Culture Jam Inspires Students, Faculty to Advocate by Embracing Authenticity

After seniors Trinity Sims and Sreethi Ramineni attended the NAIS Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) in San Antonio, Texas with Ellis faculty and staff earlier this year, they came away feeling inspired.
"At SDLC everyone is going to a private school, but to see how many different people go to these schools instead of the cookie cutter type of person you’d think went to private schools is really cool to see. It’s cool to see who was like you and who was different than you,” Trinity says.

She and Sreethi participated in spectrum activities, where students considered where their perceptions fall amid a range of opinions on polarizing topics. They also took part in step-in activities, where all students stood on a line and then opted to step forward if they identified with any of a series of statements read to the group (e.g. “Are you an only child?”).

"The whole purpose was to try to create conversation based on things we might not feel like we can talk about on an everyday basis, and to get people to see what they have in common with people they don’t know. We wanted to try and do that here at Ellis,” says Trinity.

Those spectrum and step-in activities became part of January’s Culture Jam, which was themed “You've Got the Power” and focused on the power of self-advocacy. The first step on the road to becoming an advocate for marginalized groups, self-advocacy is speaking up for yourself and your own beliefs. It also affects and is reflected in how one approaches advocating for others. Self-advocacy is unique to each individual, allows appreciation for diversity, and fosters a positive environment.

Of course, to be a strong advocate, it’s important to know who you are and to be open and willing to learn about and accept others.

"You have to know who your authentic self is so that you can be a strong advocate,” says Dr. Denise LaRosa, Ellis’ Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Dr. LaRosa gave this year’s keynote talk, during which she shared that embracing her authentic self hasn’t always been easy, and that it’s something we all wrestle with because humans are ever-evolving beings. She said it takes a lot of trust in a space for people—especially those who belong to marginalized groups—to feel confident that they can present their authentic selves without being judged.

"As part of my job, I need to stay true to myself and be able to model that for students. That's at the heart of this work,” she says. "It's important that we continue to build relationships among colleagues, students, families, and in the Ellis community in general. That relationship building is at the heart of people feeling like they can be their true, authentic selves. There also has to be a shared knowledge and understanding of what authenticity means. It's about really investing in those individuals and their differences that make them unique and not just accumulating a diverse community.”

Culture Jam, organized by Ellis’ Student Diversity League, is an annual student-led, student-produced conference focused on diversity. Now in its nineteenth year at Ellis, it is designed to empower students to have courageous conversations alongside their peers and offers a safe, inclusive space for high school students to discuss equity-related issues that are present in schools, the Pittsburgh region, and the global community. This year, 50 students from five Pittsburgh area high schools including Winchester Thurston School, Chartiers Valley, Justice Scholars (a part of Pittsburgh Public Schools), South Fayette, and Seneca Valley visited Ellis for the day to participate in programming.

Trinity says her experiences with Culture Jam have inspired her own advocacy work. She volunteers with Pittsburgh-based organization Brown Mamas, a global and multigenerational community that seeks to support, empower, and amplify the voices of Black mothers. She also volunteers with the Fund for Advancement of Minorities Through Education (FAME) and is the president of Ellis’ Black Student Union.

"My first Culture Jam inspired me to do what I do now in terms of activism, making sure my larger community is welcoming to everyone and that everyone gets treated equally,” Trinity says. “It’s inspiring to see seniors speak up and do what we’re doing for the Ellis community.”

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