In the opening days of the school year, a huge colorful web of yarn sprung up on the Middle School recess field. Called the Unity Project, it was created by students, teachers and parents as a representation of the individual and collective identities of the Foote School community.
Every student, teacher and staff member—and many parents— took a turn wrapping yarn around metal poles labeled with identifiers such as “I have lived in different places” “I am multilingual,” “someone in my family or I has a disability or chronic illness,” and “I am biracial/multiracial.” When complete, the colorful canopy presented a powerful visual symbol of unity that reinforced a key theme of Foote’s curriculum: that we are all the same, and we are all different.
The Unity Project is the latest schoolwide initiative organized by the student diversity club F-STAND (Foote Students Against Negativity and Discrimination). The club was formed in 2010 by middle school students who wanted a way to discuss—and educate the school community about —topics related to respect, kindness and being an ally. F-STAND also recognized the need to work with younger grades to make sure these values take root early.
The group meets weekly during lunchtime to discuss current events; watch thought-provoking videos; and plan events such as “mix-it-up lunch,” which aims to break down social barriers by grouping students from various grades who don’t usually eat lunch together.
Discussion topics are largely student-generated and cover stereotypes, race, gender identity, sexuality, bullying and related subjects.
F-STAND members also work on projects to present to middle school peers during weekly gatherings; last year, students presented about lesser-known African-American inventors, gender identity and why the phrase “that’s so gay” can be hurtful.
F-STAND can be challenging for students because it asks them to step outside their comfort zones and to stand out within their peer group, says faculty advisor Kossouth Bradford ’87.
“Middle schoolers often just want to blend in with the group,” says Kossouth, who is Foote’s school counselor. “So when a student makes a rude comment to someone else, it requires a lot of strength and courage to speak up in that moment.
“We are saying that it’s cool to stand up and protect students who are vulnerable,” adds Kossouth. “I give our students a lot of credit for trying to challenge themselves and explore that.”
These courageous conversations are possible because students know F-STAND is a safe space where they can ask any question without fear of offending someone by saying “the wrong thing,” says faculty advisor Megan Williams.
“We are helping students to be okay with saying the wrong gender pronoun, for example,” says Megan. “We are all sharing a certain level of ignorance together because that is how we learn.”
The goal is to develop student leaders who can serve as role models for younger students at Foote and go on to become advocates for inclusion and tolerance.
“These students become leaders in their next schools,” says Head of School Carol Maoz, who also advises F-STAND. “They remain involved in clubs and go to diversity conferences. That sends a message to the school and to the greater community about the importance of inclusion and standing up for what’s right.”
Any student in grades 7 through 9 can join the club, and students get involved for a host of reasons. Lilah Garcia ’17 wanted to “become more aware of things that you wouldn’t normally talk about in everyday life.” Page Wildridge ’17 says she came to F-STAND as a seventh grader with no knowledge of gender identity issues and now understands a great deal more. “I feel like I am more inclusive now because of my time in F-STAND,” Page says.
For the past five years, the school has sent three or four ninth-grade members of F-STAND to the Student Diversity Leadership Conference, a national gathering of high school students hosted by the National Association of Independent Schools.
“For a lot of kids, that conference is transformational,” says Megan. “One student had never met anyone else who shared the same racial identity, and this helped him better understand his own identity.”