Diversity events


“The people who need to hear the conversations are never the ones participating in it,” Taussia Boadi (12) said. “People of color are always the ones that are always fighting for justice, fighting for equity—because we’re directly affected by it.”
The school has a variety of clubs that promote underrepresented groups in the fight for equity, including The Union, Feminist Students’ Association (FSA), Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), and East Wind West Wind (EWWW). Although none of these clubs are affinity groups, they usually attract members with one common core cultural identifier; for example, most members of FSA are female and most members of EWWW are of Asian descent.
Co-Director of the Office for Institutional Culture and Identity Equity (ICIE) John Gentile said that some students grapple with understanding why they should involve themselves in conversations surrounding struggles that they do not face directly. “The narrative that often gets placed on these faces and events is that they’re only meant for [one specific type of] people, even though people are saying that it’s open to everyone,” he said.
It is important to note that those in the majority still have core identifiers, Gentile said. As Robin DiAngelo explains in her book White Fragility, which the entire faculty read this year, white people are labeled as “white” less frequently than someone of color is labeled by their race, because “white” is the assumed race, unless stated otherwise.
“As somebody who grew up as a white person in this country, I was told that I have no racial identity,” Gentile said. However, such mindsets are incomplete and can lead to the belief that those in the majority have no place in the conversation. “Folks with identities that carry power and privilege always have a role in these conversations: to listen, to share what makes them nervous about disrupting hurt and injustice, [and] to ask questions about how to be a better ally,” he said.
Creating change in the community requires everyone to be present, Nya Marshall (11) said. “I would definitely tell students to pop into conversations, maybe attend a club meeting once a month just to catch up and be up to speed,” she said. “Everyone’s input is welcome, and it’s extremely important that we keep that mindset because if not, we’re really going to only focus on one perspective to these problems when there are several that need to be accounted for.”
Although it may not initially seem like it, the discussions that GSA hosts are relevant to all students, Evann Penn Brown (11) said. “Everybody has a sexuality, no matter who you are—straight, gay, bi, whatever,” she said. “[GSA] is very much a place for everyone.”
Furthermore, to be neutral about the gay community—to neither openly be an ally nor to be homophobic—allows oppression to continue, Penn Brown said. “It is our responsibility as human beings in an empathetic and loving society to learn about others and to learn about other struggles,” she said.
Complacency is detrimental, DiAngelo writes. She states that, “To continue reproducing racial inequality, the system only needs white people to be really nice and carry on, smile at people of color, be friendly across race, and go to lunch together on occasion.” Breaking this cycle, which has perpetuated throughout American history, “takes courage and intentionality; the interruption is by definition not passive.”
The mission of The Union, of which Boadi is co-President, is to strengthen bonds between students of different races, religions, genders, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic classes. However, the school’s community often assumes the club is only for black students because it handles diversity and equity work, she said. To increase participation for students of other races at The Union’s meetings, Boadi said that the narrative that it is a “black people’s club” must shift.
Students of all backgrounds should attend The Union’s meetings to educate themselves, The Union co-President Charles Simmons (12), said. “There’s a myth on campus that if you come to a Union meeting, they’re going to put you on the spot,” he said. “There is no real mandate to talk. You can always just listen; you can always just absorb what everybody said.”
Marshall said that while attendance is essential, participation is optional. “It may be better to let students that identify with the race of the topic of conversation mention their points,” she said. “However, anyone’s voice and everyone’s voice is valuable.” If a student does choose to share a respectful opinion, they should pay careful attention to others’ reactions, she said.
Especially this year, to increase participation of students of other races, Simmons and Boadi tried to host events that weren’t just focused on the black experience. “The fact that we had to try to just not talk about a certain group of people—just because of what the greater Horace Mann community would think about the club—is disgusting,” Boadi said. Specifically, Boadi and Simmons have held conversations during The Union’s meetings surrounding politics and religion, and they have also conducted joint meetings with GSA and FSA.
GSA can serve as both an affinity group and a club for everyone, Penn Brown said. “It’s a hard line to balance, because I’m sure there are kids that show up to GSA that aren’t out yet and are just trying to see what the space is like.”
Typically, because GSA serves as a safe space for people who identify as a part of the LGBTQ+ community, it draws in queer students, Penn Brown said. The presidents usually lead discussions about homophobia in current events, as well as their personal journeys regarding their identities.
However, the club is open to everyone. Students who do not identify as LGBTQ+ should still attend the meetings so that they can learn about how to stand up for those who are a part of the community, Penn Brown said. To become an ally, it’s important to learn the definitions regarding sexual orientation, the fluidity of sexuality, and the struggles that people in the community face, she said.
FSA meetings also attract one demographic, in part due to the belief that feminism is restricted to women, Sofia Del Gatto (12) said. As such, it turns into a quasi-affinity group, although occasionally, one or two male students will show up, she said.
