Saybrook Students Embark on Encountering Differences
Old Saybrook High School students participating in the Encountering Differences program include (from left) Sophia Barker, Hannah Uphold, Davonte Mitchell, Bella Carlo, and Mara Kelley. Alem Tiden is not pictured. (Photo by Christine Bairos )
For the second year, a small group of Old Saybrook High School (OSHS) students is participating in Encountering Differences, a program sponsored and facilitated by the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut. The program strives to educate young people about the history of anti-black racism in the U.S. and connect them to African-American community members to engage with them directly and learn about their life experiences.
The program, which takes place over the academic year, kicked off in late October at OSHS, where 28 students from five high schools gathered for a program overview and a presentation by John F. McKnight, Jr., dean of institutional equity and inclusion at Connecticut College. McKnight gave a brief history of American anti-black racism.
“He has an amazing gift of drawing the students out to share information about their own experiences, their thoughts,” said Tammy Kaye, program coordinator at the Jewish Federation. “I thought this year we had one of the best discussions ever.”
The students participated in a new activity at this year’s opening meeting, Kaye said.
“They had to break up into groups of students that they didn’t know,” she explained. “And they had to talk to each other to find similarities amongst themselves and...find something that was unique about themselves, different from the rest of the group.”
Each group then drew a large flower; the circle in the center listed their commonalities and each petal listed the unique qualities of one of the students in the group.
“The trick with this is that they couldn’t use any physical attributes,” Kaye said. “So they really had to talk to people. We chose this activity because...it symbolized the theme of the program: We can’t just be looking at somebody’s skin color, we can’t be looking at appearances, we have to dig deeper and really get to know people.”
The nature of the program limits participants to five or six from each school, who meet with hosts in the community and work together on a group project at the end of the year. To find those students at OSHS, Library Media Specialist Christine Bairos sent students an email, posted flyers, and visited classrooms to talk about what participation entailed. Interested students submitted a short statement about their reasons for taking part. They then met with Bairos for an interview.
The primary qualifications, Bairos said, were good attendance—students will miss some school to participate—and commitment to completing the full year of the program. This year’s OSHS group consists of one sophomore, one junior, and four seniors.
“It’s a great group. They all seem to have the passion” for the program, she said.
Each school group is paired with the same host for three meetings, usually in the hosts’ homes. The hosts all live in Southeastern Connecticut.
“That’s another way that we feel we’re crossing barriers,” said Kaye. “When you get in a small, personal environment, it really is more conducive to developing understanding, empathy and those types of things.
“The goal is for them to build a relationship, to really get to know the host,” she said. “Many of them keep in touch after the program, which is really nice.
“The first meeting [with the host] deals with early life,” Kaye said. “Many of the hosts grew up in the South, so we hear about the community that they grew up in. Some grew up in very segregated communities.
“Some of [the hosts] participated in the protests in the Civil Rights movement in various different ways, some through direct participation, marches and sit-ins and things of that nature,” she continued.
The second meeting addresses what brought the host to Connecticut.
“Did they come by themselves? Did they come with their family? What were those experiences like? Many of them lived under segregation, so they can share with the kids their personal experiences surrounding that. When they were coming here [from the South], they would have to pack their car with everything that they needed because they couldn’t get gas, they couldn’t be served food. So you had to travel with what you needed.”
The third meeting focuses on the host’s current life, their place and involvement in the community.
“Throughout all the meetings, they share with the students the barriers that they faced and how they overcame those barriers,” said Kaye. “So there’s a lot of stories of resilience, which is something that we hope the students will take into their own lives.”
Joining a Conversation
OSHS senior Isabella Carlo said she heard about the program last year from friends who participated.
“Seeing in politics in the last year or so how high tensions have been and how many issues there have been, I thought it would be a really good thing to kind of join in a conversation about encountering differences and learning about issues with systemic racism and society in general,” she said.
“I thought it would be really educational and proactive to try and take part in that conversation because I think talking about it is the first step to changing things,” she added.
“We do talk about current racial issues in the news and we talk about systemic racism,” Kaye said. “So that is a recurring theme throughout all of the components of the program.”
“Also I feel like we don’t really learn a lot about African-American history in school,” Carlo said. “It is a part of our history as a country. It’s not right for it to be left out.”
The opening program “was really eye opening,” said Sophia Barker, a sophomore. “We broke into small groups and I got to meet one person from each school and it helped a lot with everyone getting comfortable with each other...Everyone had something a little bit different about themselves and that’s what really helped everyone bring something to the table.”
Davonté Mitchell, a junior, said the program gives him an “opportunity to learn more about my culture as a black person. I wanted to learn more about the history...because I don’t really get that a lot” in school.
“My family lives down south in Virginia,” he continued. “And whenever I do get to see my grandfather, he...helps me learn about stuff that happened in the past [that] I don’t really learn about in school.”
Just the opening session “made me more observant,” Mitchell said, and “opened my eyes to a lot of stuff.”
Carlo said that a poll taken at the opening meeting showed that many of the students taking part in the program had never been to a black person’s house and had never had a black teacher.
“If the first meeting that we had was that informative,” she said, “I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen at the rest of them.”
“I’m excited to meet our host,” Barker said. “I’m really excited to learn about her and her story.”
After the three meetings with their hosts, the entire group of students will take a field trip in April to Harlem. Some of the hosts will join them, explained Kaye.
“Generally, the highlight of that trip is the Apollo Theater, and learning about the neighborhood of Harlem and we’ll also do museum visits,” she said. “Last year we did an Activist New York exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York.
“For lunch, we take them to a soul food buffet,” she continued. “And they try everything from oxtail, okra, plaintains...Your standard fried chicken and macaroni and cheese are there, too, so [students] don’t have to be adventurous.”
The students are given a great deal of autonomy in planning their culminating group project, Kaye and Bairos said.
“You need to create something that’s going to honor the [host’s] story. Because the [host] is taking the time to share their family history,” Bairos said she tells OSHS students.
“The two key components are what have you learned,” Kaye said. “What’s most impactful about your program experience? And how are you going to use that to look within yourself and to spread that within the greater community?”
Also important is what the students think their contribution will be “to creating a just society and to have conversations when you see things happening on social media or in your school,” she said.
“One of the comments that really stuck with me—it was from [an OSHS] student last year,” Kaye continued. “She felt that this program really gave her the words and the knowledge to be an active participant in the conversation.”
The four other participating high schools are Norwich Free Academy and Ledyard, Plainfield, and Waterford high schools.