Born of Needham High School students’ desire to explore diverse experiences with race and identity, Courageous Conversations on Race was added to the curriculum in 2018 for students in grades 10-12. On May 2, students from this class will lead the broader community in a workshop discussion about “What Race Means to Each of Us and to Needham” at the Center at the Heights. 

This event, the first in a series of broader “Community Conversations on Race,” will highlight the students’ experiences with race, ethnicity, bias and belonging, as well as other issues that come from living in a multicultural town. These students will also lead small group discussions to encourage participants to think broadly about their privilege and the diversity of the people in their lives. 

Selene Solari-Cis is in her second year of the course. She said she opted to take the class, which meets Fridays before school, because it offers students an opportunity to have deeper discussions about real issues, and then turn around and teach their ninth grade peers. As one of the students leading next week’s discussion, she said she hopes adults will listen and take them seriously. 

“It’s difficult when you’re 16 and 17 to talk to adults,” she said. “To say, ‘Actually, we have these ideas and opinions and you have stuff to learn from us just as much as we have to learn from you.’ I hope the people that are coming are willing to learn — especially from us.”

In addition to small group discussions, the students will help participants establish a common language and vocabulary to discuss these issues. They will also participate in a Bead Jar activity in which they will answer questions such as the race/ethnicity of their medical provider, their friends, actors they watch — the people who surround them on a daily basis — by selecting the appropriate skin-toned bead. Once the jars are full, they will examine the diversity or homogeneity of their jars. 

“As an extension of that activity, we talk about racism in the Needham community context, how structural racism has affected the demographics of our own community,” said Solari-Cis. “We hope that people take away these ideas of what conscious decisions you can make to make your circle more diverse and how you can continue to educate yourself moving forward.”

The Community Conversations on Race is a collaborative effort among several town entities including the Select Board, the Human Rights Committee, Needham Public Schools and Chinese Friends of Needham. 

Kevin Keane, recently elected chair of the Select Board, said having these difficult conversations about race and racism in Needham has been one of the board’s goals. “We did the police one with community policing and history of policing and history of conflict in the police,” he said. “And we wanted to move forward and explore the hard subjects.” 

Keane said a few incidents in the schools prompted the group to focus on the student-led conversation next. Superintendent Dan Gutekanst said he’s proud of the work the district is doing to make schools places where everyone feels like they belong and have a space, but the greater community is often not aware of what the schools are doing. 

“We have some high school students who have been doing some pretty amazing work in talking about race and identity in the school setting,” he said. “I think it’s important for the community to hear from students and what they think and what they’re experiencing and lead the conversations.” 

Gutekanst said he is hopeful people who might typically not be interested in conversations about race or believe it has nothing to do with them will attend because the event is student-led. He wants people to come with open minds and open hearts. 

“You don’t have to like or agree with everything you hear from our students. I hope it promotes or prompts conversations beyond that evening,” he said. 

Beth Pinals, a clinical psychologist, has co-taught the class at the high school with Joanne Allen-Willoughby, NPS METCO director, from its inception. She said in recent years the students have gone from acknowledging the horrors of racism, violence and genocide to exploring and celebrating the vast array of diversity in this country. But, she said, often adults in the community do not have the opportunity to explore their own racial identities and experiences. 

“Our children are learning and living this and working hard to create toolkits to respond and celebrate our diversity, so it’s important for the adults in the community to step up and become well versed in this, too,” she said. 

Allen-Willoughby said Needham and its schools are a reflection of what is happening nationally. “We’re really trying to focus not only on the national perspective on race and racism, but how it impacts Needham,” she said. Students look at Needham demographics, how redlining impacts Needham today, and they talk about the historical aspect of race in the town. “I hope for more conversations. I think that’s the only way that you move the needle.” 

Keane agrees that continuing the dialog will be important. “I really want people to see that racism is real, it happens here, and we have a part to play in it to help solve it,” he said. “Racism is not an abstract. It’s not just being nice to each other, it’s deeper than that and it affects the whole community.” 

This workshop will be held on May 2nd from 6:30-8 pm at the Center at the Heights, 300 Hillside Ave. Advance registration is encouraged.

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