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Discussing Discrimination

Students come together to discuss and examine pertinent issues of race

Back in November, for an hour and a half out of the school day, students and teachers alike turned their attention to the big screen in Founders Hall.

Shown was the 2014 documentary “I’m Not Racist, Am I?”, a film which followed a group of New York City high school students of various races as they discussed racism, discrimination and privilege.

University Prep students followed up the documentary with a series of “community conversation” sessions, where groups of students across grade levels discussed what they had watched.

“Our goal,” Upper School Assistant Director Sarah Peterson said, “was to try and take what the film said and connect it to the experiences of U Prep students.”

Peterson was one of the faculty members who helped bring the film to U Prep, and she was aware of potential resistance. “We’ve done a lot of different types of activities—conversations and assemblies—to try and get students to engage with issues of race,” Peterson said. “Lots of people would be like, ‘Ugh, we’re talking about race again.’”

Peterson was concerned they were “missing the boat.”

Senior Joe Klemencic believes the conversations were productive compared to past discussions involving race. “[It was more effective], because those [past discussions] were random, like ‘we’re just gonna talk about racism now’, whereas this one we actually did something and then talked about it,” Klemencic said.

Physics teacher Moses Rifkin, another teacher involved in bringing the film to  U Prep, weighed in on what he observed following the school-wide screening of the film. “The conversation [in Founders Hall] after the movie, the little five or ten minute thing…that was way more engaged than I could’ve imagined. I felt like people were saying things I hadn’t heard them say publicly before.”

The smaller conversations got mixed reviews. “The conversations, based off what I heard…some were really amazing, some fell kind of flat, and that’s how it goes,” Rifkin said.

Senior Michael Ollee wishes U Prep had allocated more time immediately after watching the movie for discussion.

“It would keep us thinking about [the issues at hand] throughout the day.” Ollee said. ”The stuff we talk about during the day would continue into the week.”

Sophomore Donovan Bown, a student of color, thought the Community Conversations were valuable. “One of the things talked about [in my group] was how a lot of people don’t realize that there are problems. A lot of the white kids didn’t realize that there aren’t a whole lot of black teachers,” Bown said.

Peterson also thought the conversations were effective. “Students observed that what [the students in the film] went through there is happening here,” Peterson said. “Maybe not in exactly the same ways, but the light was shined for them about how different the experiences of people in their group were. It would be great if we could connect that to how different some of the experiences of people at U Prep are.”

The biggest goal for this series of conversations was making things different from the way they were before. “I think some of the concerns with the follow-up conversation was that things are going to go back to the way that they were before and nobody’s going to really care, and I think that that has happened in some ways,” Peterson said.

Rifkin said, “Hopefully it’s not totally back to the way it was before, and that there’s still a greater opening for having conversations.”

By Isaac Glasser

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