By Lilly Soroko
Diversity has always been an important aspect of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. Diversity is named as one of SCH’s five core values, and the SCH website includes an official diversity statement in addition to the mission statement. Diversity is celebrated every day at SCH, through classes like Race and Gender, clubs and activities like the Jewish Cultural Club (JCC) and the Black Student Union, and through SCH’s two diversity conferences: SCHout and the Day of Understanding. SCHout is a diversity conference hosted by SCH, but students from other area schools are invited and encouraged to participate as well. However, the second diversity event, the Day of Understanding, is exclusively for SCH students and takes place during a school day instead of on the weekend.
The Day of Understanding has occurred under that name for the past four years, but has been part of the Springside School and Chestnut Hill Academy tradition for years and was previously called Multicultural Day. The goal of the Day of Understanding is to promote empathy and to explore and celebrate the vast diversity within the SCH community. The event is run by the student facilitators, a group of students whose focus throughout the year is to engage students in thoughtful discussions, promote empathy throughout the community, lead diversity-based clubs and activities, and create workshops for the two diversity events. Leading up to the event, student facilitators work hard to promote the Day of Understanding and encourage all students to attend, since it does replace a school day and is therefore seen by some as a “day off”.
This year, the Day of Understanding was rescheduled to March 14th because of a snow day, and the keynote speaker was not able to present. Instead, the day began with all students reporting directly to their “home groups,” which were small groups of students led by two to three facilitators. In their home groups, students learned about the purpose of the day, participated in icebreakers to become more familiar with their group, and participated in their first activity: the story exchange.
The story exchange is a staple activity of the Day of Understanding, and remains relevant from year to year. Pioneered by Narrative 4, the Story Exchange promotes empathy by pairing up participants and asking each participant to tell their partner’s story in the first person. The story exchange teaches students that everyone has a story, and that they should bring empathy and understanding to all of their daily interactions.
This year, students participated in an optional walkout after the story exchange to honor the seventeen victims of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. The student organizers for this event stood in a small circle on the turf field, with other students and faculty creating a larger circle around them. Every minute for seventeen minutes, one of the students read the name of a victim along with a few sentences about their life. This event occurred in conjunction with a national walkout, but was focused on honoring the victims rather than opinions on gun control.
After the walkout, all students reconvened in the Upper School auditorium for an activity called “Who’s in the Room?” The goal of this activity is to reveal and affirm the diversity within our community. Lead student facilitators read off different identifiers in varying categories, like “Sexuality” or “Family Status”, and students were invited to stand up when they identified with a particular identity. If students stood for identities like “Speaks more than one language at home”, the students were then encouraged to call out which languages they spoke. There was also a category called “Private Identities”, which allowed students to voluntarily stand and share aspects of their identity that defined them but weren’t necessarily recognized within one of the previous categories. In the first few iterations of this event, students filled out anonymous identity surveys on a piece of paper, and then the papers were randomly distributed to students as they entered the auditorium. The hope for this strategy was that students would be more comfortable filling out the survey honestly if it was anonymous, but also that it would empower students to see themselves being represented and acknowledged. However, for the past two years, students have stood for their own identifiers because the facilitators believe it better aligns with the goal of the day: to own and celebrate all aspects of your identity.
During lunchtime, students were invited to eat lunch in an affinity group, meaning that everyone in that group would share a common identifier. These groups were centered around race, gender, religion, and more, and they were a great way to bond with new people and share common experiences.
After lunch, students were able to attend two “Social Action Workshops” that were created by student facilitators to educate students on different aspects of diversity and identity. These workshops focused on topics like religious stereotypes, toxic masculinity, LGBTQ representation in television, vulnerability, and positive body image. Each workshop lasted for about an hour, which was plenty of time to develop thoughtful discussions and debates. Student facilitators worked all year to create workshops that would engage and educate students and faculty, and they were a great success.
After the workshops, students returned to their home groups for a quick debrief before the final activity of the day. During this time, students and faculty were able to reflect on their experiences and share interesting or funny moments from their day with their fellow group members. After this debrief, all participants returned to the Upper School auditorium for the last activity of the day: the “open mic”. During that time, students and faculty were able to walk up to the front of the auditorium and share their thoughts, experiences, or gratitude with the rest of the Upper School. Some students even shared poetry that they had written during one of their social action workshops. The freedom and casual environment of the open mic provided a contrast to the fairly structured day, and reaffirmed the essential message of the day by giving students a platform to speak in front of the entire Upper School. While the Day of Understanding has been changed and improved upon from year to year, its goal of helping students develop empathy for others and become more confident in themselves has remained consistent and is always achieved.