By Lauren Goldberg, Curriculum Coordinator
How do our students see their identities reflected in the community around them?
How do the adults in their environment help to shape young people's sense of self?
These questions are part of the ongoing conversations of our Diversity and Inclusion Parent Affinity Group. As we continue to be intentional about welcoming faculty and administrators who reflect a broad range of ethnic, racial and cultural identities, we also make efforts to bring individuals to campus who reflect and express that same range of identities.
This week, students in Grades 7–9 had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion led by School Counselor Kossouth Bradford. Working in partnership with the parent affinity group, Kossouth invited four members of the Foote/New Haven community to speak to Middle School students about their experiences. Although each panelist brought a unique story of identity, there were several common themes in their remarks.
Foote parent Dr. Mona Gohara, the daughter of Egyptian parents who immigrated to the United States as religious minorities, spoke about the way she was raised to be a self-assured female and a high-achieving scholar. It wasn't until she was in medical school, she told us, that she began to experience microaggressions related to her ethnicity. She described many times when people have asked her, "where are you from?" with the implication that she is not American. A patient once angrily challenged her to "go back to her country," which she calmly explained was Ohio. "These comments have sometimes made me angry," she said, "but they have not been deterrents." Dr. Gohara told the students, "Being a woman of color is part of my identity."
Enroue Halfkenny was the next member of the panel to address the students. A therapist, activist, artist and priest of the Nigerian Ifa Yoruba religion, he has a private practice providing psychotherapy and consultation to schools and organizations. Mr. Halfkenny described his mixed-race background (his father is African-American and his mother is of northern European descent). He talked about the ways that race affects people's lives and his own journey to discover where he comes from. Mr. Halfkenny raised intriguing questions and ideas about the ways we all internalize certain messages and behaviors related to race.
Hillary Bridges is the cofounder of the PREST movement (People for Race and Ethnic Studies Today). She is also the founder of "Telling Our Story," a program that creates space for young African-American people to come together to share untold American stories of both continued oppression and tremendous achievement. She began her remarks by sharing memories of her childhood in suburban Philadelphia, one of very few children of color in her privileged neighborhood. Hillary described the pain of self-hatred, wishing that she were white so that she would fit in with her friends and classmates.
Another Foote parent, Jason Price, rounded out the panel. Jason is the head of private equity for the Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds and founder of the PostMasters project. Like Ms. Bridges, Mr. Price grew up in a segregated city (St. Louis, Missouri) as one of very few African-American students in a mostly white community. He described some powerful experiences that reminded him of the challenges of racism in our country despite his parents' message that he and his siblings should be proud of their heritage. "Experiences like that can tear you down, or they can build you up," he said. "As a black man, I know that situations like that can happen at any time. We all have a responsibility to play our part in making things better."
As each panelist spoke, our students listened intently. The questions that emerged from the audience reflected the challenges our society faces and the urgency of confronting the difficulties of race in our country. "How did you treat that patient after he told you to go back to your country?" a student asked Mona Gohara. Dr. Gohara's response was measured and insightful. She talked about this particular patient in the context of other times when patients have doubted her expertise or expressed discomfort because of her racial background. "Don't let situations like these deter you from your goals," she advised.
Someone asked Enroue Halfkenny about the concept of a "system" of white supremacy. "How do we undo the system?" the boy asked earnestly. Mr. Halfkenny said, "We are not a system, as individuals. In a school like this, we can each have access to information and resources that we can use to begin, or contribute to, making changes." Another boy asked him to elaborate on the ways that his religion shapes his identity. Mr. Halfkenny explained, "The religion places great value on ancestors." He also spoke about the ways that certain parts of his identity seem to be more validated than others. Because of his appearance, he said, people are more willing to affirm his African heritage than they are to recognize his white European roots.
A girl asked Hillary Bridges, "What led you to stop hating yourself for your race?" Ms. Bridges smiled and shook her head. "It was, it is, a long process, " she said. She spoke about how she used to look at her family history and focus on her ancestors' experience in slavery. "Now, I realize how incredible it is that my family overcame that." Ms. Bridges also said that it has helped to be able to talk about her experience and feelings with other people.
One of the final comments of the program came from Jason Price, who addressed a student question: "How will the situation change?" Mr. Price said, "It changes gradually." Echoing the thoughts of the other panelists, Mr. Price spoke about the importance of taking small steps every day, beginning with an honest recognition of where we are. "We have to acknowledge that we have a problem with race in America," he said.
Every day, we challenge ourselves to lean into discomfort in an attempt to grow and learn. On Tuesday afternoon, our students did just that. The conversations will continue.