The Middle School has a Diversity Council comprised of at least one Homeroom Representative, which meets once a cycle with DC sponsors Jill Anthony and Nicole Mitchell. This helps us reach each homeroom with important communication about current events and activities that the DC may sponsor. Our model echoes that of the Student Council and the Honor Council.
In the 2016-17 school year, the Diversity Council Homeroom Representatives decided that they would host a “Diversity Day,” which would involve the entire Middle School (MS) in an in-house, educational conference. This led to an afternoon of Open Dialogues in May of 2017. Homeroom Rep Bryce Lloyd ’22 commented, “Our goals for having the dialogues were to unite the school for one afternoon to have a discussion about these topics, and to allow people to talk about them instead of holding back their emotions.” The dialogues revolved around themes related to diversity, community, equity, and inclusion. Each member of the MS community—students, faculty, and staff—selected five conversations of interest to them, and we assigned each person to three of the five.
The DC developed conversation prompts and trained to facilitate conversations about those topics. The DC sponsors invited Upper School students who were experienced facilitators to join them in the MS Open Dialogues so that older brothers might support their younger counterparts. Homeroom Rep Nico Shelby ’22 observed that the dialogues offer “an opportunity to get to know who you see every day through a different lens, understanding their background and being conscious of differing perspectives within our community. Secondly, these discussions are designed to encourage equal treatment for all in the Middle School…and to affect everyone who attends the workshops positively. Community members can therefore share their knowledge of diversity. Lastly, the other focus of these discussions is to provide information on all topics to allow people to seek their identities, if they are not content with their current state.”
The conversation topics included a wide range of issues within areas including identity, diversity, handling of difficult emotions such as anxiety and grief, teasing, body image, the political climate, and many more.
MS faculty observed that the boys enjoyed the afternoon and seemed hungry for more time to converse. We decided to make Open Dialogues and annual event and to schedule not just one, but three afternoons of Open Dialogues in the 2017-18 school year. We also chose to elongate the sessions by having each person participate in two rather than three conversations within a single afternoon. The faculty was impressed by the DC facilitators’ ability to guide a productive, interesting conversation about topics that the student body found meaningful.
In 2017-18, DC Homeroom Representatives chose an overarching theme for each of the three events. They were: Race, Family and Relationships, and Wellness.
For the fall Dialogues, MS affinity groups were consulted. Community members self-selected from groups including:
- Middle Eastern;
- Native American;
- Multiracial; and
- Transracially Adopted.
Groups explored questions about sources of pride, relevant vocabulary, shared beliefs, stereotypes, voice and power, inclusion vs. exclusion, current events, equity, and justice. For many boys, this was the first time they had had the opportunity to sit in a room with those at Gilman from a similar racial background. Meanwhile, members of the white affinity group worked to understand the privileges conferred upon them by their race and how they might to be allies to other racial groups. During the conversations, each group took notes on the boards in their meeting rooms. At the end of the afternoon, everyone was invited to complete a gallery walk, walking from classroom to classroom to read the notes, while a couple of spokespersons for each group stayed in the room to answer questions.
For the winter Dialogues, the community discussed family and relationships. The topics of discussion were:
- Grieving and Loss;
- Socio-economic Status and Being Included;
- Religious Diversity;
- Gender Equality;
- Intersecting Race and Gender;
- Traditional and Non-traditional Family Structures;
- Navigating Current Events with Your Community; What Does It Mean to Be a Friend? - Navigating Social Groups; and
- #OneLove (an organization that strives to help people understand what constitutes a healthy versus an unhealthy relationship, so that s/he might choose relationships accordingly and help others.)
The spring 2018 topics centered around wellness. Discussion groups included:
- Facing Fear;
- Self-image; and
Our goals for the sessions were to:
- Provide key vocabulary, identifying the difference between clinical anxiety or depression and a healthy level of stress or situational depression;
- Explore tactics to reduce bullying, anxiety, and fear;
- Explore ways to feel and be safe; and
- Consider ways we can care for ourselves that will help keep up and those around us healthy and happy.
The members of the Diversity Council grew into their roles as conversation facilitators over the course of the year. No open dialogue event was perfect, but the benefits far outweighed any negatives.
In thinking back over the 2017-18 events, Bryce commented, “Every time we finish one of the sessions, some students … came up to me explaining that they liked the dialogues, and it was a really good way to unite the school … There are always some people who love to participate, and some who don’t and want to observe, and I think that that balance works.”
As a Diversity Council, we have also learned what we need to do to ensure a positive event for all, and we have produced a checklist of best practices to use as we continue in this endeavor, so that the event can grow and be increasingly successful.
In September, a MS leadership retreat drew more than 50 participants. It was facilitated by US students to encourage dialogue across divisions and set the standard for affinity groups in the Gilman community. Learn more about that event here.
The first 2018-19 Open Dialogues event will take place on November 13.
--By Nicole Mitchell