An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Debbie Bensadon, assistant director of equity and inclusion/Upper School Spanish teacher

As part of a professional development day for faculty and staff, Assistant Director of Equity and Inclusion Debbie Bensadon introduced an expansion of the intergroup dialogue facilitation training that the school began last year. This is an excerpt from Bensadon’s remarks.

[This summer] I spent a lot of my time reflecting on the past year. The words that kept coming up for me were “fragmented” and “disjointed.” Intellectually, this country feels fragmented to me. Whether it’s how we understand and manage COVID, how we try to make sense of the injustice and killings at the hands of law enforcement, how we process and try to understand the protests and uprisings across the country, or, recently, how we interpret and make sense of the political conventions.

These words – fragmented and disjointed – even apply in the literal sense, as most of us navigate our roles and lives in separation. For many of us, it’s a separation from important people in our lives, or separation from activities and communities that energize us and affirm our sense of belonging. We are truly living in unprecedented times.

And as my mind keeps ruminating over the words fragmented and disjointed, my heart keeps tugging toward connection and community. I find myself seeking ways to connect more, with old friends, local friends, and family members. I am actively looking for ways to fill the void of community and informal social time that I once took for granted. The chats at the lunch table, the popping into colleague’s offices to say hello, the quick greetings when walking from class to class or meeting to meeting. Who knew that little bit of connection could mean so much!

So, I continued reflecting: How do we build connection in the two-dimensional, structured world that is Zoom? What could and should Lakeside’s diversity, equity, and inclusion team focus on this year that can bring people together?

It didn’t fully click for me until I came across this segment from a podcast that literally made me pull the car over so I could take notes…. I became a huge fan of Brené Brown when a few years ago, when [Upper School Counseling Center Coordinator] Meredith Sjoberg introduced us to her work on vulnerability…. I recommend [her podcast “Unlocking Us”] to anyone trying to make sense of themselves and our times. This is a short segment from an episode with Dr. Vivek Murthy, who served as the country’s 19th surgeon general from 2014-2017. Start at 24:48 to hear him speak about loneliness and connection.

Through this episode, I realized how much I take connection for granted. Yes, in the most practical ways that I just mentioned, but also how much I take for granted its importance in being good educators. We might view connection and trust as an “extra” – nice to have, but not necessary for learning. But I would argue that it is at the core of what it means to be a good educator.

Why is it important that we as educators connect with students? Listening to Dr. Murthy, I am now able to articulate it more clearly. If we want students to lean into discomfort, take risks, put themselves out there for the sake of their own growth and learning, they need to trust that we will support them. And trust is built on connection and relationships.

We need connection now more than ever. We need our community to feel they can share their perspectives and ideas, even when they are contrary to those in the group. We need to learn how to foster a safe space for multiple perspectives to co-exist, and we need to learn how to interrupt when the identity safety of others is at risk.

Our [equity and inclusion] strategic plan, Our Work Together, is about everyone taking ownership of the mission. The diversity, equity, and inclusion team is committed to teaching the community, offering resources, and building skills so that we can all participate in making this an inclusive and equitable community. This year, we believe the key is building trust and learning facilitation skills that help us engage in difficult conversations. To build relationships so that when we have differences of opinions, experiences, and perspectives, we can engage with each other respectfully and compassionately, truly listening to understand.