by Liz Paige, Director of Ethics and Community Initiatives
In March 2021, ten McGillis Middle School students attended the virtual Northwest Association of Independent Schools’ Student Diversity Leadership Retreat. With 300 other middle school students from 39 other independent schools in our region, students met with their peers in affinity groups and learned from artists who work for social justice through their art.
The two-day retreat titled, “EXPRESS YOURSELF: Leading Change Through Arts and Activism” introduced students on how to use their voices in song, poetry, and visual art as well as their bodies through dance and theater as leaders for racial equity. Students listened to the stories and music of raptivist Aisha Fukushima, who started the retreat and inspired all attendees. “It is important to use your voice in any way, shape, or form, even if you don't think you'll be heard,” reflected McGillis eighth-grader Talia. “I learned how to use expressive words to represent what I want to change,” shared Rufus, a 7th-grade participant. “I learned that you can support anti-racism through different ways,” wrote Sebastian, grade 6, reflecting on his takeaways from the retreat.
The highlight of the Student Diversity Leadership Retreat were the opportunities to meet with and learn from other students in affinity groups. The term affinity group is used as a bringing together of people who have an identifier in common and can speak to the experience of being a member of the group from the “I” perspective. On the first day, students chose an affinity group based on their racial or ethnic identity. On the second day, students could choose from racial or ethnic identity affinity groups as well as broader affinity groups including LGBTQIA+, male, female, religiously observant/interfaith, low socioeconomic status, or neurodiverse or disabled.
“In the white/European-heritage affinity group we got into a very deep discussion on what it means to be white and how that affects our daily lives (i.e. white privilege),” shared Talia. “I never fully realized how much of a benefit it means to be white until we had this discussion. There are so many things that I take for granted and assume everyone's life is the same. Having this discussion with my affinity group opened my eyes and gave me a better understanding of what it truly means to be white.”
Emil, a sixth-grader, was impressed by his peers’ ability to share their personal stories. “I noticed that everyone was able to speak from the "I" perspective (this is good) and that everyone was willing to talk about their experiences, without being afraid they might be embarrassed.”
“I learned that a lot of people feel very similar to me and it’s nice to know that,” reflected Christopher, a McGillis 8th grader. “I feel like I learned more from different perspectives and it was really nice hearing people relating to the struggles I also deal with,” shared Yusuf, also an 8th grader. “I got to connect with more people like me which was nice because I've never been able to connect with such a large group like that before,” Sofia, a fellow 8th grader, added.
This was the first time our students participated in this bi-annual conference and we are looking forward to sending students to the next retreat in 2023.