Students Take Action to Create Equity

April 23, 2018

It isn’t easy to talk about equity in today’s social and political climate. But students who turned out for the Student Summit of the Action Collaborative Network at Putnam | Northern Westchester BOCES Monday didn’t shy away from the tough subjects of race, ethnicity or gender inequality.

“Systemic oppression has been going on since the dawn of this nation,” said Alexis Woodland of Greenburgh Academy. “People see us differently, and that’s not OK. We see them differently, and that’s not OK. We can’t sit around and wish for (change), we have to make it happen.”
High school students from six school districts – Arlington, Elmsford, Greenburgh-North Castle, Ossining, PNW BOCES and White Plains – attended the summit where they shared what they were doing in their schools to promote equity.

In Ossining, students are working to increase the number of bathrooms available to gender non-conforming students. In White Plains, students have used a “privilege walk” exercise to raise awareness of inequity among students and faculty, while Elmsford students spoke about a “Peers as Leaders” program that works to continuously improve the school climate.

The goal of the summit was to show how a positive school climate can support students of all identities: race, ethnicity, language, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, religion, disability, and socioeconomic status.   

In the privilege walk exercise, students and teachers lined up outside holding hands. They were then told to either take a step forward or a step backward based on the answers they gave to a series of questions. For example, “if you have parents who have ever hired a tutor for you to improve your academic, musical or athletic performance, step forward.” Or, “if English is not your first language, take a step backward.”
As participants answered the questions, they were forced to drop the hands of those beside them since they did not share the same advantages or disadvantages. In the end, the group was scattered, rather than a straight line. The exercise served as a visual illustration of the where each of us come from.

At the end, the students were asked to share one word to summarize how they felt after the exercise. The answers ranged from sad, powerless and disappointed to thankful, motivated and inspired.

District Superintendent Dr. James Ryan and White Plains Superintendent Dr. Joseph Ricca welcomed the students, who then heard from keynote speaker, Dr. Natalie Zwerger of the NYU Equity in Schools project of the Center for Strategic Solutions.

After telling the students that she likes to make up words, she said, “Our young people are better positioned to solutionize the complex work of promoting equity than we will ever be.”

Dr. Zwerger referenced many examples of social injustice and inequity including a school in Texas that asked students to chart the “pros and cons” of slavery, a fitness center that asked two black men to leave and the recent Starbucks controversy. She also cited statistics that illustrate social inequality.

Neil Boyle, coordinator of the Guidance and Child Study Center at PNW BOCES, who organized the event, praised the students for their leadership and urged them to look for bright spots in the work they are doing. “Look for something you can celebrate quickly. Those bright spots will motivate you to keep going. You are doing it for me today.”