New England Youth Identity Summit 2016: Students Bring Dialogue to Life

Dialogue, at its best, is the art and science of communicating across differences to distill the  wisdom from a diversity of viewpoints. It requires that participants make themselves vulnerable to being authentically affected by being in relationship with another and willing to integrate the interaction.  It requires proficiency in a variety of 21st century skills, including critical and creative thinking, empathy, active listening, and oral communication. Dialogue is desperately needed in a fragmenting global community that is facing complex and pressing matters such as social injustice, economic disparity, and global warming. These matters and a myriad of others require the best of humanity’s collective capacities to address and resolve. Unfortunately, as evidenced in various ways ranging from the divisive rhetoric of the current presidential campaign to the breakdown of communication across college campuses across the country, dialogue is too often in short supply.

Waynflete aspires to be a community that excels at dialogue. In fact, the power of dialogue was on display in March at the New England Youth Identity Summit.  Co-sponsored by Waynflete and Maine Seeds of Peace, the Summit was a first of its kind gathering of 300 youth and their teachers from 35 schools drawn from Portland, surrounding towns, throughout the State, and across New England. Empowering students to talk about and become actively involved in topics that spark their interest outside of coursework has always been the engine of Waynflete’s co-curricular program, with student leadership as a constant. Student leaders from Waynflete’s Racial Awareness at Waynflelte (RAaW), Ethical Leadership, Girls Leadership, and Raising Awareness and Providing Support (RAPS) groups capitalized on the opportunity to share their work with interested students from others schools.

Holding dialogue about racial prejudice, gender biases, socio-economic privilege, and community responsibility requires courage and happens most readily in what keynote speaker Don Sawyer referred to as “brave spaces.” Because dialogue is at the heart of what happens every day in Waynflete classrooms, the Summit offered our students a chance to convey approaches to engaging with peers and having authentic conversations that move beyond pretense or defensiveness. As one participant from another high school wrote in the feedback survey, “I was amazed by people’s willingness to share their thoughts and feelings. The energy and hope it gave me was just what I needed to be motivated to face challenges and work to define my inner voice.”  

On Friday, two of the NEYIS guest speakers spent the day on campus before the Summit visiting classes, talking with Middle and Upper School students and working with student leaders about the Summit.  The first was guest of our NGO partners from Students Shoulder to Shoulder, Dr. Karambu Ringera, Founder and Director of International Peace Initiatives in Meru, Kenya.  After spending the day on campus and speaking at Middle School Assembly, she had dinner with the Upper School Girls Leadership to plan for their collaborative workshop on taking action and speaking up for justice even when it can mean losing support from some corners. For Dr. Karambu, the key to a better future is “to see every setback, every problem as an opportunity.”  The second guest on campus on Friday was the Summit keynote speaker, Dr. Don Sawyer, a professor of the sociology of race, hip hop and popular culture. He visited classes and addressed the Upper School at assembly.  

On Friday evening, NEYIS kicked off with two moving performances.  The first was by the Pihcintu Multicultural Girls’ Chorus, introduced by Tim Wilson, Director of the Maine Seeds Program.  Their inspirational opening was followed by a dynamic performance by the Dialogue Arts Project, a New York City based group that engages students through poetry, spoken word, and expressive arts in an exploration of identity and discovery of one’s own story.

On Saturday, Dr. Sawyer’s opening talk created a powerful context for the Summit by inviting the audience to expand their awareness of personal privilege and risk being vulnerable in order to connect with and learn from others.  After his talk, student leaders from Waynflete, Seeds of Peace, and other high schools led a variety of workshops for students, educators, and parents.  In addition, Colby College professors Dr. Joseph Atkins and Dr. Tarja Raag and current Colby students led two workshops on supporting college students as they work their way through peer group pressures, microaggressions, social media messages, and other challenges of growing up today and on how to move beyond outdated concepts of political correctness and into the vital work of supporting identity development on campus. There were a total of 17 workshops offered throughout the day.  

One workshop was led by Waynflete’s Racial Awareness at Waynflete (RAaW) group.  It offered attendees guidance on  how to start a radical dialogue group at their own schools.  The experience of preparing for the workshop by synthesizing the essence of RAaW’s approach to difficult and rewarding conversations paid off.  Feedback was immediate and positive, “Experiencing this workshop definitely made me want to create a racially aware group group like this in my school” commented one participant.  Added another, “I believe that if all schools have something similar to RAaW it would spark a change no matter how small it may be.” Attendees left with a manual created by a RAaW member entitled “Racial Awareness Dialogue,” linked here, Its publication underscored a major objective of the summit – the chance for students to take the lead and to learn by doing.

The Summit ended with a speak out led by Don Sawyer.  During the speak out, a diverse group of nearly 300 young people, who had just spent a long day in deep conversation on a host of challenging topics, expressed their inspiration, their gratitude, and their hope for a better future. A video of the speak out and closing comments is linked here.

Creating a climate of hope around dialogue was an essential aim of the Summit.  Reflecting on the experience, Dr Karumbu said “the Summit gave the kids an opportunity to speak their truth. They recognized their own power to change the world through their changed selves!  Everyone who experienced that summit – young and old – will forever be changed and in turn will move societies forward!”  A student confirmed her observation., “We have the power to change the world. Like seriously we do. By starting small we can make the world better. Faith in humanity restored.”

Already, student organizers from Waynflete and Seeds of Peace are looking at the feedback and thinking about workshop ideas for next year and how to facilitate even more dialogue between participants.  By bringing together Portland based groups doing this important work such as King Fellows, Boys to Men, Telling Room and GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), the Summit created for students from different schools to get and stay connected to sources of support and inspiration. To encourage other peers to attend next year, a student wrote, “I would tell a friend there are many unique opportunities to talk about issues we often don’t have dialogue about. It was empowering for me to be in the presence, meet and talk with other youth with similar values and ambitions to mine. I left the summit feeling not only more educated, but part of a community.”

The students were not the only people inspired by the Summit. One educator commented, “I was delighted by how open and critical (in a positive way) the teens I worked with were. It gave me renewed hope that young people are able to have tricky dialogue across quite varied differences without freaking out! Why can’t we adults do that better too?”  Maine Seeds Director Tim Wilson said, “The conversations that took place showed me, once again, that this rising generation is passionate, thoughtful, and ready to lead, and that the best thing we can do as adults is give them the space to make their voices heard.” Other words to describe the Summit included “empowering,” “uplifting,” “positive,” “energetic,” and “inspirational.”

Dr. Sawyer said he was “blown away” by the event and noted in particular the “underlying school culture” that made a place for such open dialogue to occur. He said that “the students inspired me beyond measure” and that “Waynflete is ahead of the game in so many ways.”  The same could be said of every young person and educator in attendance.

Dr. Sawyer then posed the question that was starting to stir in the minds of the Summit organizers, “What stadium are you using for the event next year?”