Students Reflect on the Impact of Courageous Conversations

Photo by Annabelle Elmaleh

Gavi Azoff and Claire Kroger
News Reporters

For the second year, groups of upperclassmen have visited sophomore advisories to lead discussions on racial relations at South and alter students’ perspectives of minority experiences.

The program, Courageous Conversations on Race, remains designed to educate students on racial minorities’ experiences by allowing three upperclassmen per sophomore advisory to present three presentations on the topic of white privilege.

Sophomore Rebecca Bojar reflects that the weekly conversations have shown her that racism remains a much more prevalent issue at South than she previously thought.

“It was really eye opening because a lot of us think that racism is a problem but we don’t really know much about it or do anything about it, so this really showed us that it’s a bigger problem than we thought, and made us more aware to help out. A lot of people took it seriously which is good,” said Bojar.

Agreeing with Bojar, sophomore Emma Martignoni says the presentations have been effective as they have made her more aware of how predominantly white Newton South truly is.

“I was walking through the hallway and I’d never really taken the time to, but I looked around and noticed how many people around me were white, and it was a lot more than I realized, had I just been sitting in the classroom. Like when I was guessing the percents, I thought the percent of white people was a lot lower. Then I realized, wow the facts don’t lie”, said Martignoni.

In contrast, sophomore Raquel Fisk finds that, as a student in the racial minority, Courageous Conversations have enabled her to see how few minorities are presented in our society, especially in the media.

“I looked around and in movies and TV shows just to see how many people are white and how there’s just like barely any Latin community like me, or barely any Asians… and if they are Asian, they’re half Asian or something, which is great, but what about full race people? What about half race, quarter race, all race? I was talking about this with my mom yesterday, about white privilege, so it did definitely enforce what I already had started to notice this year,” said Fisk.

Fisk, along with both Bojar and Martignoni, says that these discussions have opened her eyes to the racism still in not only the school, but also ingrained in the society.

Seniors Kaavya Chaparala and Senait Efrem are two students who have been chosen to lead Courageous Conversations on Race lessons and have agreed to sit down with Denebola to discuss their goals for this program.

Kaavya Chaparala

Why did you want to get involved?

“ I had never really talked about race until I got to high school because I didn’t know there was anything to talk about, but then I made friends with older girls on my sports teams and stuff who happened to be people of color. We talked about that when we were hanging out and and I thought that was really refreshing because I had never talked about it, and I really wanted to talk about it. So one of the girls in the grade above me was part of the club that founded Courageous Conversations, called Students for Political Action…She recommended me because she knew I was really passionate about this, and then I went and was really intrigued by things we were doing. The training consists of a lot of team bonding within the facilitators because it’s really important to get everyone comfortable in order for you to be comfortable facilitating a difficult conversation with other people that you don’t know. There’s a lot of bonding and a lot of really open, honest conversation about race. It was just really refreshing and really honest and I knew like after the first meeting/training it was something that I wanted to pursue and be part of.

What’s it like presenting in front of advisories?

“ You feel kind of like you’re groping around blindly in the dark because you don’t really know. Like you see people listen to you, but you don’t really know how they are taking it in. You don’t know if they’re kind of just blowing it off like ‘yeah whatever this isn’t important, this doesn’t really affect me, or like I hadn’t seen the need for this.’ Or you don’t know if they’re looking at you and really getting it, and they’re really like intrigued by what you’re saying. And it kind of takes a while to see the response that you’re just like going out on a limb, and you feel really vulnerable because you’re talking about something that’s important to you, and something that you’re passionate about. When people aren’t passionate about that, it kind of feels like you’re being shot down. I haven’t had the experience where the kids have just blatantly not cared and disrespected us, but I can imagine that would be really painful. So far we’ve been really lucky, all the advisories we’ve had have been very open and the kids have been really intelligent, like more informed about the stuff we thought, and just really open to having discussions.

What do you hope for in the future as you continue presenting?

“I know the trend is when you get to senior year and you’re able to take more open classes like African American literature or Race Class Gender, kids are more comfortable with being openly passionate about something. I know when you’re younger, particularly in middle school and kind of freshman and sophomore year, it’s still uncool to care about something, or there’s still that stigma against caring about something, but I’m hoping by having these conversations in sophomore advisories will kind of chip away at that so like it’s not just senior year you realize all these things are happening and you want to make a change, because that’s kinda late. We want to empower kids so that they realize early on that something is happening, and then they can conduct themselves, and also help other people early on in their high school experience so that South just overall becomes a more welcoming place. It’s fine for the seniors to be like a really accepting grade or to try and do that, but if no one else is trying to do that then that’s only one fourth of the school, and that’s not really making a big impact.”

Are all presenters seniors and juniors?

“Right now we have mostly seniors and some juniors. I’d say there’s like one third juniors, maybe less. When we present to a sophomore advisory and we see kids who are really engaged and really seem like they know what they’re talking about or are open to learning, we approach them after and ask if they are interested in being a part of the facilitating group for the next year as a junior.”

Going well so far?

“Yeah, I think it’s going pretty well so far. It’s only the second year running so I think we have yet to see the full impacts of it, but I think so far I’m definitely happy with what I’ve seen.”

Senait Efrem

How did you prepare and research for your presentations?

“So, the whole thing is basically student created, so students and teachers who are leading it came together and created, sort of like a curriculum. And so we have that with us at every session, we review it before every session as well so that we don’t stand up there and ramble. Everyone had a big part in the whole curriculum. Also… I take RCG [Race, Class, Gender] and African American literature, so I do have a lot of background on the information that we are talking about, so I think that’s also prepared me really well.”

Do you have different topics relating to white privilege each time?

“Not really, we sort of ease them into, we talk about what white privilege looks like, like we had a whole is, like “when I walk in I’m not being seen as my whole race”, or “when I apply for a job my name doesn’t affect if I get the job or not”. So we sort of ease them in, but we sort of talk about white privilege in all its aspects over the three sessions.”

What is it like presenting to the kids?

“It was a little nerve racking at first, because it is such a controversial topic, and we’re only meeting with them for three days and on the very first day we are diving right into it. So, in the beginning I was a little nervous, but I think they’ve warmed up a little bit to us, so it’s not as bad now.”

What kind of impact do you think it’s having on the students?

“I think it’s getting students to realize what environment they’re immersed in, especially I don’t think they get to know the experience of the minority that attends Newton South, [a] predominately white school. And so I think they are becoming more woke, or more aware. It’s definitely getting them to be more cautious, and realizing, just like even things that are happening in the media, and just like black lives matter movements and other social justice movements. I think it’s getting them to think a lot more, which is, which is the first step in, I guess, attacking or trying to make a change when it comes to race. Because it’s so heavily embedded in our society.”

What do you hope for in the future as you continue presenting to advisories?

“That’s a good question. I hope students will be more knowledgeable on the topics we’re talking about. The whole reason we are talking to them about [it] is we don’t talk about it at all at South, so we’re basically trying to get them to learn, it’s basically a learning session. So, I hope that they are actually absorbing the information and applying it in their own lives and their future. Also, telling their friends about it who aren’t sophomores or aren’t in the trial. I hope the knowledge spreads.”

Do you guys know if you’re going to expand it to other grades or more people next year?

“So, I was part of it in the pilot year, and we only did it in a select group of sophomore advisories, and now it’s expanded to all sophomore advisories. I’m not sure if we’re trying to expand it to all grades, but I do think that’s a good Idea because it’s not just sophomores who aren’t knowledgeable about the things we are talking about; it’s very apparent that it’s also a problem in other grades as well. Hopefully in the future I think, or I will, hope to see that it expands to other grades as well.”