How Ellis Students are Impacting the Future of Pittsburgh

Though it was two years ago, I still remember every detail from my first Culture Jam. I recall shuffling across the scuffed gym floor, scarlet autumn leaves decorating the trees outside. I can still recall the deafening buzz from the voices of unknown students and the towering mass of unfamiliar faces. But most of all, I recall the pounding of my heart and the fear coursing through my veins. My then timid freshman self yearned to be far away from the people surrounding me, who seemed more educated and bold than I could dream of being.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh (so possessing a deep love for pierogies), I have lived in this wonderful city for 16 years. I have been through many things in my life that have changed my views, but little has had more of an impact on me than Ellis’ Culture Jam. Culture Jam is an annual day-long event that provides a space for high school students to have honest, constructive,  and educational discussions about diversity. Dedicated to the building of empathy and knowledge, students from different communities come together to take part in group activities, a keynote address, and student-led workshops surrounding ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, class, and more. During Culture Jam, we present an inclusive space for students from different statuses, cultures, and identities to celebrate and embrace equity and inclusion, and learn about prevalent issues today.

Now, two years later, as I sit in a classroom with the surrounding whiteboards covered in scribbled plans for this year’s Culture Jam and my fellow Student Diversity League members—the coordinators of this event—laughing with me as we work, I can’t think of any event that I’m more excited about. November 16 is fast approaching and we have worked hard to plan a bigger and better event each year. The event is attended by hundreds of students, drawing from local schools such as Shady Side and Westinghouse Academies, and schools and youth groups from cities further away such as Cleveland and Philadelphia. This occasion is funded by thousands of dollars from sources within the School, and even from grants by the Three Rivers Youth Foundation. As bold, large, and important as this event is, it’s shocking for some to learn that Culture Jam is entrusted to be run, planned, and structured by teenagers like myself.

I went into Culture Jam my first year intimidated and overwhelmed by those around me. Now, however, social justice and activism are key components of my life. I’ve traveled to California to attend The Student Diversity and Leadership Conference, written a TEDx Pittsburgh Talk on incorporating diversity into middle schools, and I have become an Officer-at-Large in Student Diversity League, where students come together to advocate for inclusion at The Ellis School. I’ve been exposed to and learned so many new things because of my growing passion for influencing social change, all stemming from this one-day event.

Culture Jam exposed me to blunt discussions and truths that I had never encountered before. Instead of shying away from bold conversations and topics, this event exposes students to them straight-on. Having attended a largely undiverse middle school, and never being fully confronted with the straightforward truth behind these prevalent issues, I was shocked. But even more amazing to me was that heavy discussions were being led by students my own age. Whether it was a workshop on  “The Demonization of Black Women Throughout History” where I saw a detailed explanation behind the stereotypes and views on black women or a workshop about the struggles faced by the LGBTQ+ community whose voice is so often excluded from conversations in the media, I felt my view on the world shifting: for the first time, gazing at these fiery and passionate teenagers presenting in these workshops, I saw that somebody as young as a high school student could influence others and create change.

This realization inspired me to leave behind watching the action from the sidelines and to take a risk and to try new things as I began my own advocacy for others. Running my own workshop this year, attending events like the March for Our Lives, and finding new ways to positively impact my community have all stemmed from my own exposure to Culture Jam.

But while Culture Jam may be an important way to learn about equity and inclusion, it’s more than that: in today’s climate, it’s a necessity. In a time where issues of racism, gender inequality, and discrimination are not only relevant but often the topic of conversation, and in wake of events such as the shooting of Antwon Rose and the tragedy at Tree of Life Synagogue, it is urgent that we facilitate dialogue around equity and inclusion in Pittsburgh. In order to do this, we need to begin by educating and enlightening the future of our city. In the face of hatred, bigotry, and discrimination, some of the loudest voices demanding change are teenagers. Whether it be Parkland students passionately advocating for gun control, or any of the thousands of teenagers attending marches across our country, young people are at the front of this revolution, influencing and advocating for change—and Culture Jam does just this.

Culture Jam builds the changemakers and problem-solvers of tomorrow, and as it continues to change and grow, it illustrates that hatred has no place in our city. It is so much more than your typical high school event—your average school dance or bake sale—it is a place where the student becomes the teacher, where us teenagers take the lead in celebrating our diversity, and where we use our talents to shape the world for the better. But most of all, it’s a promise for a better Pittsburgh.