Focus on Individuals, Not Stereotypes Key Takeaway from Community In Action Week

Upper school students informed and engaged with their classmates and community on diversity, inclusivity and social justice during last week’s Community In Action (CiA) Week. Previously held in one day of activities, this year CiA expanded to a weeklong activity filled with learning, discussions and workshops. 

The overall goal of CiA week is to further educate the Upper School community on topics related to equity and inclusion, and provide a bridge for people who may not have the same perspectives, explained John Gomes, Interim Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.

“It provides a scope so that our relative distance politically can be put into perspective,” Mr. Gomes said. “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, we can all agree that antisemitism and homelessness are bad.”

This year, holding the workshops over the course of a week, in-person and virtually, provided ample time for students to digest each session and kept students engaged in lively discussions, Mr. Gomes added.

Each day, representatives from student organizations and leadership groups shared more about their organization, and then led workshops aimed at educating their peers on issues of social justice. After each student workshop presentation, the students broke into smaller groups to hold discussions in a safe space amongst themselves.

“Even when students weren't jumping to participate on Zoom, they were having really meaningful conversations during the breakouts and continued them well after the workshops had ended,” Gomes said. “CiA Week was a great success!” 

Here is a brief look at each of the workshop presentations. 

Black Student Union

Enshalla Dunlop and Nia Ellie from the Black Student Union presented on the topic of systemic racism and COVID-19. The two girls educated the group about the history of systemic racism in the U.S. through several historical figures and events like the Tuskegee Experiment, which took place in Alabama between 1932 and 1972 when hundreds of Black Americans were told the study was to observe the natural history of untreated syphilis. The Black participants were promised free medical care but were instead deceived, untreated and many died as a result.

Enshalla and Nia explained how events like the Tuskegee Experiment and others throughout history have caused Black Americans to distrust the U.S. healthcare system, and be subject to racial discrimination in healthcare. The girls presented data and statistics demonstrating how Black Americans and people of color have been disportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and offered advice on how to be anti-racist.

Nia suggested students raise awareness and support organizations and people who are fighting to reduce racial inequalities. And Enshalla suggested that teachers, students and faculty must work to create anti-racist culture through trainings and education on indirect biases, microaggressions and discrimination. 

“Empower marginalized groups by investing in having their voices heard,” Enshalla said. 

Jewish Student Union

Jewish Student Union’s presentation, led by Caroline Freiwald, focused on the presence of anti-semitism and its connection to the media. Caroline referenced Deborah Lipstady’s book Beyond Belief, which noted that news coverage in the U.S. downplayed the genocide of European Jews during the Nazi regime, considering such horrific acts as “beyond belief.” Modern media, particularly social media, also perpetuates antisemitic behavior, Caroline explained.

A key component of the presentation was an analysis of the 2018 mass killing at the Tree of Life synagogue near Pittsburgh, where survivors of the Holocaust were among the victims injured or killed. Antisemitic messaging and images surrounded the tragedy, and Caroline explored the media’s portrayal of the event. She also highlighted the multifaced nature of anti-Semitism, and how some Jewish followers experience different levels of prejudice, remarking that, while it may not be the country’s top priority, “it doesn’t mean that it’s not important.”

Asian Student Alliance

Olivia Peng and Shreya Kalra, from the Asian Student Alliance, presented on the “model Minority stereotype” that affects Asian Americans. Olivia and Shreya explained the history of Asian American stereotypes and how laws like the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 allowed the U.S. government to grant citizenship to only Chinese refugees of “good standing and demonstrated usefulness.” This Act, along with other historical events, helped to spur the stereotype and discrimination that all Asian Americans are smart, high-achieving and hardworking, making them a “model minority,” the girls explained in the workshop. These stereotypes of all Asian Americans being academically successful, specifically in math and science, puts them on a “narrow pedestal” that does not allow them to grow into more well-rounded individuals, Olivia and Shreya said.

The girls explained these stereotypes can cause Asian Americans to experience high anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and curbs growth and leadership opportunities for Asian Americans in the workplace. The girls encouraged their peers to be aware of and acknowledge the stereotypes and then combat them by becoming educated and putting yourself in a more diverse environment.

