in the wake of our ancestors. Diversity drives innovation.

These are two of my primary takeaways from the NAIS Annual Conference that I have been fortunate to attend in Long Beach, CA, this week with hundreds of other independent school educators. This year’s conference is driven by the theme of “Reimagining Independent Schools: Tearing Down Walls, Building Capacity and Designing Our Future.” As a lifelong learner, I am eager to gain knowledge, wisdom and perspective from others. This week, the Global Youth Leadership Institute (GYLI) reminded me that we “sail in the wake of our ancestors” (the title of their Year 1 tall ship program) and Frans Johansson crystalized the idea that “diversity drives innovation.” To authentically move forward in an era of great change, to reimagine, to tear down walls and to design our future, we must know from where and from whom we descend. Once we do this, we can honor the diverse nature of our humanity and recognize that harnessing this power will enable us to drive innovation for good.

We sail in the wake of our ancestors.

I grew up in Gloucester Massachusetts, a maritime fishing city on the North Shore of Boston. As a boy on an island off the tip of Cape Ann, I was formed by the ocean. The sea runs through my blood, which is why I jumped at an opportunity to sail aboard a two-masted schooner with GYLI and the Los Angeles Maritime Institute in San Pedro Bay on the first day of this year's conference.

A boat at sea is the ultimate classroom. Through experiential learning, the lessons learned on a ship are infinite. Raising sails is poetic work, requiring synergy and strength, understanding and perseverance, collaboration and leadership. Harnessing the power of the wind to voyage from one place to another on the open ocean requires vision, knowledge, skill and experience. There is more to gain by sailing a ship than in almost anything else I know.

Being on the ship also reminds us of our ancestors’ passage to this land. We relate through the common thread of our ancestors’ survival of passage, no matter how different the circumstances may have been. We are here because of them. Their survival, their story, which we may or may not ever know, wills us to survive today. Indigenous peoples know the passage of time on their land, taken from them. Some of our ancestors immigrated here full of hope, with a dream in search of something new. Some of our ancestors may have fled famine, persecution or conflict. At the same time, some of our ancestors survived a passage against their will, taken from their homes, enslaved, and brought to this land unjustly to serve others.

We are the progeny of those who have come before us. We also live amidst preexisting constructs and systems that need to be reimagined so that we can tear down walls, build the capacity of others and design our future - not just in schools, but in our world and for our humanity.

Diversity drives innovation.

Diverse groups outperform homogeneous groups nearly all of the time. Honoring diversity means taking the time to listen to each other’s stories and celebrating the unique nature of each human being. According to Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect, all new ideas are the combination of already existing ideas. The further apart ideas are the higher the probability that they will be creative. Cherishing our differences allows us to connect our humanity. Leveraging the intersection of our differences allows us to innovate in ways that will change our world for the better.

We sail in the wake of our ancestors. Diversity drives innovation.

In order to reimagine our world, we must tear down walls by honoring the passages of each other’s ancestors, build capacity by connecting our humanity and recognize our diversity as the constructive solution to designing our future, together.

I look forward to getting started.


  • ancestors
  • diversity
  • GYLI
  • independent schools
  • innovation
  • leadership
  • NAIS

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