November 9, 2017

Overlapping & Intersecting Identities

October 23–27 marked the 12th annual Diversity Week at Oakwood Secondary School. Initiated by student leaders of the Gay Straight Alliance and the Cultural Awareness Association, Diversity Week is a crescendo of the ongoing conversations across campus on issues of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and positive identity development.

This year’s theme, Intersectionality: Understanding Our Own and Respecting Everyone Else’s, posits that each of us is made up of overlapping and intersecting identities, an idea that was expressed by the many voices that spoke during the week’s events and activities. It is by gaining an understanding of the intersectionalities of our own and others’ identities that we can work toward a clearer sense of many factors at play in an individual’s experience in this world. During this week, a broad group of administrators, faculty, and students presented programming and lessons that sought to bring these complex layers that define individuals into the open in order for the Oakwood community to recognize not only the ways in which we define ourselves, but also the ways that we may become better at understanding the complexities of those around us.

A student-produced poster for Diversity Week, 2017

On Monday, Diversity Week opened with a special Town Meeting where administrators welcomed students with personal stories of their own and invited the community to examine this idea of intersectionality closely.

After encouraging students to “approach this week with tenderness and mindfulness” and reminding us that Diversity Week is “the best week of the year,” Principal William Perkins Tift shared how his understanding of the word “oppression” had evolved.  This was a concept that he once “pictured [as] a sort of nebulous, black cloud that rested over people,” an imagining that left him unsure what actions he could take to combat it. However, he now sees oppression as “operating on a much smaller and more human scale.  It is in countless small decisions across every day that it manifests. A knowing glance or eye contact avoided. An invitation to join in, or a shoulder turned away.” This new understanding, along with the acknowledgment that we are all multidimensional beings, is empowering. In his own words,

“Understanding our own and others’ identities will help each of us better understand how power, privilege, and marginality play out in our own lives and can help us to make conscious decisions in interactions every day to begin to root out oppression and bring forward suppressed identities within our community.”

Director of Diversity Programs Linda Rose-Winters spoke next, thanking the many students, faculty, and staff who helped shape and support this year’s weeklong event. She then emphasized the links between Diversity Week and core values of the Oakwood community: “This event, like other Oakwood traditions, exemplifies one of the many ways in which we foster and value student voice and engagement. Every aspect of Diversity Week…its origins, the theme, the planning…is the result of student initiation, participation, and execution. As we say in our Statement of Philosophy, ‘we believe young people’s feelings and thoughts should be accorded respect and dignity.’ I feel privileged to be part of an educational community that holds up our statement of philosophy as a mirror and measurement of how we should treat and regard each other on a day-to-day basis.”

The heart of opening meeting was the personal stories of five students, each sharing reflections on how their complex identities embodied the theme of intersectionality. Their remarks illuminated a broad range of categories that define us and sometimes confine us, and their willingness to speak openly and wholeheartedly about their lived experiences of race, culture, religion, gender, sexuality, and ableness set a positive tone for the journey that our community would undertake in the week ahead.

A student speaker at the opening Town Meeting of Diversity Week 2017

Tuesday saw a range of lunchtime programming and activities hosted by student affinity groups, alliances, and clubs. The day began with a morning assembly where Oakwood’s Dean of Students, Shadeed Elliott, shared his personal story on the many intersecting layers, both seen and unseen, that make up his own identity.  Shadeed then introduced this year’s keynote speaker, Amer Ahmed, Ed.D.

Amer Ahmed, Ed.D.

Dr. Ahmed is a social justice educator, hip hop activist, diversity consultant and college administrator serving as Director of Intercultural Teaching and Faculty Development at UMASS, Amherst. His presentation began with a sharply delivered freestyle rap, proving to the assembled students and staff that his title “ hip hop activist” was well-earned. Dr. Ahmed then gave a far-reaching overview of Islam, its history and relationships to other world religions, and how common myths about Muslims were rooted in larger cultural misunderstandings. A particular emphasis on Dr. Ahmed’s talk was the difficulty of separating cultural practices from religious beliefs. Citing both historical examples—going back to 7th century through colonial times—and personal accounts of living as a Muslim-identifying person in America today, Dr. Ahmed spoke to the underlying dynamics behind Islamophobia and made our students realize that this often misunderstood culture was made up of people whose lives were not so unlike their own.