An affinity space created within the school but outside of FSA would be beneficial, Del Gatto said. “What affinity groups allow us to do is start creating our own little spaces within this larger space of society, which has already been claimed by the privileged,” Del Gatto said. “It’s a space to develop and learn about ourselves.”
FSA, though, is a space for all students to discuss issues such as sexual harassment, catcalling, and abuse. “In some discussions, there is a sense that men need to leave a space for women and non-binary people to express themselves because they are the ones that have first hand experiences with gender opression,” Del Gatto said. “That said, men’s voices are also important when learning about their side of the issue.”
For Peter Arvanitis (11), the blurred line between affinity groups and clubs for everyone makes him reluctant to participate at all, he said. He would have been more likely to attend an event such as Asia Night, however, if he had known that other white students would attend. “You wouldn’t obviously want to be the only person of your group there, because you might feel like you’re infringing or that you’re not welcome,” Arvanitis said.
Although some friends told him that he was welcome at Asia Night, Arvanitis did not know if he would be accepted by all members of the club and decided not to go. If the administration made clear whether a club is open to people of all core identifiers or is an affinity group, there would be increased attendance, as students would know if they are welcome, Arvanitis said.
Simmons, on the other hand, was initially drawn to FSA as a learning experience. Because he can’t speak from the “I” perspective, he does not talk very much; rather, he listens to what his peers have to say. “Oftentimes, learning is half-talking and half-listening,” he said.
One special learning experience for Simmons was the Gender in Debate Conference this past November. The stories he heard shocked him; as a male debater, he recognized that he hasn’t faced the challenges of his female counterparts. One particular example that stood out to him was that a judge told a female debater that her voice was annoying because it was too high-pitched. “That was really eye opening for me, and I’m glad that I went because now that’s something that I keep in mind whenever I go to a Model Congress conference,” he said.
Jiyon Chatterjee (9), a member of the Debate Team, also attended the conference. Because the conference connected gender issues to debate, a topic with which Chatterjee was previously familiar, the conversations felt more accessible. “When you hear about your friends’ experiences, or your classmates’ experiences, or one of the club leaders’ experiences, it feels much more personalized and much more understandable than if we’re talking about these big issues that we may not necessarily understand.”
Further connecting clubs to issues that students are familiar with would convince more students like himself to attend meetings, he said. “The best way to encourage people to get involved in the conversation, regardless of their identity, is if they feel a personal connection to the issue.”
EWWW meetings are open to the entire school community, but students do sometimes see it as an “Asian club,” Tomoko Hida (10) said. Usually, the turnout consists of Asian Americans along with a few friends of the Asian Americans in attendance.
The conversations within the club are geared towards the attendees, so the club members focus on bonding over shared experiences as opposed to teaching others about the Asian American experience. “The meetings are a lot smaller, a lot more cozy, a lot more intimate. You’re able to talk about your day, something that bothered you,” Hida said. “It feels safer and easier in a community where you know you won’t be offending anyone.”
If a larger number of students of other races attended the meetings, the conversations in EWWW would shift. “It’d be unproductive [to continue our current conversations], because there’s so much more that we can be doing with an audience that’s majority non-Asian American,” she said. “It becomes more effective to have a showcase [like Asia night] appreciating our culture than focusing on each student’s day.”
Faculty advisor to The Union Benjamin Kafoglis is pleased with any turnout. He would be more concerned about the demographic if structural parts of the curriculum, such as Seminar on Identity (SOI), did not already exist. “Students don’t need to be the providers of all the conversations on social justice in the school,” he said. “I think that it’s on the faculty, on the school to provide those spaces.”
Instead, Kafoglis sees The Union as a space for students who want to have extended conversations. “I want to make sure that the conversation is safe and informed, but if it’s attended by three people, and those three people get to talk about it, if it’s attended by 50 people and all those people get to talk about it, great, because that’s a conversation that wasn’t happening before.”
Co-Director of ICIE Candice Powell-Caldwell said that hearing about others’ experiences is valuable, as it builds empathy. “Attending such events can provide a window into how others identify across difference and how the world around them impacts their daily experiences,” she said.
Likewise, if a student is willing to share about an experience with Kafoglis, he sees it as a gift, whether it be about an experience concerning oppression or a beautiful aspect of their culture. “In that regard, I would certainly encourage all students to seek out conversations,” he said. “[School] is a place for sharing,” he said.
Still, Marshall said that more conversations around identity should be mandatory. The community should come together and share their opinions to draft institutional demands to present to the administration, including diversifying the humanities curriculums and mandating conversations in the Multicultural Center, Marshall said. “Having a day or a class lesson that’s really dedicated to conversations around these issues where everybody has to participate is really where you’re going to get the most input from the greater community.”
Creating change has always been a goal for Marshall, but it has gained new importance this week after the murder of George Floyd, she said. “People just have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. And that’s the way change is really going to be made—if you just enter a space with an open mind and with honesty, and listen and learn.”