An Independent School • Grades 5-12

Students lead dialogue about race

Upper School leaders attend a weekend retreat to prepare how to encourage students to learn from one another’s diverse life

experiences and backgrounds. At center, Kengo N. ’17.

May 2015

A coalition of Upper School students led several forums about race and racism this winter and spring. The coalition formed in response to renewed national dialogue that followed a media spotlight on police killings of unarmed black teenagers and men around the country, including in Ferguson, Mo.; Staten Island; and Cleveland.

The forums included a full day devoted to learning about race and brainstorming ways to improve student culture by promoting meaningful dialogue about differences.

The 32 Upper School leaders included members from several student leadership and diversity groups. Their goal was to continue the conversation about race that began with one-hour discussions in the Middle and Upper schools, which the school organized in December in the wake of Ferguson. Students’ responses were mixed, but the majority favored further discussion. (“Hearing people open up and talk about their feelings toward the subject of race … was eye opening and emotional. I want to help make a change but I don’t know how. Emotional. Moving.” “We all know racism is horrible and we all admitted that we stereotype but we will work on this.”)

What it did do was create some awareness, and it’s given people a forum to start discussing race. - Austin Gray '15

For faculty and staff, the next step was a professional development day in late January focused on racial equity, which included viewing a video of Upper School students sharing their thoughts about race and equity at Lakeside. Afterward, committees formed to explore how to better integrate the topic of race with school curriculum; help students leading ongoing peer-to-peer forums; and create more opportunities for the adult community to discuss and educate themselves.

The student coalition leaders went on a weekend retreat in late January, where they identified potential obstacles to communication, such as students’ fears of offending others, appearing ignorant, or feeling vulnerable. They received training on how to “facilitate meaningful and difficult conversations in an environment that fosters active listening, mutual understanding, and personal connection,” according to Christel McGuigan, director of equity and instruction, who led the training with Bryan Smith, Upper School associate director.

The training also prepared the students to help lead discussions at an all-day gathering in March after the Upper School viewed the documentary “I’m Not Racist ... Am I?,” about 12 New York City teens who spend one year talking about racism, and heard from its producer, Andre Lee. Middle School students had their own event: an hourlong discussion about how to create a safe space to have challenging conversations. At press time, the Upper School student coalition was preparing to lead Upper School students in an hourlong discussion on how to make Lakeside more inclusive, which the school hoped to schedule for late spring, and beginning to plan voluntary lunchtime discussions for next school year.

McGuigan noted that Lakeside’s five-year Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, begun in 2011, includes the major goal of creating more opportunities for student-led diversity initiatives and discussion.

“This year, we have made significant progress in these efforts,” McGuigan said. “I have been impressed with how these incredibly talented students work together, both when they agree and when they disagree.”

Coalition students said they felt positive while noting their role hasn’t been easy. Said Austin Gray ’15, president of the Black Student Union: “I don’t think (the initial) Ferguson (discussion) was the greatest thing ever – but what it did do was create some awareness, and it’s given people a forum to start discussing race. There were attempts by the administration to do something, which is refreshing. This year I’ve talked about race with my friends, not every week, but pretty frequently, and we hadn’t before. That’s good.”

And Hana Fulghum ’16, leader of the Student Awareness Council, said: “It still makes people uncomfortable. In the process of getting people together to talk about these things, there have been great moments. But it’s a hard thing to do. It’s better we’re going somewhere, no matter how fast or slow it is. We’re taking a step forward."