Over a year ago my school started a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Student Life Committee. After the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, as an administration, we wanted to make sure we were doing our part to shine light on cultural biases and promote antiracism and inclusion within our diverse community. As a school, we value hospitality and welcoming the stranger, but we felt that we could do more to support our students of color.
As a first step, our DEI Student Life Committee held listening sessions for any students who wanted to join. Our first meeting was in March 2021 at the height of mask wearing and vaccination debates, so we were thrilled when about five students showed up to our in person listening session. Our students shared in the most polite way possible that they loved our school, felt included, but they felt that something was missing. They wanted a platform to celebrate their cultures and pride in their heritage.
With this feedback in mind, our DEI committee looked at next year’s calendar, chose a week in late March, a full year to plan, and committed to making a Multicultural Day happen.
Our committee agreed that we wanted the day to be student led and students of color centered. We were aware that what adults think is cool and a great idea usually falls flat with high school students. At the time we had recently had Student Council Elections for the year, and a new role for the Vice President position would be to sit on the DEI Student Life Committee and be the leader of Multicultural Day. Our Vice President had been an active member in DEI initiatives in the past, and was a founding member of our Filipino Club, so it was a perfect role for her.
Fast forward to the Fall of this year, our DEI team worked with our Vice President to create a Multicultural Week Committee. We invited students from all grade levels, cultural clubs, and affinity groups to join us for a brainstorming session. We had no idea what the students would come up with, but were open to all kinds of proposals.
“We have to have food!” One student insisted.
“And music and dancing!” Another added.
“What if we gave people passports to encourage participation and we could stamp them?”
“Maybe we could get a speaker?”
Our students were enthusiastically throwing out ideas. Some doable and others out of our budget.
From the student brainstorming session, I heard two main takeaways. Our students of color wanted to show their pride in their own cultures and they wanted to feel inspired by women who looked like them. From here we had a direction to go in with the planning.
After meeting with the group I sat down with our Vice President to talk about how we could turn pie in the sky ideas for a cultural celebration into activities or an event that could logistically work in our time frame. Student leaders often have wonderful, big, and ambitious ideas for events, and my role is to coach them to make their ideas come to life. I usually ask questions that point them in a good direction, but let them draw their own conclusions.
The VP had already taken initiative to talk to different student groups on campus and there were too many who wanted to participate for one day.
“What if we made it Multicultural Week?” I asked her. “We could use lunch periods to celebrate with food.”
“That would be fun! We could also play music on the patio.”
Our plan was starting to come together. Our VP had at least one cultural club that wanted to participate at lunch for every day of the week. Our next step was tackling the inspirational piece. It was clear that the students wanted a guest speaker. I posed another question to help spark an idea of what to do.
“For the amount of time we have to find a speaker and our budget, I was thinking we probably wouldn’t be able to invite anyone as famous as the names mentioned in our brainstorming session. We could get someone local. Who do we have in our school network that might be interested in speaking to our students?”
“Do we have any alums who would be willing to come?”
“I think an alum would be the ideal person for this.”
“They could talk about their experiences as students of color and also as women of color after they graduated.”
From here our VP took the lead on making our Multicultural Week and culmination celebration a reality. She came up with the idea of a Women of Color Alumnae Panel. She wrote beautiful emails to alums inviting them to share their stories with the community. The response from the alums was incredibly generous and they were enthusiastic about coming back to our school to speak. Our VP had seven alums from different generations and backgrounds volunteer.
After the panel, the plan was to feature cultural dancing, music, and games in an assembly. Our VP organized community groups including Latinas Unidas, Filipino Club, Japanese, Pacific Islanders, and Peruvian students. She made the event outline, wrote the script, and coordinated with all the groups and a DJ. Every few weeks I would pop in to ask how I could support her efforts, but in general she did all of the planning work.
Our school’s first Multicultural Week started off with our Middle Eastern students sharing their favorite foods with the community. They wore traditional scarves and played music during lunch. Throughout the week AAPI, Black, Latin American, and European students also shared cultural food. It was so fun to see students flocking to the celebration to try new things and our VP was right in the middle of it all helping to set up, serve food, and provide a memorable experience for all.
The Friday of Multicultural Week was the big event with the Women of Color Alumnae Panel and the Multicultural Rally. Our VP had everything organized down to the minute things should happen that day. She asked two other student leaders of color to lead the panel and ask questions that the student body would be interested in. Our alums were thrilled to be back on campus and one even brought her daughter, a future student, to be a part of the event. Our students were captivated by the alums’ stories. They were eloquent and thoughtful speakers, just like we hope our graduates become.
After the panel our community joined together outside, including the alums. Our VP was dressed in a gold traditional Filipino jacket and was radiant in front of the student body. She introduced the rally and talked a little bit about each culture being represented. Every student group that danced was colorful and joyful. The lawn games the students played for spirit points featured Japanese student art. To end, our VP had organized a Peruvian band to accompany two Seniors dancing a traditional Peruvian dance. It was moving to watch students of all backgrounds cheer and support each other while they were on stage. It was a true sign of the inclusion and diversity we were striving to celebrate.
When all of the dancing and festivities were over, our Vice President was standing by the DJ and looking out at the crowd of smiling peers. She started to cry tears of joy.
“I don’t know why I am crying!” she said.
“It is because you shared your spirit with us.” I told her and gave her a hug.
I am forever grateful to have witnessed that moment. I watched one of my leaders discover the power of being her authentic self in front of our entire school. I learned from her leadership that when we celebrate differences it transforms us personally and as a community. It was a beautiful and meaningful day for all of us.
For more photos from Multicultural Week visit @mercyburlingame on instagram.