November 2, 2018

Awakening Beyond Binaries

This year’s Diversity Week, which explored the theme of Gender: Beyond Binary, sought to create a challenging, collaborative experience in which we openly and honestly engaged in the work of learning, listening, and growing as a community. The weeklong series of talks, workshops, performances, and community gatherings encouraged self-reflection and acknowledgment of perspectives beyond our own.

Each year, Diversity Week begins with a special assembly that introduces the theme of the week through the words and perspectives of multiple voices. Below are excerpts from talks by three Oakwood administrators who spoke to the topic of Gender: Beyond Binary. Their words set a tone of thoughtful inquiry and reflectiveness that continued as students, alumni, and guest speakers shared their own stories throughout the week in groups large and small, public and private.

So much of Diversity Week involves the telling of personal narratives. Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Linda Rose-Winters highlighted the value of storytelling as she introduced student and alumni speakers who shared their own stories:

One of my role models, Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, defines stories as “data with a soul.”

This definition resonates with me. Surely, facts, stats, and trends inform and educate us. Stories also do that, and, so much more. Stories tap into our hearts and truly move us.

When we have the courage and generosity to share our stories, there’s the possibility of an indelible connection between the storyteller and the listener that can be transfixing and transformative.

Oakwood Student Quinn '19 shares her personal story at the opening assembly of Diversity Week.

We can recognize and relate to an identical or similar thought or experience or feeling. We laugh. We cry. We nod in agreement. We shake our heads with bewilderment. How is it that someone else’s story, someone we may not even know, can mirror our own fears, our own hopes, and our own dreams? There’s an almost magical shared experience we can’t deny. By intently listening, we tell the storyteller, “We hear you. We see you.” And the storyteller acknowledges “Because you hear and see me. I exist.” Stories validate our humanity and kinship.

At Oakwood, we respect and value each student’s individual voice and encourage every one of you to develop a deeper understanding of yourself, which in turn, helps you have a deeper understanding of others. And, being able to communicate that, is truly empowering.

Principal William Perkins Tift, encouraged us to remember the strides our community has made while also making a call for even greater empathy as we continue this work:

For Diversity Week to be a success, we must all lean in to discomfort.

William Perkins Tift

Oakwood’s Diversity Week is not a break from our regular work. This work on identity, diversity, equity and inclusion is ongoing, and we are in an institution that embraces the fact that this work must show up everywhere. In our recruitment and retention of diverse faculty, staff and administrators. In telling Oakwood’s story to a wider and wider audience, that supports all types of families in finding a home at Oakwood. In continuing to make sure that all students and adults on our campus experience inclusion and self-worth. This work is at the heart of class trips and advisory as we work towards positive identity development. In classrooms across campus from the Arts and Humanities to Math and Science and Athletics every single day of the school year. In service learning work. In faculty meetings. In Immersion. In student clubs and organizations committed to social justice. In a Human Development curriculum designed to move us beyond the binary and past an exclusionary heteronormative discussion of relationships. And in the establishment and thriving of student-led affinity groups, mentorship programs, and social action initiatives. This is a week to focus our conversation so that we may continue it. Last year was the first year where we moved Diversity Week to the fall term so that this week can serve as a kick-off for all of this diversity, equity and inclusion work throughout the year.

This year’s theme, Gender: Beyond Binary, is one that reflects an ongoing focus of work at Oakwood. This year, students who apply to Oakwood grades 7-12 will no longer have to choose one of two boxes. Once they have selected their sex assigned at birth, Oakwood applicants can select from multiple gender identifiers, including gender non-conforming. Student engagement and activism brought about the establishment of the school’s first gender neutral bathrooms, and we need to look to expand to more of these across campus. Wherever the binary shows up, we are examining how, as an institution, we can move beyond it—changing the 7th/12th grade buddy program to be mixed-gender family groups, examining rooming assignments on school trips, and pushing against the constrictions of a student data management system designed around the male/female dichotomy.

