Georgia Rosenberg, Staff Writer
On August 11, a devastating event took place in Charlottesville, VA. White nationalists marched the streets, chanting white supremacist slogans, some of which included “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us! White lives matter!” The protests continued throughout the next day, as counter-protesters joined the scene. The rally became violent, and many individuals armed themselves with pistols and guns. By the end of the day, the protests left an innocent woman, Heather Heyer, dead – one rally-goer allegedly crashed his truck into a crowd of pedestrians.
“I was horrified by what happened in Charlottesville this summer,” said Ms. Perry, Head of the Upper School. She spoke of her friends who teach at schools across the country, especially in the South, where school was already in session at the time of the Charlottesville rally. “They all had to do something,” she said, “Everybody I knew was scrambling, and I thought to myself, I would be scrambling too.”
When Mr. Davis, Head of School, arrived at the August faculty meeting, he too had Charlottesville on his mind. He saw this issue as one that needed to be addressed and decided to make it the focal point of his annual address to the faculty and students.
“We all know that our country is fractured right now, we are divided on issues that are very important to us: class, race, socioeconomic status, geography,”
Mr. Davis wanted to express the idea of moral courage as he touched on the horrific event in Charlottesville (some of you may recognize this topic from his first meditation, one that outlined the moral courage of two Olympic athletes protesting for racial equality). Though Mr. Davis understands that the school should never impose views on students, he noted that “there are some things that are obvious,” and this situation is one of them. “We all know that our country is fractured right now, we are divided on issues that are very important to us: class, race, socioeconomic status, geography,” he said.
Ms. Perry also mentioned that, though people may be more open-minded when it comes to some topics, political division is the new barrier. She noted that our school community visibly suffers from political division, and some students may feel like they “can’t [say] what they really think” in order to be a member of this community. Ms. Perry wants to focus on this barrier by encouraging us to practice the art of good conversation and to listen to both sides of the argument. “I want to open up that piece of our culture,” she said.
In many respects, these CGL conversations are a way in which faculty can help students practice skills that are very different from what we’re seeing in the adults that lead our country.
After hearing Mr. Davis’ talk at the faculty meeting, Ms. Perry and others wanted to come up with a way to help students talk about issues with people with differing perspectives. In many ways, the new Community Goals for Learning program (CGL), which launched on Wednesday, was inspired by this event – one that clearly outlined the marginalized state of our country and community. “I want us to practice having conversations and listening to each other,” Perry said. Mr. Davis noted that in many respects, these CGL conversations are a way in which faculty can help students practice skills that are very different from what we’re seeing in the adults that lead our country. The community goals for learning that have already been established (seeking truth and understanding, integrity, reflection, curiosity, open-mindedness) are being used as a framework for the program. In addition to being centered around effective conversation, the program is designed to emphasize the role of empathy in leadership, an aspect of leadership that is often overlooked.
CGL is about figuring out a way to “get people to take off their jerseys,”
CGL is also largely inspired by the Anti-Defamation League program last year. Following this program, which included a student panel and open-mic, many students, parents, and faculty wanted to encourage the development of more conversations like this. During ADL, students shared personal stories about their experiences with bullying; the event truly brought the community closer together. Ms. Perry noted that she received many requests for more of these programs (from both students and parents), and she began to think about how she could develop something new.
Following the Charlottesville rally, Ms. Perry and other faculty recognized that something had to be done; “The students need to start practicing having conversations and listening to each other, [even] when the stakes are lower,” she said. Ms. Perry remembered the powerful words of Mr. Vehslage, college counselor, who noted that after something as horrific as Charlottesville, everyone “comes into the conversation already wearing their jerseys.” It becomes more about defending personal view than listening to others. CGL is about figuring out a way to “get people to take off their jerseys,” Perry noted.
Dr. Bramlett, the Director of the Center for Leadership, was very clear that they are not committed to the name “CGL.” Bramlett, who has been an essential part of the development of the program and the training of student facilitators, essentially sees CGL as combining two main ideas: practicing the art of conversation and allowing students to lead the process. 46 student facilitators have volunteered their time and effort to effectively lead these conversations. The group, which is ethnically, religiously, and politically diverse, consists of sophomores, juniors, and seniors. These students attended an hour long training session prior to the launch of the program and will be working in pairs to facilitate the conversation. Michael Pizzani (‘19) is a CGL facilitator this year. He mentioned that he joined CGL because he “wanted to be more involved in the school” and was interested in “lead[ing] interesting conversations.”
Whatever the topic, these conversations will be centered around a “common text for everyone,”
The first CGL conversation, which took place last Wednesday (September 27th), focused on the topic of religion and religious identity within our community. Students met in groups of about 15, each of which consisted of students from all upper school grades. Each group was also paired with two student facilitators and two teachers. In order to ensure that the groups were largely random, they were organized based on the first initial of students’ first names. Students were encouraged to practice listening, rather than helplessly waiting to speak while someone else is talking. The facilitators asked discussion prompts, allowing one person to respond for an uninterrupted minute while their partner just listened. Though the other topics have not yet been established, Ms. Perry and Dr. Bramlett both noted that a commonly requested topic is mental health and stress. Whatever the topic, these conversations will be centered around a “common text for everyone,” Bramlett noted. Ms. Perry also mentioned that they are committed to choosing topics that are responsive to the interests of the students.
“I feel incredibly lucky to work in a school where it’s such a given that by and large students are respectful to each other [and] to teachers, [and] teachers are respectful to teachers,” Ms. Perry mentioned when asked about the effect of CGL on our community. We are already “starting from a place of respect,” she said, and any shaping of the culture is about moving us from “good to better.” The hope of the faculty and students involved in the CGL program is that these conversations will help to make our community more open-minded, and will allow us to better understand each other, without unnecessary assumptions. “I hope that people will try to understand each other more deeply and more authentically, and more open-mindedly,” Mr. Davis noted. This includes reducing our level of anger, as we often come to conversations with predetermined notions and judgments.
The next CGL conversation will take place on October 26, 2017. Though the topic has not yet been revealed, students should expect to participate in another meaningful, in-depth conversation.