“As a kid at GDS, most of your experiences aren’t going to be with administration, it’s going to be with the students you’re interacting with every day.” This statement explaining the racism that manifests through everyday student interactions was expressed by a member of the GDS community to the Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) 2020-2021 cohort.
I joined YPAR, a class that engages students in studying and improving GDS’s culture, hoping to gain a student perspective on the (behind the scenes) work of furthering the GDS mission. Coming up on the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, which led many in the nation to critically acknowledge and analyze the racism rooted in our systems, the YPAR cohort and I sought to capitalize on a moment at which GDS was also interrogating itself as an institution through the DEI Equity Audit. With this confluence of introspection on diversity, equity, and inclusion on a national and a school institution level, the 2020-2021 YPAR guiding question was: “How can GDS cultivate a community where members are actively striving towards and reevaluating anti-racist goals?”
Issues of curriculum, administration, DEI programming, and the like were central to our research themes, leaving me to wonder about and push to include the role of student involvement in “striving towards and reevaluating anti-racist goals.” A student in a focus group on student leadership I conducted claimed, “I think the ways we fall short are actually the micro-interactions between people. It falls in language use because that is … one of the ways white supremacy manifests itself is through discourse.” Quotes like these helped us conclude that an aspect of racism at GDS that is not addressed well is interactions between community members.
As GDS has a culture of uplifting and celebrating (conventional) leaders of DEI work, including affinity group and community service heads, I feel that there is not enough emphasis on what YPAR came to call “everyday student leadership” within the scope of anti-racism work. I began to ask myself questions, such as how do student bystanders react to situations of microaggressions? Ultimately, what do student responsibility and practices look like at GDS? Currently, it predominantly looks like observing and calling out what they consider to be performative actions of the administration to alleviate personal responsibility, instead of evaluating their own participation in racism.
While GDS moves to evolve its mission into continued action, acknowledging that “a founding story is really only a story,” reimagining the role of students within the community to ensure they evolve along with the mission is critical. The Diversity & Equity: The Intersections of Identity (9th-Grade Seminar) course, whose goal is to equip students with the knowledge and skills to interrogate their identity and participate in anti-racism work, is the best way to enhance everyday student leadership. From our survey, the average impact the 9th-Grade Seminar has on preparing 9th-grade students for anti-racist conversations was above average. The impact the course has on preparing 10th, 11th, and 12th graders to engage in conversations around race was statistically much lower—perhaps, the consequence of having no formal opportunities to learn like the 9th-grade Seminar past ninth grade.
In the most recent update on the DEI Equity Audit, the school claimed, “it’s the way we live our mission, year after year, that really matters.” Given the findings of YPAR’s 2020-2021 cohort, GDS must ensure students have a form of seminar year after year that provides a meaningful and substantial way to develop everyday leadership skills. With the promising result of making students more thoughtful and proactive with issues of race, a continuous seminar is one great way to honor the founding mission.