“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1962)
Each year, I ask the fourth and fifth grade students in my media literacy classes about the danger of a single story. They aren’t always sure what I mean, so I explain it to them like this:
“Let’s say there is a disagreement at recess about the way a game of Four-Square is
being played and I approach Student A, ask for their version of events, and accept it as
fact. When other students try to offer their side of the story, or perspective, I tell them,
‘No thank you. I got all the information I need from Student A,’ and ignore their points-
of-view. What is the danger in this single story?”
Students will generally reply that I, as the teacher at recess, can’t possibly get a sense of the big picture if I haven’t gotten everyone’s perspective. Multiple perspectives, or lenses, help us to better understand a situation and help to create a richer, more comprehensive narrative. By asking our students to consider a variety of perspectives, they are more likely to not only better understand the big picture, but also build empathy and compassion for others in the process.
One of the many ways that we do this at Dawson is by encouraging our faculty, administrators, and students to attend two remarkable conferences each year: The People of Color Conference (PoCC), for faculty, administrators, and other folks engaged in diversity work in independent schools and the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) for independent school students in grades nine-12. The conferences, hosted by the National Association of Independent Schools and run simultaneously each December, provide a unique opportunity for students and adults to spend time discussing topics such as school climate and culture, civic engagement, and practicing civil discourse with folks of a variety of ages and from myriad backgrounds.
The People of Color Conference (PoCC), which began in 1986, was founded by a small group of educators of color in independent schools. Comprising a very small percentage of most independent schools’ faculty, these educators wanted to come together and discuss their experiences teaching in mostly white schools. Over the years, the conference has evolved to include folks from a variety of races and ethnicities and has grown from a conference of thirty attendees to one of nearly 5,000 attendees.
Early each morning of the conference, we say goodbye to our six Dawson representatives as they head off to their day at SDLC—a grueling 14-hours of learning with peers and faculty from around the country, followed by a late-night debrief with other Dawson faculty and students. While they meet students from all walks of life and from an array of independent schools (over 1600 total!), the faculty attend workshops and discussion groups centered around how we can best support all of our students and ensure that their stores are heard. For students and faculty of color, this often means being in a room full of independent school folks who look like them for the very first time. For our white students, it is often the first time they have been in the minority and gives them a chance to experience another perspective first-hand. Sharing perspectives with people very different from ourselves is hard work; but it is also illuminating, so we ask all attendees to lean into this discomfort. The best word to describe what happens to our first-time faculty and student attendees is “transformative.” They come back with their lenses refocused and able to look at the world, and its people, in a new way.
When selecting faculty and students to attend these two conferences, we consider several criteria:
- How will attending this conference impact the individual’s social-emotional well-being?
- How will this individual’s perspectives be impacted by attending this conference?
- How will attending the conference bolster and energize the individual’s leadership skills at Dawson?
The attendees vary from year-to-year. We try to take faculty and students of color who can really benefit from being around other folks who share similar perspectives. While both of these conferences are designed specifically for people of color, it has been incredibly powerful for our white students and faculty, as well. It is through having these difficult conversations that we build understanding and empathy. Witnessing our young people, as well as veteran educators, adjust their lenses and look at the world through a new perspective is one of the highlights of my role as Dawson’s diversity practitioner. As a storyteller, I truly believe that in sharing each other’s stories and thinking about how are own lenses are formed, we are better able to make connections with each other and find commonalities. It reinforces the old belief that, as humans, we really do have more in common than we don’t.
Perspective is a powerful thing—it has the capacity to open our heads and hearts to the plight of those around us, while helping us build our own knowledge of and compassion for others. Perspective builds community and shows all members that they are valuable, that their voices are heard, and that their opinions matter. While I am fortunate to teach in a community that values civil discourse and the exchange of differing opinions, I am especially honored to be able to spend time each year at PoCC and SDLC with faculty and students sharing stories and perspectives in an effort to build understanding. In sending faculty, staff, and students each year, we are investing in the Dawson community. Conference attendees bring back their unique experiences which bolster our advisory curricula, enrich classroom discussions, and promote a culture of inclusivity. As for those fourth and fifth grade media literacy students, I hope to be taking some of them to SDLC in a few years. In the meantime, I’ll be encouraging them to keep sharing their stories.
*For a fantastic TedTalk about the danger of a single story, please watch “The Danger of a Single Story” by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.