Over the weekend, Andover hosted its first Social Justice Institute Conference, a two-day overnight event that assembled students from various boarding schools to explore issues of privilege. More specifically, the program focused on issues of privilege pertaining to race, class, gender and sexual orientation at boarding school campuses and in America as a whole.
Thea Rossman ’15 and Devontae Freeland ’15 worked alongside a team of young adult activists from Boston Mobilization to lead the weekend’s events.
Activities ranged from workshops on racial and gender terminology to real-life simulations of how public school funding works in America.
“I think [the conference] was a great tool for [educating] our students on the language to have these conversations. We have heard a lot of young people that, even when they are interested in having conversations about race or gender, they don’t necessarily have the language to do so,” said LaShawn Springer, Associate Director of College Counseling and incoming Dean of the Community and Multicultural Development office.
Students were split into “family” groups of ten people, reconnecting at the end of activities to share their thoughts and experiences.
“There is a lot of trust-building work [in the family groups], not only thinking and learning about systems of oppression but also tapping into our own feelings, helping us understand our own privileges and thinking about what we need in instances where we are in groups that are normally oppressed in our paradigm of power,” said Springer.
For some of the workshops, students were split into affinity groups, first by race and then by the gender with which they identified.
In one activity, underrepresented students of color who identified as girls had to silently line themselves up based on skin tone from lightest to darkest, in order to provoke reflections about colorism—discrimination based on skin color—within the African American and Latino community.
“I think [the affinity groups] provided a safe space where people felt they could speak more openly about their experiences as a person of a specific race or gender on an independent campus,” said Lydia Fikru ’17, a student who attended the conference.
Another activity titled “Theatre of Oppression” involved seven students of color lining up on the opposite side of seven white students. They had to recall a moment that they either witnessed, perpetrated or experienced an act of racism and made a short action or sound to represent it.
“The overall understanding of the types of privilege which males in America have as opposed to women [stood out to me], specifically the privilege which cisgender males have…the focus on the intersections of gender and race helped me get out of my comfort zone and be educated on something which is important on campus and something that I necessarily don’t think about everyday,” said Jair Suazo ’17, who attended the conference.
For an activity centered around gender, students stood next to each other in a line while statements about social privilege were read. If the statement was applicable, they had to move a step forward. By the end, cisgender boys were far ahead, cisgender girls were a few steps in front of where they started and transgender students were still at the starting line.
“It was very powerful illustration of the issues that exist for transgender and gender non-binary people,” said Theo Perez ’16, a participant in the conference.
Students were split into genders for the overnight portion of the conference, with boys sleeping in Kemper Auditorium and girls in Abbot Campus classrooms.
“[The conference] encouraged students to create networks across institutions which I think is a really powerful piece in all of this because students no longer feel they are alone doing this on their campus, they feel like they have other students that they can turn to for advice and as soundboards as they continue to work through these issues [of social justice] on their campuses,” said Springer.
As the conference came to a close on Sunday afternoon, students regrouped with their respective schools to discuss how to implement the information they had gained into the everyday lives of students.
A total of 60 students participated in the conference. The 25 Andover students who attended joined students from Choate Rosemary Hall, Northfield Mount Herman (NMH), Phillips Exeter Academy, Concord Academy, St. Paul’s School, Governor’s Academy and Milton Academy.
Springer will be looking at how clubs and organizations on campus can further incorporate multiculturalism so that they could be more representative of the Andover community.
“[I attended the conference because] I was thinking about it a lot in terms of my role as Co-President next year and the issues which exist on campus… As someone who is meant to represent and help out the student body, it seemed foolish to me to not take an opportunity to learn more about issues of social justice and diversity,” said Perez.
The conference, which was funded by an Abbot Grant, will be held again each year for the next three years.
“I hope [the students] all walked away feeling empowered and like they are change agents within their communities. Watching them go through this training over the past few days, I feel really good and confident about the work we can continue to do together,” said Springer.