On a typical day at the Upper School (US), you probably wouldn’t find community members dancing to Filipino music, eating 10 different types of rice, or participating in social experiments—but on Community Day you would.
In its second consecutive year, the student and teacher-led day of activities and discussions on topics surrounding diversity shifted away from last year’s uniform curriculum. Several weeks before the January 24 event, grade deans sent out a list of 42 available workshops and invited community members to select six, depending on which topics and kinds of instruction most interested them.
Members of the Community Day Core Group (CDCG)—10 upperclassmen who led the event’s organization—informed the community of their new vision at a morning assembly on September 12. Later that day by email, they asked anyone interested to apply to create or lead such workshops, with applications due in early October. Seventy students and 13 faculty members ultimately chose to facilitate, selecting for their curricula a range of topics from mental health and environmental injustice to immigration stories and Islamophobia.
Students received two workshop assignments in their advisories at 8 a.m. and headed to the Nicholas Athletic Center 20 minutes later, where US Director Geoff Theobald, Director of Multicultural Services Lewis Bryant, and the CDCG gave opening remarks in which they reminded everyone to keep an open mind and embrace the day.
“We really appreciate everyone coming together to celebrate our community in a way where we can hear everyone’s voices on topics they feel most strongly about,” CDCG member Emma Voligny ’17 said during the assembly.
Back at the main building, the morning’s hour-and 15-minute workshops began at 9:00 and 10:25 a.m., respectively, followed by lunch and an hour-long performance by two slam poets closing the day at the NAC.
Many of the workshops centered on an activity. Participants of “Feminist Zine” made collages by cutting up magazines or drawing images that represented their definition of feminism. In “The Philippines” workshop, members learned the steps to traditional Filipino dances, ate Filipino food, and talked about the injustice Filipinos have faced in history, especially during World War II. And in “Ha Ha, you look and talk funny,” participants got up on stage to reenact stereotypes and better understand both what misconceptions exist about others and how to push past them.
Carly Newell ’18 said the latter workshop was especially interactive and helped her view stereotypes in a different light.
“We discussed whether or not stereotypes are always offensive, or whether it was situational, but we couldn’t come to a definite answer,” she said. “But we realized that we should always confront them if we feel targeted or [if] someone else does.”
In “Class in Communities,” students were assigned roles in three economically different school districts and asked to petition for a budget based on arbitrary resources and demands that were unequal across the groups. One district had to make due with 65 pupils per teacher and desks for every other student, while another debated luxury options like statues and extravagant field trips. Meanwhile, “police” patrolled the districts with instructions to favor those in the wealthiest districts and to harangue, mistreat, and even jail those in the poorest.
Will Hurley ’18, assigned to be a school administrator from the affluent district, said his most important takeaway was that we don’t always acknowledge differences in socioeconomic class, or differences between communities or schools, not because we don’t want to but because we’re not aware of them.
“I went over to people in the middle-income district, and they were like, ‘Who are you?’ And I was like, ‘I’m the same as you,’” Will said. “I heard the commotion going on in the other district, and I knew there were disturbances, but I was focused on getting my tasks done with the resources that I had. I didn’t need help from other people, so I didn’t give them my full attention.”
“I didn’t branch out and learn the situations that other groups were in,” he added. “I was preoccupied by the money I had to spend. I really was. I was just doing the activity. People were like, ‘Spend more,’ so I was like, ‘Okay.’ ”
Activities from last year also made a reappearance. In the “White Privilege” workshop, students participated in a step-up, step-back game where the group began in one line with eyes closed and then moved forward or backward based on how they related to a privilege-based statement, such as “You’ve felt unsafe walking at night.”
Avik Sarkar ’19 said the prompt “You often feel that your parents are too busy to spend time with you” never struck him as a disadvantage.
“I’ve experienced this but never thought of it as a lack of privilege,” he said. “I think the most important thing you can do as a privileged person is to use your privilege to support those without your privileges.”
The note-card activity also returned this year. In the “Fishbowl Discussion” workshop, students listed their race, religion, culture, gender, socioeconomic class, and sexual orientation—all broad elements of their identity—and, over several rounds, were asked to part with a remaining item that was least important to them.
Guillermo Alvarez ’17 said scratching off gender and sexual orientation first was privilege in and of itself.
“There are people who feel threatened or oppressed because that is a part of their identity,” he said.
Discussion leader Lauren Bernier ’18, in the same workshop, said she was surprised at the depth of the group’s reflections.
“I wasn’t expecting discussion to flow so well because the topics are not generally discussed in a school setting,” she said, noting that unfamiliarity can lead to an uncomfortable atmosphere. “But everyone participated, and no one was afraid to ask questions.”
Many students reflected that the strength of the day’s discussions depended on the environment established by the various group leaders.
Charlie Heveran ’17 said that while the topic of xenophobia in his workshop—“Trump, the EU, and Brexit: Understanding the modern refugee crisis”—was interesting, he wished the discussion were allowed to flow more freely.
James Kilzer ’17, also in that workshop, agreed: “Not many students wanted to speak right away, but were forced to.”
Kat Capossela ’17 said she thought the agenda of the “Blurred Lines” workshop, which analyzed the content of three pop music videos, was too fixed before the discussion.
“There are many different ways viewers can interpret what goes into our media,” she said, referring to the debate in her group about whether Taylor Swift setting her “Wildest Dreams” music video in 1940s Africa, the height of colonization, was “ignorant.” “We live in an extremely liberal bubble, and sometimes I feel like opinions that don’t coincide with that are shoved aside.”
CDCG member Eptisam Kassim ’17 said hearing people discuss what they learned from their workshops was rewarding.
“I ended up talking to a group of sophomore girls about the perception of women and how that perception is different when talking about Muslim women,” she said. “I feel like I wouldn’t have had that conversation with people that I’m not close friends with—randomly, during lunch—without Community Day.”
To end the day, Anthony Febo, a member of the national art collective Flatline Poetry, returned to perform spoken word poems for his second year at the US. This time, he brought along fellow poet and Flatline Co-Founder Lissa Piercy. The pair performed in alternation, delivering memorized lyrics on personal topics to the crowd, whom they urged to snap and howl at lines of interest, before concluding with a poetry duet.
CDCG member Emma Voligny ’17 said their performance was her favorite part of the program.
“They captured the essence of Community Day,” she said. “At the very end, I noticed that everyone was snapping or smiling or cheering. I was so proud to be a part of BB&N.”
Although many community members shared Emma’s positive reaction to the day, 57 students were marked absent on January 24 compared to the standard 15 to 20, according to Kerri Shea, administrative assistant to the dean of students.
Mr. Bryant said those students should be held accountable for their actions.
“It is unfortunate that they would perceive a day like this to not be worth [their] time,” he said. “It is unfortunate that they would not have enough respect for their peers who put a lot of time and effort into making the day successful.”
“I would usually say the individuals who choose to skip a day like this need it the most,” Mr. Bryant added.
Looking ahead, Mr. Bryant said event organizers would imitate this year’s “lighter” feeling next year, possibly by having a movie day or a daylong concert with various speakers and performances.
“It’s all about maintaining the momentum to make each year a little bit different, but not losing sight of the educational aspect,” Mr. Bryant said. “And the fact that we are building a community.”