What do a slinky, a paper clip, a stuffed animal, and a magnifying glass have to do with diversity work?

By Abby Phyfe, US English

In October 2015, Liza Talusan, Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity at The Park School, led diversity workshops for the entire Moses Brown ninth grade class. The class split into two groups, attending her workshop and then workshops led by Meg Fifer about gender roles in the media, and then vice versa. Liza has been to MB several times before, including last spring as a facilitator of the movie, I’m Not Racist, Am I? The upper school brought her to talk to the ninth grade particularly because the class doubles in their transition to high school at Moses Brown, bringing many students with little to no exposure to discussions of the economic, racial, cultural, gender and religious differences among us. Our goal was for Liza to help us to start the conversation so that all students have the vocabulary for these conversations, as well as the understanding of why they are worth pursuing at Moses Brown.

Liza started the program by presenting the metaphor of four objects to explain the importance of discussions about diversity, inclusion and equity. Ninth graders worked with her to define those terms, and she showed them a slinky, a paper clip, a magnifying glass and a stuffed animal to make their understanding more dynamic and effective. As she explained, we need to be flexible in our thinking, like a slinky; we need to look closely at the world around us, as a magnifying glass helps us to do; we need to organize our understanding, as with a paper clip; and we need to do all of this in order to make those around us feel safe, like a stuffed animal does.

Following her introduction, she asked the class to “count” off by Peace and Justice, which led to two circles, Peace inside Justice, where each student was paired with someone in the circle opposite. Students conducted 60 second conversations with revolving partners about topics like, “What is your first memory of being exposed to gender expectations?” and “What is the first time you recognized race?” After the exercise, she debriefed everyone on the experience. Then she asked senior members of the Peer Leaders class to each be in charge of a small group of ninth graders, leading discussions sparked by the fill-in-the-blank questions, “In conversations about race, I often feel _____ because _____.” Each group, numbered 1 to 6 had a different topic, so while one group talked about race, others talked about gender, ability, class, sexual orientation, and religion. They had follow up questions that the Peer Leaders facilitated, meant to get the ninth graders to give honest expression of their experiences and to help students to talk about these difficult topics more comfortably.

Liza ended her sessions by asking for feedback, and the range of experience in the ninth grade class was stark. While one student commented on appreciating the workshop despite having spent the past ten years at Moses Brown discussing these issues of inclusivity, another student admitted to having had his first school discussion on these issues that morning. The all school and upper school diversity committees will continue their work to bridge this gap so that everyone learns strategies for making the community as a whole feel safe and equally respected.