By Dominique Gerard
In April 2012, a group of parents asked Mr. Nammack and our Diversity and Inclusion team to create an opportunity for parents of students of color to get together in an affinity group and discuss their children’s experiences. Our first Parents of Students of Color meeting occurred in the Middle School Dining Hall this past January with over fifty parents attending. Those parents were invited personally based on their children’s self-reported racial and ethnic identification that they provided through the Admissions Office. As developed by a smaller parent group and approved by the Diversity and Inclusion Parent Committee, the POSOC affinity group’s goals are to:
- Build Community - Create an inclusive, affirming environment where families can build community with others who share common interest in supporting a diverse and inclusive environment for students of color.
- Affirm Identity - Provide a safe space for participants to identify common concerns and opportunities that arise as a result of our differences – realizing that recognizing differences will foster a more stimulating educational environment.
- Develop Perspective – Provide the School with valuable insights into the experiences of students of color with the MKA culture and curriculum in terms of their positive identity development.
Modeled after successful parent affinity groups at other independent schools, our first evening meeting was filled with a great deal of thoughtful conversation, energy, good will, and humor. Parents discussed their children’s experiences as students of color, but also reflected on the prism of race through which they see their children’s experiences. At the end of the night, they shared some of their hopes for their students and for the community as a whole to move forward as a more inclusive and celebratory school. We all walked away feeling a little tired, but invigorated and fulfilled.
Some might ask why we should have these meetings at all, and aren’t we, in some sense, reinforcing differences? Or, shouldn’t we at least be having conversations about race together? To answer those questions in order, we are not reinforcing or creating differences – they are already there. As with our Students of Color lunches, we are providing a safe space for parents of students of color to share in their common experiences without having to explain themselves to others who have not had those experiences. We absolutely should be having conversations of race together as a larger community, and we will get there. The voices of a smaller or minority group have to be strengthened before people can go out and share their experiences in the larger community, so that’s what the Parents of Students Color Affinity Group is all about – finding and strengthening MKA voices that might not otherwise be heard.
The Parents of Students of Color Affinity Group meets next on Tuesday, April 8 from 7:00-9:00 p.m. in the Middle School Dining Hall.
All the best,
Director of Diversity and Inclusion
Written by Monica Elmore
On January 24th the Middle School hosted another successful MLK dance assembly. The assembly participants included administration, teachers and students. They paid tribute to a variety of civil rights activists who had a significant influence in their communities. Some of the individuals honored included Dr. Martin Luther King, Misty Copeland, Aesha Ash, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Celia Cruz, Katherine Dunham, Whitman Sisters, Cesar Chavez, Duke Ellington, Mei Lanfang and Mahatma Gandhi. In addition, to the variety of dances that were performed, the students and teachers gave heart felt speeches to honor these individuals.
In addition to our weekly assemblies, the Upper School schedule includes a number of “Tuesday Talks” that give an opportunity for outside presenters to share their experiences with the Upper School community. This year, there have been several presenters that have visited the Upper School whose presentations have been closely linked with this year’s community theme of ability. Thanks to these speakers, the Upper School community has gained a new range of perspectives on some of the ways that differences in ability exist in our world.
The MKA Upper and Middle Schools are very proud to welcome “The Fearless Project” to their campuses in April 2014. “The Fearless Project” is a photo exhibit by Jeff Sheng, who decided in 2003 to start to photography lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender high school and college sports athletes. Inspired by his own experience as a closeted gay athlete, he wanted to chronicle these brave young athletes who have chosen to live their lives openly and honestly with their peers, families, and teammates. Since 2003, Mr. Sheng has taken over 150 athletes’ portraits. “The Fearless Project” has been exhibited at over 50 high schools and colleges, ESPN Headquarters, Nike World Headquarters, the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Before experiencing the Student Diversity Leadership Conference for myself, I had not realized how fortunate I was to be going to the conference. The only thought I had regarding the three-day excursion was that I was going to learn about how to further integrate diversity into my school. Of course this was still a part of the objective, but the conference primarily encouraged self-development. Diversity as the main topic covered several areas that are sometimes bypassed due to their complexity. Yet these areas of religion, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age, socio-economic status, and family structure were the basis of every conversation. It amazed me to be in a place where 1,400 teenagers were on the same intellectual level with the same drive to confront a huge societal problem. As I understood from my time at SDLC, accomplishing diversity is rooted in the acceptance and understanding of differences. The first step to this public acceptance is personal acceptance. SDLC really enabled me to accept my ethnic background as multi-racial, and has developed in me a personal responsibility to help others see the importance in all ethnicities. The variety of areas to touch upon gave everyone the same chance of personal validation. Although we might not have all felt as passionate about the same subject, we all understood the importance of touching upon each topic. SDLC sparked so many controversial opinions and conversations, but it most importantly provided an environment that allowed everyone to speak on these opinions without the fear of being judged. I am so thankful for the opportunity of going to SDLC and with out a doubt would go back if I could. As many students as is possible should take advantage of this conference and experience the kind of enlightenment that I felt after only three days. This diversity conference is a very helpful tool if used in the proper manor by only the most passionate and determined of students. It is evident after experiencing both the environments of SDLC and my independent school, that Montclair Kimberley Academy has benefitted and evolved from the diversity practices SDLC is so fond of that are incorporated into their program every year.
