By Jeremy Bond
More than 300 high school students from across Connecticut assembled at a lively summit Nov. 9 with the goal of empowering youth to raise social awareness and equity at school and in the community.
The “Y.E.S. for Diversity: Youth Empowerment Summit” was planned by and for high school students, led by the State Education Resource Center (SERC) and the CT Association of Schools (CAS). The impetus behind this enormous gathering at the Marriott Hotel in Farmington was to advance the idea that students deserve a bigger voice in changing their schools for the better and challenging intolerance. The students, who had diverse demographic backgrounds and came from urban, suburban, and rural schools, focused on the theme of fostering acceptance of students who are different from themselves.
Nelson del Pilar, a sophomore at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury who opened the summit, said that other students would benefit from similar events within their schools.
The summit featured a one-man show by Dr. Michael Fowlin, a clinical psychologist and actor from Morristown, N.J., who portrays students of different ages and backgrounds to illustrate examples of bias and disrespect. He encouraged students to avoid being “zebras”—animals that watch, rather than intervene, when other zebras are attacked—and suggested that not speaking up about bullying came from a false sense of what people are “supposed to do” rather than what they “need to do.”
Dr. Fowlin, whose own difficulties in school and battles with clinical depression motivated him to begin performing, reminded the students of the merit of being “oysters.” These shellfish develop pearls, which increase the oyster’s value 1,000 times, only when the oysters are damaged.
Student Lynne Cochran said she will propose developing skits for middle school students along the same theme of acceptance. Dr. Fowlin’s performance really brought the issue home for her.
“It made it come alive,” the Windsor Locks High School junior said.
After the performance, students dispersed into groups of private breakout sessions led by other students and accompanied by a SERC staff member. Some of the discussion topics suggested by summit organizers included race, discrimination, gender equity, homophobia, violence, personal identity, suicide, and emotional pain. The students had been encouraged to share personal stories.
In their own breakout session, approximately 30 school faculty members developed ideas for next steps to bring back to their schools. The participants implied that only certain faculty and students tend to take leadership roles to promote student empowerment and confront prejudice when entire schools should be involved. Some of the ideas included setting aside time for “open conversations” among students and faculty, assigning “faculty advocates” to all students, mandating staff to report every incidence of student harassment, and thoroughly investigating and following up of these incidents to assure that discipline leads to a positive learning experience.
Some of the participating schools already have student-run efforts to address prejudice and discrimination. One of the most prominent is the Human Relations Club at Hamden High School, which has held an annual Prejudice Reduction Conference and conducts programs at the town’s elementary schools and middle school about discrimination and bullying.
In addition to SERC and CAS, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, a summit co-sponsor, and the CT State Department of Education are among those who recruited students to help plan and attend the summit. Students who signed up to participate represent a cross-section of Connecticut, from high schools and technical high schools in Hartford and New Haven and surrounding cities and towns, to the Housatonic Valley Regional High School in the Northwest Corner, to the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, to the Lisbon Central School in the eastern part of the state.
At lunch, an open microphone provided an opportunity for students to address the entire crowd. Some of the remarks capped the stirring atmosphere of the entire summit:
“Be grateful for what you have. In the blink of an eye, it can change.”
“You have only one life to live. Don’t waste that life criticizing others.”
“We should all be the change that we want to see in the world.”