Diversity Dialogue Day: Meaningful or Performative?

Diversity Dialogue Day on October 22, 2020, was a day the entire Upper School dedicated to meaningful dialogue, inspiring speakers, and interesting workshops. Diversity Dialogue Day has existed for Upper School students in some form for about 20 years, but in recent years, it had become an optional day of diversity training. This year Diversity Dialogue Day was mandatory for all high school students. 

This came in response to a tumultuous year in terms of racial injustice issues in the United States. Coming off a summer that sparked activism, energy, and emotion, the school felt it necessary to put some new plans in place to show that the administration is “committed to making GFS safer and stronger with bold, swift, and direct action,” as Dana Weeks wrote. The school also felt it important to provide opportunities to educate students and faculty and mend the possible gaps in their knowledge, making them more informed and aware members of the community. 

Students spent a few weeks preparing for Diversity Dialogue Day in advisory; we thought about what was at the forefront of our minds at the moment and what important topics should be the focus of this day. For example, my advisory discussed how students and faculty must first be educated and informed about the topics that were the focus of the event in order to have a meaningful dialogue about them. 

On the day itself, we spent the morning listening to a student and expert panel followed by the keynote speaker, Keir Bradford-Grey, who is the Chief Defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. We then spent the afternoon either leading or participating in two different one-hour workshops. There were 26 workshops offered this year, and 20 of them were student-led. There were courses on surviving predominantly white institutions, mass incarceration, LGBTQIA+ misrepresentation in the media, and a whole host of other hot topics. 

I spoke to four students who participated in or led workshops in order to better understand their opinions on Diversity Dialogue Day. Despite the mostly positive feedback, there has been some conversation about whether this day was actually meaningful or if it was a way for the school to save face. 

On an individual level, students tended to get out what they put into it. Students who were engaged and participated thought it was an important, enlightening, and meaningful experience. Inevitably, there were also students who would rather be doing anything else than listening to lectures and participating in dialogues about sensitive topics. 

Annie Mclaughlin ‘22 explained, “It was challenging to have a meaningful dialogue with students who weren’t engaged or interested.” 

Unfortunately, this is to be expected at any mandatory school event and is nearly impossible to prevent. 

Looking at the event as a whole, the consensus from the students was that Diversity Dialogue Day was a step in the right direction, but it was by no means enough. Each student I spoke with echoed the same message. 

Ethan Jih-Cook ‘23 said, “This day was a good starting point, but it needs to be backed up by more time dedicated to this work.” 

India Valdivia ‘21 put it as, “It was a start, but it shouldn’t be praised.” 

Mike Whaley ‘23 said it was “a good building block.” 

Annie explained, “This day was necessary, but it should not be a one-time thing.”

Despite the mostly positive feedback that this is a step in the right direction, there are a faction of students who question if this day was merely performative on the part of the administration, if it was just to show they are doing something to educate and talk about racial injustice after receiving criticism from students and alumni over the summer. 

Mike, who agreed Diversity Dialogue Day was beneficial and extremely necessary, said the changes to the event this year was “a case of GFS getting pushback and responding with performative activism to show they are doing something.” He also pointed out, “It was, politically speaking, necessary, meaning if the administration hadn’t done something, they would have received major criticism.” 

However, it is important to keep in mind no one disputed that the day was effective in educating the student body and providing space for meaningful dialogue, therefore, achieving the immediate goal of Diversity Dialogue day. 

Andrew Lee, Associate Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and an organizer of the event, described the day as “a smashing success.” Lee was very happy with the feedback he received about Diversity Dialogue Day, and he said it was a very positive thing that the community is unified in making progress. He also explained that there will always be things to improve and he is committed to having more days like this in the future. 

Lee also made sure to highlight that making change is a whole school effort which takes time and intentionality in order to take the right steps. In closing, he stated, “It takes a long time to change institutions for the better.” Therefore, he encourages students to continue having dialogues with their classmates, families, and teachers, and to continue petitioning and sharing ideas to make a difference in our community. 

While this event quite possibly served the purpose of the administration showing they are doing something in response to recent events, it is still a step in the right direction as long as we continue this work. However, the students seem more concerned about what the next steps are, rather than the success of one event. It cannot be a “one and done” type of thing. The question now is, what are the next steps the school is going to take to address these issues of racial injustice that are so prominent in the United States today? Are they going to continue this hard work towards a safer, more equitable, and inclusive society? Because, as we all know, this day alone was nowhere near enough to get us to where we need to be.