Encouraging Students to Look Beyond Themselves

“It’s important to talk with people who have different opinions.” “We need to include student voices in conversations.” Last week, I listened to our students at The Big Table Pittsburgh event I had the opportunity to attend with several of our Middle and Upper School student leaders as well as Ms. Young, Ms. Boyer, and Ms. Dotson. The event, hosted by Winchester Thurston School, gave students and faculty a chance to engage in conversation over a meal.
I enjoyed meeting faculty from local independent schools as we honestly addressed questions about Pittsburgh and diversity; however, by far the most energizing part of the evening was the sharing by young people from our communities in the East End. They are committed to tackling social justice and environmental issues, treating each other with respect and kindness, and branching out into our communities. One of the most inspiring moments was when our students asked if we could include more schools from different communities in order to encounter a broader spectrum of viewpoints. I left the evening with the knowledge that our work within our school community was encouraging our girls to look beyond themselves, and I feel confident knowing that we are leaving the future of Pittsburgh in their hands!

Two years ago, we established our first affinity groups in the Middle School to provide spaces where every student felt heard. Sisterhood Jr., open to any Middle School Black, African, and African American students, has built upon the long and rich history of the Black Student Union in the Upper School and holds regular meetings with their advisors, Ms. Young and Ms. Jackson. Ms. Young sees “growth each time they meet”, and she has “witnessed the confidence the group creates within individuals move externally to their life in the Middle School.”

The Middle School Multicultural Club, facilitated by Ms. LaRoche and Ms. Boyer, is an alliance group open to any interested Middle School students. Students have the opportunity to explore their own cultures and learn from the cultures of others. This group has provided a safe space for interested students to discuss and raise awareness around diversity-related topics.

We hoped that the establishment of Sisterhood Jr. and the Multicultural Club would have an impact on the students who joined them, but we did not anticipate the positive effect on our entire Middle School community. Students have been able to share their faith, their strengths, and their challenges with the Middle School community in our meetings—we have heard presentations on Judaism, Unitarianism, Sikhism, Atheism, and Agnosticism. We have had students teach us not only about learning differences, but how they affect their lives at school every day. We have provided students with time and safe spaces to begin to process the Tree of Life shootings, and to discuss the Antwon Rose case verdict. Ms. Young, the facilitator of several of these conversations, shares, “the voices in the margins—students who were once reluctant to share—now feel more empowered to do so in this community.” The dialogue that occurs in these conversations and discussions allows each student to ask questions and share their feelings—to be heard and to be known for who they are.   

Our Middle School faculty have also heard from our students. Members of the Upper School Student Diversity League came and presented about their experiences. They were honest and brave in discussing their experiences, and faculty members were open and eager for feedback.

We have always deeply valued our engagement with each other as respectful and positive community members. Now, our entire Middle School has extended this commitment to being present and engaged in real conversation with each other.