Conference attendees attempt repurpose white privilege

Emma Colacino and Yin Fei

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Earlier this month, male-identifying students from a plethora of New York City private schools were given the opportunity to attend one of two conferences dedicated to promoting meaningful conversations about the role of men in society. Located at the Collegiate school, the Young Men of Color Symposium (YMOCS) as well as the (Re)Defining Power Conference provided male students and educators with a space in which they could partake in relevant discussions regarding their personal and societal identities.
Middle Division history teacher and co-Director of the HM Steps Program Ronald Taylor attended the YMOCS two years prior during his first year teaching at the school. His motivations sprouted from his past involvement with several youth conferences that he had access to while growing up. He also had the objective of wanting to “stand in solidarity” with his students that had expressed interest in going through a similar experience.
“I worked hard to make sure that I always put myself in experiences that taught me how to navigate our world and how to show up and support others as young men of color,” Taylor said. “I think it’s important for us to show up in spaces even when it’s not required for us to.”
Some central themes that were discussed were the idea of masculinity as a whole, what it actually means to be a man, and how to express masculinity in different ways.
“It was nice to actually be in a space where young men were being encouraged to take a meta-moment and think deeply about ‘why I feel the way I feel,” he said. “We talked about being okay with being ‘emotional’ because it means that you’re processing something.”
This was important to Taylor because when he was growing up they were very narrow ideas around what the definition of being a “man” entailed.
While Alex Nagin (10) did not attend either of the conferences, he shares similar thoughts about the difficulties surrounding standards of masculinity and the factors it revolves around.
“All men are held to the same standard of having [to] act ‘straight’ to be masculine, and there’s really no room for interpretation,” he said. “ I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been described as the one with the high voice, the flamboyant one, the one who talks like a girl, the gay kid, etc., just because I didn’t conform to certain stereotypes.”
Afterwards there was a series of breakout sessions for the educators and the young men in attendance before they came back together in a closing moment of reflection. This focused on what everyone learned and how it impacted their thoughts or even changed certain narratives, Taylor said.
“It was good to hear what other schools and educators were doing differently to aid their students in their journey through a predominantly white environment, with the additional layer of being a young man of color.”
The closing remarks especially, were a really nice touch because it made the conference more meaningful, Taylor said. “It was as if you didn’t have to just show up and be present, but you also had to talk about how to apply some of the things that you learned in real life.”
The (Re)Defining Power conference, which was held this year on the same day as the YMOCS, was created as a way for young white men to join the conversation of equity and inclusion, John Gentile, Co-Director of the Office for Identity, Culture, and Institutional Equity said. The conference was created six years ago and has since grown and shifted each year. This year, Gentile, as well as Jack Eagan (12), attended the conference.
This year the conference included a session with the YMOCS and a presentation from keynote speaker Darnell Moore, author of No Ashes in the Fire and Director of Inclusion for Content & Marketing at Netflix. Jack Eagan moderated the opening key note speech with Moore. “It was thrilling to ask him questions about the book and his incredibly inspiring childhood,” Eagan said.
Afterwards, the conferences split and (Re)Defining Power held workshops with facilitators from the school as well from other New York City schools. At the end of the conference, the YMOCS and the (Re)Defining Power Conference came back together to reflect on the experience of having done the work separately yet intentionally in the same community, Gentile said.
“The conference focuses on connecting middle and high school students to talk about race, gender, and societal norms,” said Eagan.
An important idea discussed during the conference was the ways silence affects the community. “Silence costs young men the ability to embrace the multiplicity that they hold around gender identity and around race,” Gentile said.
The students in attendance also discussed the idea that people’s individual identities can help support others within the community. “People’s joy and identity are not in opposition to each other, but actually can support each other’s growth and humanity,” Gentile said.
Students shared their own experiences relating to the issues they discussed. “We had constructive dialogue about moments in our own lives that point to larger institutional and societal issues,” said Eagan.
When creating this space, the facilitators kept creativity and joy in mind. “That’s something I am thinking more critically about: how do you think about this from a place of creation and creativity, and less from a place of loss or scarcity,” Gentile said.
The young people dictated the issues discussed during the conference and the direction the discussion moved in, Gentile said. “Although conference was facilitated based on the proposed topics of discussion, we had the chance to take the discussion in a multitude of directions,” Eagan said.
However, because of the limited time of the conference, the discussion did not cover all topics. “We are always trying to figure out with the time that we have and how we can make it most meaningful,” Gentile said. “But I think if there was more time, we would build in more time for cross racial dialogue between the two conferences.”
The conference allowed students to share their understanding of complex issues. “Not only was the experience intellectually stimulating but extremely cathartic to discuss my change of perception regarding these in-depth issues,” said Eagan.
“I hope we continue to find ways to open up that dialogue because I think when everyone is talking and engaging critically, it makes for a better community,” Gentile said.
“The purpose of Unity Week is to have those conversations around what are the things that actually unite us and what are the things that actually challenge us,” Taylor said. “Having opportunities for students to really grapple with difficult conversations helps to push the whole concept of Unity Week forward because the more opportunities students open themselves up to, the better people they will become, making Unity Week less conversation and something more actionable and purposeful.”