Ten students from each Mercer County high school, five teachers from each district, and their superintendents attended “Day of Dialogue: A Journey into Race, Class, & Gender in Our Schools” at Rider University on March 23rd. This is the third such conference within a year that has been coordinated by the Mercer County Superintendents Association (MCSA) and facilitated by the Princeton-based nonprofit, Center for Supportive Schools.
“Recognizing that Mercer County is a uniquely diverse county, racially, ethnically and socioeconomically, and in the wake of several national incidents challenging perceptions of societal harmony, the goal was to bring in students from each district to participate in an educational experience that promotes conversation, awareness, and action around issues of race, gender, and class,” said Hopewell Valley Superintendent and MCSA President, Tom Smith.
At each Day of Dialogue, teens are mixed with kids of other schools, other races, other religions, other gender identifications, and other economic backgrounds at round conference tables. In short, they listen to and form relationships with “the other.” Participants discuss topics such as stereotypes, microaggressions, and unconscious bias.
Hopewell Valley senior, Madison Parker, has attended all three of the conferences and was inspired to start a “Diversity Council” at her school. The 40-member club’s goal is to “create an awareness about diversity issues in our school and confront them,” said Madison. “Diversity is more than about race. We also think about people with disabilities, as well as differences in learning and with mental health issues.”
After Tasneem Sleem, a senior at Steinert High, was bullied at her school for being Muslim, she accepted her school counselor’s invitation to participate in the first Day of Dialogue conference last year. “He said it was basically a big discussion about bias concerning socioeconomic class, gender, race and everything, and I said ‘yes,’ If this is a chance to make a difference then why not?” said Tasneem.
Inspired to initiate a culture change in Hamilton schools, throughout the year, Tasneem and other conference participants from Hamilton’s three high schools (Steinert, Nottingham, and Hamilton West) came together to discuss the stereotypes and bias that each of their schools face. They then presented what they learned, with solutions, to their Board of Education’s Human Relations committee. “It was fantastic, we got a lot of support,” she said. The committee agreed to support the teens in bringing discussions to the District’s middle schools. “The issues start as early as middle school, about bias against every single group of people,” said Tasneem.
West Windsor-Plainsboro North senior, John Mundia, was attending his first Day of Dialogue conference. Discussing racial stereotyping primarily motivated John’s participation in the conference. “For me, an African-American, is not necessarily expected to take Advanced Placement classes but I decided to defy ‘the box’ that people try to put me in. I push myself,” said John. When asked what he had learned from the day he said, “I love this event so far. It’s a way to get out of the bubble in my school. I was talking today with a teacher from Trenton Central High School and he was telling me about I.C.E. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents taking away students and that shocked me. Trenton is only a few miles from where I am, and it’s a whole other world.”
Since there are no “paved roads” to making Mercer County schools more diverse centers of learning and teaching kids how to embrace diversity, it is up to each district and school to figure out the solutions. Initiating diversity clubs, hosting cultural festivals, presenting concerns to district-level personnel, conducting cross-school meetings to discuss school stereotypes, running professional development workshops about bias for teachers, and creating a “Courageous Conversations” series are all actions taken within participating schools.
As said on a conference handout, “By participating in these Days of Dialogue, we are making the road. By sharing our experiences in safe and supportive spaces, we are making the road. By remaining open-minded, we are making the road. In all of these ways, big and small, collectively and individually, we are making the road – we are taking action!”