And while much of this work continues to focus upon personal development and institutional examination, it must not be confined to inward reflection. Just yesterday, the New York Times published a story on a new memo from the Federal Department of Health and Human Services which seeks to define gender solely based upon sex assigned at birth across the Education, Labor and Justice departments of the federal government. Not only does this run counter to what we know from the medical, mental health and anthropological fields, this marks the most significant effort yet to strip nearly 1.5 million transgendered Americans of their fundamental civil rights. To the transgendered members of our immediate and extended community and your many allies here at Oakwood, we will not allow you to be erased.

For Diversity Week to be a success, we must all lean in to discomfort. We each come to this topic of gender with our own personal story. For some of us, that path has never forced us to critically examine the social construct of gender identity. For others of us, each day is a struggle as our own identity bumps up against entrenched biases and preconceptions. Some of us have spent years studying gender in academic settings, and others are just beginning the examination. Because we each approach this topic from a unique vantage, often with personal hurt, vulnerability, uncertainty and doubt—and sometimes from a place of privilege where we’ve never really had to explore these questions—the guiding principle of our work this week must be human empathy. We must listen to one another without judgment, to seek deeper understanding, and to deepen our collective humanity.

This year's keynote speaker, Madin Lopez (third from the right), a Los Angeles based hairstylist, activist, and founder of the non-profit ProjectQ who has devoted the last 7 years to working with queer youth experiencing homelessness, poses for a photo with members of the Diversity Week Committee after addressing the students in a special assembly on Tuesday.
Facilitator Adam Yerke leads a discussion on Being True to Your (Gendered) Self, one of Wednesday's Speaker Spaces during Diversity Week.

Academic Dean Liz Willis reminded us of the timeliness and urgency of  work we do as a community that values and celebrates true diversity:

For those of us who have devoted much of our lives to investigating and exploring this aspect of human experience, this particular historical moment is both incredibly stimulating and troubling.

Liz Willis

Each year, we have the opportunity to engage in intentional, deliberate community-wide conversations on a variety of diversity-related topics. And, this year, there is no question that gender is an incredibly worthy and timely topic of discussion. For those of us who have devoted much of our lives to investigating and exploring this aspect of human experience, this particular historical moment is both incredibly stimulating and troubling. While in much of the world, we see increasing awareness, acceptance, and celebration of the diversity of gendered experience and gender expression, we simultaneously witness ongoing oppression—from failure to recognize the difference between genitalia and gender, to unequal protection under the law to deadly violence—experienced by people whose bodies, minds, and lives do not fit an antiquated binary model of “girls and boys, women and men.” It’s a fascinating and critical time to do this work, and I’m very grateful we’re here in it together.

At Oakwood, we tend to think we’re a little more “woke” than most. And in fact, as a school, we have made significant strides in our institutional approach to educating and supporting all members of our community around issues of gender. As in the case of any democratic society, oftentimes change comes from conversations with young people. Our move to incorporate Everyone bathrooms on campus in 2014 came out of conversations with the Cultural Awareness Association and Student Council. In the years that followed, we made adjustments to our Human Development programming, our class trips sleeping arrangements, how we use pronouns in conversation and academic writing, and our Admissions materials. In each case, our work has been enriched and informed by the questions posed by students, a phenomenon that we’re fortunate to experience daily here. However, there is always more work to do, there are always more questions to ask, there are always more strides to take as we move together towards our shared goal of building a community that embraces and celebrates all. May we “awaken” beyond all binaries, this week and thereafter.

CONTRA-TIEMPO, a bold, multilingual dance company that draws on their Los Angeles roots by fusing Salso, Afro-Cuban, Hip-Hop, urban, and contemporary dance to create an invigorating blend of culturally engaging work, wows Thursday's crowd with their performance of joyUS justUS, a piece that explores Joy as the ultimate expressions of resistance.
The entire Secondary Campus community came together for Friday's celebratory potluck feast.