Before I went to the Student Diversity Leadership Conference all the seniors this year told me how great of an experience it was. I honestly thought that they were over exaggerating, but when I got to the conference I realized that were right. I had never been in a “safe place” before SDLC. Even though the conference was only over a couple of days, I feel like I came back to MKA refreshed and more accepting. I am like a new person. One of the things that stuck with me after SDLC was the concept of Legacy. The administrators talked about how a lot people focus on trying make their communities more accepting and they actually do not know anything about themselves. They said most kids will name the hobbies they like to do and think that those qualities are what define them. Consequently, most kids including me realized that we have a lot to learn about ourselves as well as about our communities. SDLC was a life changing experience and I will never forget it.
My experience at the Student Diversity Leadership Conference is one that I will never forget. I was able to meet a wide range of people and listen to amazing speakers such as StacyAnn Chyn. The environment at SDLC was unforgettable. Everyone there was open to the ideas around and it was a very loving atmosphere. During the conference, I was able to participate in a wide range of activities that broadened my perspectives. The experience also opened me up to new concepts such as, pansexual and the religion of Wicca. The other students that went had amazing stories and I was lucky enough hear many of them.
The family groups were an amazing part of the experience, but I was most inspired by the speakers, Daniel Hernandez and StacyAnn Chyn. Daniel Hernandez brought the amazing story of being an intern for Senator Gabrielle Gifford when she was shot on January 8th, 2013. StacyAnn Chyn told the amazing story of growing up in Jamaica as a lesbian. Although both of their stories were very different from one another, they had a common theme of pursuing what you believe in. Both of the speakers said that you need to find something you are passionate about and keep pushing until you see change or achieve your set goal. Another interesting commonality between the two of them was the theme of accepting who you are. Both speakers were gay and both at one point in their lives did not truly accept who they were, but once they did, shared how their lives were forever changed for the better.
Before the Student Diversity Leadership Conference I thought that “life-changing” experiences were little more than myths and hyperboles. But the conference truly blew me away. It was not the “SDLC curriculum” that resonated with me, but rather the group of students that attended the conference and the profound and genuine atmosphere that we lived in for two days. I had never been in an environment where people felt totally confident with themselves and comfortable enough to share their most well kept secrets. Through hearing about so many other people’s lives and how they persevered through hardships that I have never experienced, I learned a lot about myself and came to really accept and understand my privilege. I now realize that my privilege is truly a gift and that I must make the most out of all its facets in order to become the best person I can be.
The atmosphere at the SDLC was truly amazing. I understand that it would be impossible to replicate the same judgment-free and fully accepting environment at MKA, but I do think we need to make a genuine effort to foster something like it. As a whole, I think we are a very understanding and accepting community, however, sometimes it may be hard to truly be yourself in High School. If I could give one piece of wisdom to everyone in the MKA community it would be to embrace and be proud of who you are and to be conscious of how you treat and interact with other students.
by Dominique Gerard
As we work on issues of Cultural Competency and discuss our tri-campus Community Theme of Ability, we continue to explore and discuss other important issues with the goal of making MKA a more inclusive community for students and their families. We’re seeing continued progress at the MKA Middle and Upper School as both campuses work to create such a community for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. Through a combination of outside speakers, conferences and celebrations, the administration, faculty and students hope to reach a point where everyone at MKA can be accepted for who they are in all facets of school life.
In early November, the MKA Middle School welcomed back James Nutter, a former collegiate baseball player and young gay activist who works with GLSEN’s Changing the Game and GO! Athletes, to speak to the eighth grade about his own experiences growing up in rural Maine and how homophobia in the sporting world hurt his own development as a young person. Engaging in a 30-minute question-and-answer session with students and faculty, Mr. Nutter broadened the discussion to include what students today can do to make a difference in their own community by eliminating homophobic language from their vocabulary and standing up for LGBTQ classmates who may feel silenced in the community. Following the assembly, Mr. Nutter led eighth grade sports team captains and coaches in a lunchtime workshop to talk about specific strengths and challenges facing the MKA sports community in trying to make a more inclusive environment. Student-athletes thoughtfully engaged with each other about the ways they could lead their teams to be more inclusive and challenged their coaches to do the same.
Our first ever Community Discussion Night on October 22 proved to be a successful conversation starter for the parents and guardians who attended. Entitled “Beneath the Surface: Going Beyond the Single Story,” the discussion centered on attendees and their own personal stories. The night began at tables where attendees developed their own “diversity iceberg” – a graphic organizer that visually demonstrated the 10% people show to the world and the 90% that exists “beneath the surface.” Discussing their icebergs with people at their tables, parents and guardians reflected on the challenges and opportunities adults and children have when they start to reveal more of themselves to others. We then watched a TED Talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie entitled “The Danger of the Single Story.”
Take twenty minutes to watch this thought provoking and wonderful speech – it’s well worth it.
After the film, the night’s attendees got together in pairs and reflected on various questions posed by Adichie’s talk, such as “When have I judged someone based on his or her single story?” “When has someone judged me?” “When has a single story affected my child’s MKA experience?” This Community Discussion Night was filled with thoughtful discussion, reflection, and laughter, and most of all, the adults that participated made connections that will hopefully last long after the event itself.
Please consider attending our next Community Discussion Night on Thursday, April 4 from 7:00-9:00 p.m. The theme for that evening’s discussion will be determined by the Diversity & Inclusion Parents Committee and is sure to be an insightful and provocative way to connect with other adults in the MKA community. We look forward to seeing you there!