School Gathers for Day of Dialogue
On Monday, January 29, the student body gathered for the first annual Equity, Justice, and Community Day. The event was the first of its kind: a day dedicated to discussion surrounding diversity and social justice issues, organized and presented by Sidwell students and faculty themselves.
The morning began with opening remarks by Head of School Bryan Garman. Garman introduced the focus of the day as “How big are the big eight?,” referring to the eight primary social identifiers: race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion, nationality, and socioeconomic status. “There is a lived experience that goes along with that categorization,” said Garman, urging students to actively engage others of unlike circumstance, and avoid “a politics of otherness or a politics of ‘they.’”
Keynote speaker Mariama Richards encouraged students to “envision yourself as someone who really wants to be able to make a change in your institution.” Defining and discussing the eight social identifiers, Richards stressed common humanity as a universal thread. “I don’t believe that I could come into school to teach every day," said Richards, "if I didn’t in the depths of myself believe that my humanity is linked with yours.”
Increasing dialogue across social divisions was the principal intent of the day, said Upper School Equity, Justice, and Community Coordinator Hayes Davis, the primary coordinator of the event.
Incentive for EJC Day drew from student feedback each year after attending the annual Student Diversity Leadership Conference. SDLC, hosted by the National Association of Independent Schools, is a three-day conference which brings together high school students from independent schools around the country to discuss pertinent social justice issues.
A select assembly of Sidwell Friends students attend the conference each year, but Davis sought a means in which to extend these conversations to the broader student body. “When they come out of that first day,” Davis added, “so many times students have said, ‘These are conversations we don’t have at school.’”
Davis was further motivated by student complaint stemming from a lack of dialogue regarding such issues. By expressly opening those discussions for a day, this event sought to remedy that concern, said Davis: “Not having those conversations has made some students feel less of a sense of belonging and affirmation when they’re on campus. And if there are two things that I think a school should do, a school should affirm students, and a school should create for all students a sense that they belong there.”
In total, forty workshops were prepared and presented by both Sidwell Friends students and faculty, pertaining to a range of issues including “First-Generation American Student Experiences,” “What is ‘Gay?’,” and “A Revolution in Two Words: #MeToo.”
Junior Nia Baker co-hosted the workshop “Finding Yourself in Theater,” with fellow junior Naomi Steinglass and senior James Shakow. Baker was moved to take part in the workshop after attending the Student Diversity Leadership Conference during her sophomore year.
Baker, having been involved in seven Sidwell Friends productions thus far, said her perspective was most transformed after playing a male role in a production this previous summer. The workshop included script reading and discussion of typecasting, among other exercises, seeking to explore the question, “Why were we assigned this certain role?” “We’re hoping to break down all of these preconceived notions that we have,” said Baker. “I want students to know that they are not alone in however they feel because their feelings are valid; their experiences are valid.”
Junior Sophie Peiken led the workshop “Make It Through the Month,” a simulation of socioeconomic disparity, hosted alongside juniors Sterling Kee and William Masters, and sophomore Brooke Jacobs, all fellow SDLC alumni. Her purpose for creating the workshop, said Peiken, was to share her transformative experience at SDLC with others: “It’s incredible to watch other people learn things, or kind of have that ‘eureka’ moment,” said Peiken.
Presenting alongside Sidwell Friends community members were representatives from Operation Understanding DC, a district-based organization which unites African American and Jewish high school juniors to combat anti-Semitism and racial division. With Sidwell Friends OUDC alumni such as seniors Eve Strickberger and Nathan Laieke acting as liaison, high school students from various schools in the DC area arrived to present alongside their Sidwell Friends counterparts.
The day closed with a period of reflection and an Arts Guild, where students performed songs, poetry, and other forms of expression tied by the common theme of social justice. After the day’s events, Davis’s aspiration for students to take from the day: “A sense of belonging, a sense of affirmation, a willingness to have difficult conversations that may be difficult but ultimately will enrich us as human beings.”
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