Opening up. Practicing acceptance. Challenging prejudice.
Berkshire School students explored these topics and a series of others during the School’s third annual WeWeek, a student-led initiative launched in 2014 to empower students to share and embrace the differences among themselves.
“Students and faculty have shown such an openness and willingness to talk about diversity and difference,” said Noah Faison ’16, who created WeWeek with the help of then Dean of Community and Multicultural Affairs Director Wil Smith. “Since we’re a community that’s so small, so international, so diverse with students from 29 states and 29 countries, we have to have those conversations to understand who we are as a school."
This year’s program featured a wide range of activities, speakers and workshops, and kicked off with a performance by Mayhem Poets on Saturday, April 9.
The following evening, students were led through a privilege exercise in Allen Theater that aimed to help students and faculty become more aware of their own privilege, or lack there of.
"We did not create systems, but we live in them and they affect us all," said Losseni Barry '18, co-host of the event. If we are going to make any change, we must start by taking ownership of the ways in which we are all impacted by privilege."
The following morning, the community gathered again in Allen Theater to hear from Dr. Michael Fowlin, better known as Mykee. A psychologist, performer and poet, Mykee's mission is to create an atmosphere of inclusion for all. Armed with humor, he quickly won over the crowd and then transformed into four different characters, giving monologues from each perspective, and illustrating how each of us deserves kindness and empathy. Mykee's talk was so moving that, after an immediate standing ovation, not a sound could be heard as students filed out of the theater still immersed in his message.
On Tuesday afternoon, Berkshire welcomed Kristin Russo, Los Angeles-based co-founder and CEO of the LGBTQ youth organization Everyone Is Gay. With wit and humor, Ms. Russo relayed her own story of coming out and presented statistics on the prevalence of bias against LGBTQ youth. She then offered simple, empowering ways for students to provide solidarity to and comfort for others. “Everyone has a piece that makes them feel different from others,” Russo told the crowd, reminding them that “[their] experience is not the only experience.”
Noah Faison returned to the podium briefly on Wednesday morning to introduce the next performance, one written and performed entirely by students, “We Think Big.” Before doing so, Noah took the opportunity to remind the audience that there is no one goal for We Week; that each student’s experience over the course of the week would be different, but that his main hope for WeWeek was to encourage more conversations.
“We Think Big” was a personal and probing look at stereotypes of different races through the lens of eight Berkshire students: Silvana Gomez ’17, Brooks Hamilton ’16, Dede Fade ’17, Yoshi Fukuzawa ’17, Juan Cedeno ’17, Peter Bahr ’16, Ben Wolf ’16, T.J. Simpson ’16 and Victor Leung ’17. Students shared their own personal stories against the backdrop of what society’s expectations are of people of black, white, Latino and Asian descent.
After the presentation, the community broke into groups to attend workshops led by faculty on different topics of diversity. Courses included: WEB DuBois; OscarSoWhite; Latin American Food and Festival; Dance, Dance, Hip Hop; Literature & Jazz in the Harlem Renaissance; Speak Up! A Personal Stories Project; Diversity and the Arts; Within and Beyond Color: Religious Identity in Independent Schools, and many more.
At Thursday night’s Community Dinner, Kristina Splawn and Ana Tolvo ’17 organized a themed event where each table jointly wrote poetry based on prompts from the National SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) Project that will hang around campus in various locations.
WeWeek also coincided with the National Day of Silence on April 15 and the school’s own GSA (Gay/Straight Alliance) organized a day in support of members of the LGBTQ community who may feel silenced and/or are bullied for being who they are. At Thursday night’s Community Dinner, Kristina Splawn and Ana Tolvo ’17 organized a themed event where each table jointly wrote poetry based on prompts from the National SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) Project that will hang around campus in various locations.
On Saturday, an alumni panel consisting of members of Berkshire's Advisory Board discussed their experiences with diversity during their time at the School. Panelists included Jillian Hooper Joseph ’97, Catherine Saunders ’85, Jed Scala ’85, Jay Overbye ‘82, and Jim Sheldon-Dean ‘69.
The week closed out appropriately with a Holi celebration on a gorgeous 70-degree Sunday afternoon when students and faculty came out to participate in the ancient Hindu religious festival of colors said to signify the arrival of spring.
“I’m proud of the legacy that I’ve left but more importantly, I'm excited for the future,” said Noah as he summed up the week. He continued, “There’s such a great amount of opportunity at Berkshire to continue to have fantastic conversations and meaningful discussions about inclusion and acceptance.”