The students stood in two concentric circles — one facing out, one facing in. Each person in each pair had only 30 seconds to speak. Their partners had to remain in complete silence. The prompts started out simply enough: Talk about spring-break plans, your most embarrassing memories. The responses to these topics drew on the normal bustle of teen lives.
Suddenly, a totally different question cropped up: Have you ever felt discriminated against? The response was silence for a moment, then the conversations began again almost at a whisper. The volume built slowly, as the students related their experiences to their partners.
The group participated in a workshop run by Operation Understanding during Germantown Friends School's "Diversity Day," held earlier this month. Operation Understanding sends Jewish and African-American students to both Senegal and Israel to learn together about the two cultures; when the kids return, they must offer educational programs on race and diversity at schools throughout the Philadelphia area.
Diversity Day has been held at Germantown Friends every other year since 1998, and has grown a bit more elaborate with each occurrence. Operation Understanding's presentation was just one of many events throughout the day — this year, March 8 — which also included a discussion by Chaverim, the school's Jewish student group, on "Everything You Wanted to Know About Being Jewish."
The purpose has been to have students experience firsthand — through political, artistic, social and religious perspectives — the nature of different cultures and beliefs, stated Nikki Wood, the school's diversity coordinator.
And the kids take it seriously, she noted: "It's a day off from class, but it's not a day off from learning."
The O.U. student workshop leaders — Shelley Thomas, Alex Hayes and Melissa Braff — led the morning session using games and other ice-breaking activities to spur their peers into discussing race, divisiveness, unity and culture.
The timing of the day could not have been more appropriate.
The day before, some African-American students expressed concern after seeing a preview of the school's musical, The King and I, which features a scene in which characters act out Uncle Tom's Cabin for the King of Siam. For some, the black masks worn by the performers veered a little too closely to blackface.
At the workshop, Shelley Thomas, an African-American from Julia R. Masterman School in Philadelphia, took the time to explain the origins and implications of the practice of blackface in American theatrical history, since some teens admitted that they really didn't know the facts behind it.
"In an environment like GFS, race is a sensitive topic," stated sophomore Annie Tickell.
But for her, the timing of "Diversity Day" was especially fortunate in light of the King and I incident.
"People on both sides get to talk," she said.
Breaking Down Barriers
Those at the workshop discussed their reactions to the musical, and because of the games and other activities seemed more willing to voice their opinions on the controversy.
The school's administration has noted that the director never meant to offend with the production of the show, but rather to provoke a discussion through the work's commentary on slavery and East-West relations.
The school has since removed the controversial props, and has added more information to the program to put certain scenes in context.
In their half-year of workshops, a number of the O.U. presenters have recognized that the process of building a dialogue between the races can be a slow one. Indeed, different groups open up at their own pace, noted Braff.
As she readily acknowledged: "It takes a little while to break down the barriers."