Discovering “Radical Hope” at St. Stephen’s Inaugural Diversity Conference

If we are all unbiased at birth, but born into belief systems that inform our personal perspective, how do we break from the assumptions and judgments we learn as children and move forward into the world without prejudice? John Gentile, co-facilitator of St. Stephen’s inaugural diversity conference, “Radical Hope,” believes the solution can be found in our willingness to have our worldview disrupted and readjusted.
“When you are a child, how the people around you react to the world informs your schema your sense of ‘normal’ and how you then react to the world,” explained Gentile, co-director of the Office for Identity, Culture and Institutional Equity at Horace Mann School in the Bronx, N.Y. “This framework becomes the lens we view everything through.”
For many of us, this sense of “normal” is fully imprinted on us in early childhood. “By the age of 6 months, humans can identify racial differences among people,” Gentile explained. “By fifth grade stereotyping is complete, and what we think of others has been set.”
To illustrate his point, during a conference breakout session Gentile showed students a photograph of an orange ball and asked them what it was. The students all agreed it was an orange ball. “How do you know that,” he asked, rhetorically. He then showed students a picture of an orange, the fruit. “Now our understanding of a round orange object has shifted. It is round and orange, but it won’t bounce. This new image disrupts our sense of the world, so now we have to adjust our schema to accommodate different objects.”
The schema we develop around people is the same. When we meet someone who does not fit easily into our schema, we become confused and uncomfortable. “Most men don’t wear high heels and nail polish, but I do,” Gentile said, holding up a hand with metallic lacquered nails. “That pushes the boundaries of other people’s schema.”
Further, as we are introduced to a wider variety of people and ideas, our understanding of the world is expanded, particularly when we see others like ourselves. “I remember seeing another little boy in my elementary school wearing nail polish,” Gentile said. “Suddenly, I felt that there were other people like me, that I was not alone. My world view shifted. “
The Elephant (Err Gorilla) in the Room
While Gentile held breakout sessions on identity development with students, Rodney Glasgow, Ph.D., his conference co-facilitator, trained faculty and staff on identifying unconscious bias.
Glasgow kicked off the breakout session by showing a video of people tossing a ball back and forth and asked everyone to count the number of times the ball was passed. After watching intently, most attendees were able to cite the correct number.
“Yes,” affirmed Glasgow, head of middle school and chief diversity officer at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Md. “But how many of you noticed the gorilla walk across the screen?” Huh? Almost no one had, because they had been too focused on counting the passes.
Glasgow then showed participants another video almost identical to the first. As expected, everyone in the room saw the gorilla this time, but no one noticed that the background of the video changed colors and that one of the players dropped out of the passing game. When Glasgow pointed out these changes, everyone in the room was stunned.
“How can we not notice these obvious changes that are taking place right in front of us?” he asked. “The gorilla is racism and oppression. When we watched the second video and everyone saw the gorilla, we were really proud of ourselves. We think we’re enlightened and see racism, but we all miss the other subtler things,” he said. “We only become aware of them when they are pointed out to us.”
Glasgow said that the same is often true of microaggressions those subtle but offensive derogatory comments or actions directed at minority groups that reinforce negative stereotypes and make people feel marginalized.
For Glasgow the big question is how do we do both: count the passes and also look for the changes, notice the obvious racism and the subtler microaggressions? “The solution is ally-ship,” he said of the process of building relationships based on trust, consistency and accountability with marginalized individuals and groups.
“If you’re in a meeting and see something that seems off, you become afraid that you’re the only one who might have seen the gorilla,” Glasgow explained. “You become afraid that if you mention it, people will say you’re crazy or that you’re too sensitive. So you think to yourself that if there is a gorilla, the director of diversity will see it and take care of it. So then the rest of us can all just keep counting….”
“In life, you cannot rewind the tape,” he noted. “If someone says they saw the gorilla, we have to believe them even if we did not see it ourselves. Otherwise, they are made to feel like they are part of the problem.”
Creating a New World Together
The “Radical Hope” diversity conference was organized by St. Stephen’s Director of Equity and Inclusion Yvonne Adams, who was supported in her efforts by community activist Sam Davis, members of the school’s student affinity groups and senior Riley Nichols.
“Riley wanted to replicate the NAIS Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) and her experience there for other students,” Adams explained. “She had a desire to create something that would have a lasting impact on the community.
“For the last two years, the SDLC website has crashed due to the volume of people trying to register and has sold out within the first 24 hours,” Adams explained. “After hearing about this and going through moments of frustration and deep sadness, Riley decided that this opportunity needed to be given to more people. Shortly thereafter she started sending me text after text with ideas for our own conference ... and so ‘Radical Hope’ was created!”
The organizers’ goal in developing the program was to give participants effective means for overcoming systemic bigotry. “Humans created this system of exclusion, but we believe we can create a new system of inclusion,” Adams said.
Held on March 30, “Radical Hope” was open to all regional ISAS-school students and teachers, as well as equity and inclusion program directors from member schools in and around Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. More than 200 students, faculty and staff representing a wide range of affinity groups and their allies participated in the daylong program.
“Most independent schools exist in a bubble,” Glasgow said. “But what is happening nationally now around race is seeping into schools. Racists are empowered to come to the surface and speak out.
“There’s a strong feeling among schools that their moral value is determined by whether or not they get this right,” he added. “There’s a pervasive liberal mindset that rests on the idea that we’re good if we have a diversity statement and change our use of pronouns. But that doesn’t change other systemic issues that are more deeply seated. The racism we’re seeing in schools is both systemic and individual.”
Glasgow said that he is most concerned about young people who are never told “no” because their privilege blinds them to the injustice suffered by others. “Liberals will say they cannot dismantle the system of privilege; in truth, they don’t want to,” he said. “They live a good life and don’t really know how much of that came from the system others want them to tear down.”
His advice to people struggling against bigotry? “Resiliency is important,” Glasgow said. “Carry your own ‘safe place’ with you wherever go. Know that there is no endpoint to this work. We will never fully arrive, but we can move forward.”
Gentile agreed. “I wish for students and young people to understand their collective power,” he said. “If more young people would say, ‘I wish they would…,’ then more adults would have to show up in a different way.
“The work starts small, but you build upon it, leading to big moments of joy and love, special moments of connection,” Gentile said. “You may want to punch someone in the throat, but we need to focus on the power of love.
“Although there is no endpoint to this work, there are countless opportunities for creativity and joy,” he concluded. “We can be creative and all play with the Legos together. We can create a new world together.”
Address: 6500 St. Stephen's Dr., Austin, TX 78746
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