That same evening, Dr. Ahmed also spoke to a crowd of Oakwood parents as the first speaker in this school year’s Voices Envisioned series. He delivered a slightly elongated version of his talk to students, also with an opening rap performance, and conducted a lively Q and A session at the end. Many audience members posed inquiries that reflected the thought-provoking nature of Dr. Ahmed’s talk and stayed into the evening to continue the dialog with him over coffee. We are very grateful for Dr. Ahmed’s insights, wisdom, and generosity.

On Wednesday, students’ regular schedules were altered so they could spend important time in Diversity Week Speaker Spaces and Workshops taking place in locations across campus. Held in the Sanctuary, Community Room, Theatre, and Lecture Hall, the four Speaker Spaces each featured a facilitator who spoke on a topic related to our Diversity Week theme of Intersectionality.

Jason David, Co-Founder of the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere Los Angeles (AWARE-LA) gave a talk titled “Beyond Shame and Guilt: Reimagining My White Identity.” Rabbi Heather Miller’s session, “From Human to Identity: A Case Study in Intersectionality,” followed her journey through the multidimensional world of identity formation and its societal implications, reflecting on her own experiences as a springboard for our own self-reflection. Matthew Craffey presented “It’s Complicated: Being a Log Cabin Republican in a Deeply Polarized America”, which focused on his experience as president of a group that advocates on behalf of LGBT Republicans. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow: (Re)Defining Power as a White Gay Man” was the name of the fourth Speaker Space facilitated by John Gentile, Co-Director of the Office for Identity, Culture, and Institutional Equity at the Horace Mann School. By sharing his experiences as a white cisgender gay man, he asks: how do the intersections of whiteness and gayness shape his story? He invited the audience to explore this inquiry and examine his historical and individual identities.

Rabbi Heather Miller
Matthew Craffey

In addition to the above speakers, students attended a range of workshops throughout the day. Conceived and facilitated by students and teachers, these workshops covered a variety of ideas across the spectrum of cultural expression, identity, and politics such as Colorism Across Different Communities, Coming out of Two Closets—The Work of Julio Salgado, Environmental Destruction: Racism, Classism, and Sexism, How Equal is the Equal Protection Clause?, Immigration/Assimilation, Intersectionality in Pop Music, Responses to Hate Speech, Seeing Ourselves in Fiction: Novels and Intersectionality, Transgender 101: How Can Oakwood Be a More Inclusive School for Trans* Students?, and Understanding the Mujeres de Maiz.

Students and teachers hosted affinity breakout sessions during the week as well. These groups, self-selected by members of the community, included the following groups who respectfully and openly met for conversations and connections about their shared identities:  Adopted Affinity; Asian; Asian Pacific Islander Heritage; Black, African Heritage; Exploring Identity Space; Greater Middle Eastern Heritage; Jewish Affinity; Latinx Heritage; Learning Differences Affinity; LGBTQ+; Multiracial Affinity; and White, European Heritage.

The workshops and affinity-based meetings that our students participated in were preceded by a Community Agreement outlining the goals, parameters, and intentions of Diversity Week. It states that Oakwood aims to create a learning community in which students and adults engage in a challenging educational experience as respectful community members. During Diversity Week, the views expressed by facilitators and speakers may not necessarily reflect personal views. Each member of the Oakwood community is in a different place with regard to their journey in understanding identity, diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is, therefore, asked that each member of the community shares their responsibility for holding themselves accountable to this community agreement that will allow for a shared experience that fosters the opportunity for understanding, respecting and connecting.

During the intense, sometimes difficult, and ultimately rewarding work of Diversity Week, every participant was guided by these ideals: to create a challenging experience, to maintain a safe and inclusive environment, to openly and honestly engage, to take risks and ask questions, to work collaboratively, to acknowledge that everyone (students and adults) are here to learn, to make a commitment to dialogue, to accept non-closure, and to realize that we are engaging in ongoing, life-long work.

The work done during Diversity Week is ongoing and is based in the communal commitment that every member of the Oakwood community makes to each other. In what is now an important tradition to mark this coming together, members of our community celebrated the diversity of the Oakwood family at a Friday potluck lunch, a true feast in which food from our various cultures was shared and connections were made on a personal level. Although the lunch was the last official event of Diversity Week, it feels like a beginning as we remember that the goals of this one designated span of time echo the philosophy of our school that we devote ourselves to year round. In the words of Linda Rose-Winters:

This week, we are coming together knowing that we, as members of the Oakwood community, individually and collectively grow when all voices are heard, when civility and respect are at the heart of our conversations, and when everyone participates and is able to listen to other points of view. We recognize that our commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice is one of our greatest strengths.