Germantown Friends School students (clockwise from top left) Mai Foringer, Katharine Cusick, Andrew Aldridge, Imani Ross, Mimi Klasen, Eliza Macneal, Nae Murdic, Taara Advani and Laila Okeson participate in Diversity Dialogue Day 2013. (Photo by Laura Jamieson)

Germantown Friends School students (clockwise from top left) Mai Foringer, Katharine Cusick, Andrew Aldridge, Imani Ross, Mimi Klasen, Eliza Macneal, Nae Murdic, Taara Advani and Laila Okeson participate in Diversity Dialogue Day 2013. (Photo by Laura Jamieson)

by Laura Jamieson

Students at Germantown Friends School don’t shy away from difficult issues of diversity and difference – they talk about it. Twice a year, Upper School students and teachers gather for an all-day, deeply engaging discussion of topics including race, class, sexual orientation and gender for Diversity Dialogue Day.

On Friday, Nov. 22, 22 students spent the day exploring and questioning definitions of concepts such as masculine, feminine, sexism and gender, and the ways these issues affect their lives at school and in the community, country and world we live in.

Two faculty members, math and physics teacher Maeve O’Hara and history teacher Aaron Preetam, facilitated the dialogue.

“We set an open and accepting tone that pushes and challenges the students’ thinking,” said O’Hara. However, the students ultimately guide the discussions themselves.

“We let the dialogue unfold organically,” Preetam added.

Mirangela Buggs, GFS director of multicultural affairs and trained intergroup dialogue facilitator, started the workshop in 2010, and it has grown each year.

“The process for some students is really intense and heated, but the dialogue model is that you don’t have to agree, but you do have to listen,” she explained. “You can challenge, but you don’t debate.”

Senior Katharine Cusick, who participated in the discussion, said, “At GFS we talk a lot about race and gender in our English and history classes, but we do it in a very abstract way. Dialogue Day allows students who are passionate about these issues to come together and share their own personal experiences, definitions and perceptions. It makes these theoretical concepts much more concrete.”

Most students agree that, while the topics can be difficult, the discussions at Dialogue Day are not. Said Jesse Overholser ’15, “Everyone is very supportive and creates an environment where I feel comfortable sharing.”

Adds Andrew Aldridge ’15, “The most satisfying thing is how uncensored the discussions are. They are completely raw – I loved that.”

The dialogues build community, initiate honest discussions, encourage confidence and give students diversity leadership skills.

“Going to Dialogue Day definitely expands my knowledge of others’ experiences and opinions and helps me form my own opinion about gender and the way it influences all of us on a daily basis,” Cusick said.

“Awareness of gender can lead to social change,” Preetam added.