Race and diversity are topics few of us know how to talk about, no matter how dedicated we are to racial equality.
This reality hit home at Highland Park High School, where a diverse student body struggled with segregation and racial disparity in student performance. In response, District 113 introduced a diversity initiative six years ago. But it wasn’t until the students embraced their own version that the dialogue really began.
They shared frustrations about what was stirring in the district. “On the soccer field, we are a team of equals,” said one student. “But in class and the cafeteria, we keep to our own.” Another talked about not making friends outside his race because he didn’t know how to approach kids who were different than him.
“Chances are if you’re a person of color, you’ve already talked about what it means to be black,” says Andrea Johnson, director of Diversity and Grants for District 113. “But we all need to get outside our comfort zone. We need to move beyond coexisting to really understanding what makes others tick.”
In 2008, the high school opened the door to student dialogue through the HPHS3 (Soul, Salsa and Spirit) Initiative. With financial support from the District 113 Foundation and the guidance of Glenn Singleton, co-author of “Courageous Conversations,” students and staff are building the skills and audacity necessary to talk about race and what makes people different, despite how uncomfortable or unresolved it can be.
In May 2008, HPHS3 hosted its first two-night retreat at the Heller Nature Center. Camping and cooking together in the woods set the stage for dispelling assumptions and learning how to communicate across racial lines. That fall, students pushed for another retreat and organized a 24-hour lock-in at the high school. To date, HPHS3 has hosted two lock-ins, weekly conversations and one weekend retreat each school year.
“I found a safe place where I can open up and talk,” said one student. “I’m learning as much about myself as I am about others.” For some, the activities are absolutely not-to-be-missed. Despite a scheduling snafu, a group of girls left prom early to join the campfire dialogue—in dresses, heels and all.
And while HPHS3 involves only a small segment of the student and staff population, the enthusiasm for dialogue and challenging preconceptions is permeating the school and community. Yet district representatives are quick to point out that this was never intended as a program with a finite end. They’re just thrilled that HPHS3 is giving students the means to engage in dialogue today, with the added benefit of building the skills and knowledge necessary to be global citizens tomorrow.