Students & Faculty Engage Issues of Equity in Recognition of MLK Day
Students & Faculty Engage Issues of Equity in Recognition of MLK Day
Liz Torrey

This week, St. Andrew's students and faculty engaged in three days of equity and diversity work, in recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 15. "We celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, the legacy of his deep belief in social justice, and the work of deepening our understanding of and connection to one another," said Director of Diversity Education Giselle Furlonge.

On Monday evening, students and faculty watched one of two movies: Selma, the 2014 film about the 1965 voting rights protest marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, led by Dr. King and other leaders of the American civil rights movement; and Gone with the Wind, the 1939 film that follows a plantation-owning Southern family and its slaves through the Civil War and Reconstruction.

On Tuesday morning, students gathered in Engelhard Hall where they heard opening remarks from the Student Diversity Committee, then broke out into small student and faculty-led discussion-based workshops. Workshop topics included the following:

  • Visualizing The Other—Students explored the question of: How does the photographic image influence perception? Working in the Photo Lab, each student photographed a partner to create a series of images that focused on what distinguishes their subject from "the other."
  • The Professional Sports Stage and Social Activism—Students discussed the ongoing social activism of professional athletes and consider what this activism means for high school athletes.
  • Leading in a Diverse Community—Head of School Tad Roach led a conversation around the question of: How do you become an effective leader in a diverse community? Students examined both current events on the national stage, and the challenges of living and learning in a diverse community.
  • Islamophobia—Students examined misrepresentations of Muslims in the media and discussed how the media influences domestic and international views of Muslims.
  • Gender Sexuality Alliance Meeting—The Gender-Sexuality Alliance recently invited members of the community to anonymously share how they identify in terms of gender and sexuality. In this workshop, students learned the results of this survey and the myriad different sexualities and genders with which members of the community identify, and discussed ways to be an ally to the LGBTQ community.
  • Understanding and Challenging Racism in Contemporary American Politics—On Thursday, President Trump asked "Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?" referring to Haiti, El Salvador, and countries in Africa. Instead, America should seek more immigrants from countries like Norway, he went on to suggest. "Whether we consider ourselves supporters or critics of Donald Trump's policies, we must interrogate and challenge the open racism of these sorts of statements," explained workshop leader and History Department Chair Emily Pressman. In the workshop, students considered the longstanding history of these attitudes and discussed ways of addressing and responding to them.
  • The Sin of Institutional Racism in the Episcopal Church—This workshop explored the the Episcopal Church's history of racism and white-male-dominated leadership, and the positive changes that the church has enacted in the years since the Civil Rights Movement. "We celebrated the faith and hope of African-American Episcopalians who, following the Civil War until Brown vs. Board of Education, remained committed to their church, even while the church was slow to welcome its black sisters and brothers as full participants," said Associate Chaplain Dave DeSalvo.

"Working to plan the diversity and equity programming is a lot of hard work, and there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes in order to make it happen," noted Student Diversity Head Francesca Bruni '18. "For the past few months, out team has been planning this MLK Day program, and I'm incredibly happy to say that it definitely paid off! This year we took a somewhat different approach to planning events; rather than focusing solely on diversity and equity, we have really tried to integrate different voices and activities our community is already passionate about into the workshops and activities. For example, this year the Poetry Club lead a session on poetry and the spoken word as a form of activism, and Ms. Kelsey and a few of the art majors lead a workshop where students created images of allyship through the process of batik. We are so grateful to our community for embracing the MLK Day programming, and we're excited to see how the fantastic conversations continue to unfold."

"We were able to have so many voices and ideas going around the table, along with the perspective of students from all grades, ones who had experienced SAS diversity programs in the past and ones who had not," agreed Student Diversity Head Haden Cunningham '18. "This helped us to think about how to create safe spaces for those who had not engaged in conversations like this before."

After the workshops wrapped, students gathered into identity affinity groups for further discussion. One of the goals of this session was to give all students—even those who do not currently belong to an existing St. Andrew's affinity group—the chance to experience what it is like to participate in such a group. Students could choose to participate in the following affinity groups:

  • Asian Student Union
  • Atheist Affinity Group
  • Casa Nativa (an affinity group for students with Hispanic heritage and roots)
  • European Affinity Group
  • Jewish Affinity Group
  • LGBTQ Affinity Group
  • Middle Eastern Affinity Group
  • Multi-Racial Affinity Group
  • ONYX (an affinity group for Black and Latino males)
  • Sapphire (an affinity group for women of color
  • South Asian Affinity Group
  • Southeast Asian Affinity Group
  • White Female Affinity Group
  • White Male Affinity Group

"After the workshops and affinity groups on Tuesday, the entire School wrote reflections on poster paper to the prompts, 'What do you need from an ally?' and 'What does it take to be an ally?'," Haden said. "One of my favorite parts of the past three days has been reading what students have written on those pieces of paper, which are now hanging in the stairwell on the way down to the Chapel. Among my favorites are 'Unity is the Key,' 'The conversations do not end today,' 'endless support and constant commitment,' and 'Love one another unconditionally.'"

Also during the day on Tuesday, faculty engaged in professional development work around issues of student diversity and equity, and welcomed speaker Grace Chen (seen here), who gave a presentation titled "Refusing Racial Stereotypes: A Political Take on Teaching." As a PhD student at Vanderbilt, Chen researches educational inequities and issues of identity in teaching. Prior to her graduate work, she taught math and designed and facilitated in-service programming around issues of equity and identity for teachers and schools across the country. Faculty then broke into departmental discussions of the ideas raised in Chen's talk, then reconvened for an exercise in that explored faculty participation in student networks of care.

Finally, on Wednesday evening, students and faculty attended a Quaker-style Chapel service, designed and led by the Student Diversity Committee. Individual students stood and shared reflections on the preceding two days' activities, and the rest of the student body was encouraged to rise and stand in silence if they wished to express support for a student's reflection.

"I really appreciate the support that the administration has given to the Student Diversity Committee," Haden said. "The fact that the School was able to block off a study hall, a half day of classes and a Chapel for the entire student body to spend time talking and thinking about diversity is incredible.. However, we will always need even more time to have these conversations. I hope that the student body will not wait until the next time the SDC hosts an event to engage in conversations about diversity, identity, and allyship. I encourage them to have these conversations whenever they can: on dorm, at their lunch tables, with their sports teams, whenever and wherever."

"While we honor Dr. King and many others with this program," agreed Furlonge in the lead-up to the event, "it is important to remember that we have the power to talk to each other, attend affinity and ally group meetings, start new initiatives, and reflect on issues of equity every day in our community and in the world."