“If you can use your voice to speak up for me, can’t you use it to stand up for all of me?”
Avik Sarkar ’19 spoke this line from “Voices: Lost and Found,” a slam poem based on Darius Simpson and Scout Bostley’s “Lost Voices” and written and performed by Avik and Rebecca Mironko ’19, in the Upper School (US) gymnasium at the start of the fourth annual Community Day on Tuesday, January 15.
The poem addressed one of the many problems this year’s Community Day aimed to tackle, the idea that people of marginalized identities often lose their voices in conversations about social justice because these conversations favor those with privilege, Avik said.
Deviating from a typical school day’s schedule, Community Day saw US students and faculty taking a day off from classes to conduct small-group discussions about issues related to social justice and the school community. This year, students rotated through three workshops. The first was a teacher-led curriculum about socioeconomic class; the second, a case-study workshop on either sexual assault prevention, mental health, or minority representation; and the third, a student-only brainstorming session aimed at identifying ways to improve the school.
When organizing the day, Community Day Core Group (CDCG) members Gabby Blanco, Nate Roach (both ’21), Layla Mathieu, Myles Nadeau-Davis, Sharon Pongnon, Quinn Serpa (all ’20), Cat Buchatskiy, Ashley Sharma, Avik, Rebecca, and Laila Shadid (all ’19) hoped for all workshops to be student-led, Layla said, but they faced difficulties getting this idea approved by the administration.
“We really wanted minimal teacher presence in all of the workshops,” Layla said. “We wanted everything to be student-led, but the administration didn’t want that, so we had to have at least one workshop [the opening session on class] where there were teachers leading.” she said.
Ashley said the administration was wary of including topics that could make students uncomfortable, such as sexual assault, but a compromise was reached by placing faculty members in the case-study workshops and having them also facilitate the curriculum workshop.
“We wanted everyone to unite and be able to contribute with an idea to make our community better,” she said.
To that end, the day finished with an assembly during which representatives from each brainstorming group presented their ideas to the student body. Later, via a Google form, students voted for their favorite idea.
“Seeing the line of BB&N students sharing their thoughtful ideas about making the community more aware, inclusive, and united affirmed for us that we had accomplished our goals for the day,” Ashley said.
Ideas produced in the brainstorming workshops ranged from the creation of a “fan club”—a school-sanctioned student group that could obtain sports credit for regularly attending school sporting events, plays, and musicals—to sexual assault prevention education beginning in the Lower School.
Because the distribution of votes was fairly even across many good ideas, Rebecca said, the CDCG has created a committee to refine the list and work with Mr. Theobald to implement a few of them. To reward the community for their participation in the day, Mr. Theobald said he will treat the US to an ice-cream party.
In preparation for this year’s event, interested students applied to be a part of the CDCG in April of last school year via an online application, and last year’s CDCG chose this year’s group one month later.
Rebecca joined the CDCG in 2017, at the end of her sophomore year.
“When I was a sophomore, the [CDCG] was this mystical thing, and we didn’t know what it was or what they did, so I joined because I wanted to know more about it and how it worked,” Rebecca said.
Once selected, the group began meeting in September of this school year every Thursday during X block, their first meetings centering mainly on brainstorming. They worked on deciding how to structure this year’s Community Day, eventually arriving at the idea of workshops based on case-studies after Liam McGourty and Nola Clancy (both ’20) suggested leading a workshop on mental health.
Liam said both his and Nola’s experiences with depression informed their suggestion.
“We wanted to mainly destigmatize [mental disorders at] BB&N, and we thought this was the best way to do it,” Liam said.
In late October, Samiha Datta ’19 suggested another case-study workshop on minority representation. She said movies like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, which premiered last year, prompted her to think more about the topic.
“I realized how much of an impact the lack of representation has had on my life and that others probably felt similarly,” Samiha said. “Although running a case study won’t eliminate the lack of representation that minorities face, increasing knowledge of this problem will hopefully help to combat it.”
Rebecca thought up the idea to have a workshop about sexual assault prevention during a CDCG meeting. The group then worked on writing the curriculum for these workshops.
Avik said the group chose these workshop topics because they could apply to anyone, creating better discussions than last year’s Community Day when students split up into affinity groups based on race, sexual orientation, and family structure.
“We wanted the conversations to be slightly more challenging than they’ve been over the past three years,” Avik said, “because oftentimes it’s hard to have challenging conversations in affinity groups, especially when it’s the dominant identity.”
Gracie Paul ’19, who facilitated a mental health workshop, said she enjoyed watching people open up about a topic that is stigmatized.
“I think that is one of the main purposes of Community Day—to address things that aren’t talked about enough,” Gracie said. “[Community Day] made me feel more connected with my peers and gave me hope that we may see progress if we continue to provide opportunities to share with each other.”
US Arabic Teacher Amani Abu-Shakra, who spearheaded the curriculum for the teacher-led workshop on socioeconomic class, said the goal of the session was to give students enough information to be able to talk about classism. She cited this goal as her reason for including definitions of terms associated with classism, such as “institutional classism” and “internalized superiority.”
“It’s very easy to live in a bubble and not be aware of the challenges that other people go through,” Ms. Abu-Shakra said, “and I think we just wanted to raise that awareness.”
The socioeconomic class curriculum included a comic by Illustrator Toby Morris that depicts the experience of two people who, over 11 paired frames tracking them from babyhood to adulthood, experience privilege very differently based on their starting points. It also featured a five-minute YouTube video illustrating wealth inequality in the U.S. and comparing public perception of wealth distribution to reality.
If she were to run the workshop again, Ms. Abu-Shakra said, she would want more time for students to apply the material in a discussion.
“This topic is very important, and the students are engaged and want to learn and voice their opinions, so 50 minutes was a challenge,” she said.
Magnus Aske ’19 said Director of Multicultural Services Lewis Bryant, his faculty facilitator for the socioeconomic class workshop, did an excellent job of highlighting the school’s efforts surrounding integration, specifically given its high tuition rates.
“One thing I learned was that unintended classism—which is a result of factors that are out of the control of any one person or organization but which still divides populations of different socioeconomic backgrounds—is still considered classism,” Magnus said. “I had never thought about that.”
“[Classism] is something we don’t talk about a lot,” Mr. Bryant said, noting that Head of School Jen Price’s listening tour revealed issues surrounding class as an under-addressed concern in the community.
Mr. Bryant added that he thought faculty facilitators did a good job teaching the curriculum while acknowledging that students’ experiences may have been imbalanced because some faculty are more comfortable with teaching these kinds of topics.
“Since that’s what I do year-round, it wasn’t much of a challenge for me, particularly given that we had a script that everybody could follow,” Mr. Bryant said.
Rowan Park ’20 said she felt the socioeconomic class workshop was too impersonal to reach many students effectively.
“I wish we had delved a little deeper,” she said. “We talked a lot about the terms and definition of classism, but not class at BB&N and how it affects students. We didn’t even mention that there are these issues at the school.”
Dehlia Fallon ’21 said she found the topics covered at this year’s Community Day useful and inspiring.
“I honestly didn’t realize how much change we could put in at BB&N until every group presented their ideas [during] the closing assembly,” Dehlia said. “I think working in small groups, especially with only students, to figure out a possible change that could be made worked best because it allowed us to share what we really felt without having to hold anything back.”
Jori Balsam ’19 said her favorite part of the day was the brainstorming group since its being student-led made active contribution easier for everyone, especially freshmen.
“For everyone who attended, it was a day where you were able to sit back and soak in the information presented in your workshops, or you could actively be a part of the conversation,” Jori said. “Whichever role you chose, you still walked out of the day with new knowledge.”