The Impact of GYLI
Racial incidents broke out into the open in every school I led. A third-grader turned to his black classmate and taunted, “Get out of line. You have to drink from a different fountain.” Or, a girl’s name appeared on the stall wall in the boy’s bathroom with an Asian slur. Or, a junior turned to his classmate in History and told him, “Go back to the ghetto” using the n-word.
Yes, you call the parents to tell them what happened and what the School will be doing.
Yes, you tell Maintenance to remove it, but make sure we have a clear photo. Yes, you attend the assembly where the Upper School Dean lays out what happened in History class, and broadens the discussion to point out the damage caused by slurs, epithets, and name-calling. Yes, you prepare and send letters to all parents in the division. Yes, you engage on many necessary calls.
But this time, after that assembly, kids crowded into the lobby and missed their next class during a long, impromptu, intense debate about what was said and what it meant. (Community erupts when events expose underlying contradictions.) This time, students who had returned from their first GYLI institute took the lead in organizing two potluck dinners inviting all Upper School parents of color, all class representatives and leaders from the Parents Association (approximately 20 involved parents, mostly white and female), administrators, faculty, and trustees.
After dinner plates were cleared from the table where I sat, a GYLI student called the table to order. “Tonight we’re going to talk about racism at our school. Last summer at GYLI, I learned a good way to begin discussions about identity and power, called the 5 C’s: Color (things we can’t change like race and sexual orientation), Culture (from church, family, school), Class (access to economic power), Character (unique values and motivations), and Context (the world you live in today).
“Let’s go around the table and introduce ourselves using descriptors from the 5 C’s. I’ll start: ‘I am a straight, white, privileged, Christian, female, high school student from a good academic school where people do not know how to talk about race.’ You don’t have to cover all these bases, but it would help if you would identify yourself in a similar way that feels comfortable for you.”
My jaw dropped. The adults glanced around the table, some with knowing relieved smiles, others with widened uncertain eyes. We made it through the introductions with some laughs and some wet eyes, then leaned into our own long, intense discussion about race relations in our school.
This was the moment I committed to GYLI.
In two schools, I have learned that, if approximately 10 students and 3 faculty attend GYLI summer institutes each year, a core group of GYLI-oriented student and faculty leaders develops. Day-to-day, they curb micro-aggressions. When overt incidents reveal how much more work is needed to confront institutional racism, GYLI people step forward to help.