This article was originally published in the December 2021 print issue of The Warde Focus Volume XVII, Issue 1.
On Tuesday, November 30th, and Thursday, December 2nd, juniors and sophomores participated in the Anti-Defamation League’s “Names Can Really Hurt Us” assembly program. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is an organization that was born to combat Anti-Semitism but has since mobilized to fight all types of hate. In the years 2020-21, Warde not only dealt with COVID but an additional plague of prejudice. Principal Cavanna decided that after the derogatory bracket and a racist incident, there was a need for change at Warde; Warde needed a change of heart. For the first time after it was discontinued 11 years ago, Warde partnered with the ADL to reintroduce the NAMES assembly.
When asked why he introduced the assembly this year, Mr. Cavanna emphasized that “it is not always about being reactive, it’s about being proactive.” He believes that “kindness is something that needs to be taught. Just as how the words of people affect others needs to be taught. This gives us the opportunity to start those conversations and most importantly, make sure that the students who come here know that they are valued and respected.”
The “Names Can Really Hurt Us” assembly is a student-centered assembly program designed to provide a safe forum for students to examine tough issues and begin to affect positive change in their behavior and school.
The program was facilitated by ADL program leaders Teshia Levy-Grant and Michelle Pincince. They authorized the training of students and staff in preparation for the assembly.
Teshia is a graduate of Wesleyan University and is the Senior Vice President of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) office at Webster Bank. In her leadership of the assembly, Teshia promoted her passion for her work with the ADL. She emphasized that she joined the ADL because many of her personal beliefs aligned with those of the ADL regarding diversity and inclusion.
Teshia believes the assemblies went really well. She shared, “in my early years in my career I was always challenged whenever I was in a space which I felt people were not transformed…but the more that I have been doing it I have been comfortable that it takes time for people to grapple with what they have just learned and that it is okay for them to leave uncomfortable and I feel that on a longer-term can make better change.”
Though not at the mic, Michelle was a crucial component of the assembly. She trained the student, faculty, and staff leaders and managed logistics. Regarding her experience at Warde, she shared, “I think it has been great, I think your team has been awesome and I can see genuine interest with the students here that want to create real change within Warde. For me, this was the first in-person name program since the pandemic, so it felt so good to be with students and in school to really see how powerful this program still is. It really reminded me of why this kind of work is so important and I am so grateful to be a part of Fairfield Warde’s program.”
The NAMES assembly began by introducing the program’s goal: “We want to make sure that every voice is heard as we work to unify our school community and climate and move on to be better at fighting the injustices which we see in our daily lives. We want to increase all student’s understanding of this prevalent issue, and hope to have a positive effect all over the school through this program”
Following this student-read introduction, other students presented the ground rules of the assembly which follows the acronym “ROPES.” Students agreed to abide by the acronym. The R stood for respect and risk, the O for ouch and oops, the P for participation, the E for escuchar (to listen in Spanish) and the S for safety. The students learned in greater detail on what these all meant, which transitioned over to the four roles that someone can play. Target, Perpetrator, Bystander, and Ally were introduced and students were asked to stand if they had played any of these roles at least once in their life.
Teshia then shared a personal story of how her experiences of racism in life shaped her ethos and missions.
Central to the Names Assembly program is a panel of students who share with their peers their stories about bullying and name-calling. This program has a strong preparation component for the student panelists, teachers, and staff members prior to the assembly. This piece was crucial, as to make positive change at Warde, it is vital to listen and understand the stories of peers. Students from all grade levels shared personal stories involving various kinds of hate and described it through the point of view of an ally, perpetrator, target and bystander. Each ended their story with a lesson that they wanted the audience to take away. Following the panel, an open mic session commenced allowing students from the audience to share their own stories of hate they experienced at Warde, and how they grew and changed as a person through that.
Then, the lens of the assembled tightened, as students were placed into small groups with the student facilitators who had been trained a week before with Teshia and Michelle, and a teacher. In the groups, students discussed questions on the best ways to combat hate at Warde, and how to make the school a more welcoming place for everybody, how the assembly had gone, and if they would like this assembly for future years.
With student feedback, it was revealed that the open mic at the assembly and the post-assembly small group discussions were favored to continue during the entirety of the school year. Hosting small group discussions during advisory periods was proposed.
One student noted, “My favorite part of [the assembly] was the small group discussions. For me personally, that was the best way that I got something out of it and [I] definitely think that we should do small groups often.”
When students returned from lunch, each student leader relayed to the auditorium what each group discussed and what students think next steps should be following the assembly. Finally, the Warde choir sang “Rise Up” by Andra Day and a poem was read to close the assembly.
The choral piece was a point of contention between students and leaders of the assembly. The song was included by school and ADL administrators to end the assembly on a joyful note, however, student participants were not thrilled.
One student leader in the assembly, Emma Shelov, was adamant about how the song could be construed as performative activism. “I was nervous about having our majority-white choir sing a song that has been considered the anthem of a Black Lives Matter movement. Although the song was written for Andra Day’s friend struggling with cancer, the meaning of the song has…become a bigger thing.” Emma conveyed that she believed that the song did not make people uncomfortable, rather, if comforted them. “When you’re trying to teach someone about racism, being made uncomfortable is how we learn, and being made uncomfortable is how I learned.”
There were also concerns that ending with a song might depreciate the seriousness and ongoing issue that the ADL is trying to combat. “It really felt like we closed the discussion up again with the song. It felt like we put a bow tie on it and called it a day. [The conversation] is not over” says senior JD Fitzpatrick.
It is apparent that Warde is committed to investigating the concern of lack of empathy at Warde and the prejudices presented through microaggressions and larger acts of hate. The ADL is determined to work in conjunction with students to make a difference. The ADL team has received positive feedback about the assembly, and hopes of continuing future small group sharing events and the use of the open-mic assembly. The Warde community seeking justice is dedicated to holding the school accountable for these proposed means of progress and positive change.