“Focus on seeing individuals as an individual, not a stereotype,” Olivia said. 

Council for the Advancement of Girls

Shreya Kalra and Molly Knoell represented the Council for the Advancement of Girls with a presentation addressing concerns women face in prison. They shared statistics regarding the incarceration rates of women, most of whom are held for non-violent crimes and at a higher rate than men, the girls reported. Shreya and Molly examined the impact of the disproportionate incarceration rates on female prisoners and how it is perpetuated through sexual and physical violence by guards, family separation, systemic discrimination and racism, and the denial of basic health and essential services.

During student-lead breakout sessions, students brainstormed solutions to breaking the cycle of victims becoming prisoners, mass incarceration, rehabilitation vs. punishment, and holding oppressors accountable.

Compass

In Compass, the organization that provides a safe space for students to discuss sexual orientation and gender identity, Fiona Moser led a presentation on LGBTQ+ History. She opened the presentation offering helpful terminology and what words can be offensive.

“It’s ok to not know everything,” she said. “So always ask or do some research.” 

Fiona went on to showcase several historic figures and events within the gay community. She discussed people as far back as Alexander the Great, all the way to Tennessee Williams and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and the first-known lesbian astronaut, which was revealed after her death in 2012. In the Compass breakout session, the girls were asked to reconstruct a timeline of LGBTQ+ events to put them in the correct chronological order. 

Middle Eastern Student Alliance

Nicole Kramer and Abby Shrikanthan discussed the Standards of Beauty in the Middle East and West in their presentation for the Middle Eastern Student Alliance (MESA). They asked the question “What is beauty?” and explained that there are different standards of beauty in different cultures and parts of the world. In the U.S. and Europe, the “all-American beauty” and tall, thin, blonde, white woman are considered the standard, while in the Middle East, it’s the “absence” of things that are considered beautiful. The absence of body hair, dark skin, scars or body fat are appealing in the Middle Eastern culture, the girls explained.

Constantly being reminded that everything we contain should “ideally” be absent, is deeply harmful for young brown women stepping into adolescence, Nicole and Abby explained.

The girls then asked their peers to discuss what truly is beauty in the workshop breakout sessions. 

Service Council 

For Service Council, Sarah Toth discussed Project Home, which works to alleviate homelessness in Philadelphia, in her peer presentation around food and housing insecurity. Sarah explained to her peers that a food desert, often found in urban, rural or low-income neighborhoods is when an area lacks access to healthy foods like fruits and vegetables and the nearest grocery store  is more than a mile away. Sarah explained that the consequences of a food desert affect both the health and finances of a community. People who live in a food desert oftentimes must rely on local convenience stores and fast food, which end up being the less healthy and more expensive option.

Sarah asked the workshop to break up into smaller groups throughout her presentation to discuss things like the difference between a house and home, why might food deserts occur in low-income communities, and strategies to mitigate food deserts.

Unity

Unity is the overarching student group for the student alliance groups involved in Community in Action Week. Hanna Askarpour led the Unity presentation on gender identity and how the community can support trans people. Gender, she noted, is a social construct, and while trans individuals present however they choose, it does not inherently change their gender identity. Trans people, however, face harassment and transphobia on a daily basis, including coded messages in the media regarding gender presentation. Hate crimes against trans persons, especially Black women and femmes, occur at alarming rates, even within the LGBTQ+ community, where white gay men hold more social power, Hanna said.

Hanna countered the traditionally held idea that being trans is a state of gender dysphoria, or hating the body and self. By contrast, being trans is gender euphoria, or presenting in a way that makes one happy, she said.

The Unity session also offered suggestions on how to support the trans community, including through mutual aid funds, the use of pronouns in bios, identifying and calling out the transphobic comments of others, supporting trans artists, and more.

Hanna closed out the week’s CiA events on Friday asking her peers to remember that they are a unified community, who has to work together for the same end goal of collaborating in a safe space.

“We need as many voices and opportunities as possible to make this school an even better place,” Hanna said.

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