Article by Jack D., Class of 2021, Poster by Claire Z., Class of 2021
On November 20, 2018, the Brooklyn Friends School Class of 2021 hosted the fifth annual Community Issues Conference. This year’s conference welcomed students from the BFS eighth grade for the first time and a number of other New York City public and private schools, as well as 29 guest speakers from a range of local organizations.
The Community Issues Conference is an event organized annually by the tenth grade, in which they are given the opportunity to select social justice issues that they hold close, or deem important to address. This year, tenth grade students served as class representatives, performed outreach to different organizations, and learned how to organize a large event in a constructive and meaningful way.
The conference generates an enthusiastic attitude towards learning more about the issues, and towards sharing them with fellow peers. The conference in itself is the culmination of two semesters of Service and Justice seminar courses, in which tenth grade students learn to identify and understand local and broad issues as a way to advocate for change.
The following are the organizations that participated in the conference this year: 350Brooklyn, Alliance for Quality Education, Bell Voices, Bi + Youth Project, Black Lives Matter Movement, Brooklyn Justice Initiatives, Brooklyn Movement Center, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship at SUNY Downstate/Kings County Hospital Center, ECPAT-USA, Equal Justice Initiative, Gowanus Canal Conservancy, Immigrant Hope, Immigration Justice Corps, INTO Magazine, Mental Health Awareness Project of Advocacy Corps, New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, Para La Naturaleza, Police Reform Organizing Project, Save Our Streets Foundation, Saving Jane, Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, UN Women, Voices of Women.
This year, the conference organizers welcomed keynote speaker Dr. David Stovall, Professor of African-American Studies and Criminology, Law & Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). His powerful message displayed his true sense of devotion to empowering students and served as an excellent start to the day. You can view the video of his keynote speech here.
Twelfth grade student Peter S. later personally reflected on Dr. Stovall’s speech, and provided us with the following written response detailing what he learned:
“From the keynote, I was able to take away Dr. Stovall’s message that the youth are not the future, but are instead the present. And by saying that we are the future is to say ‘We are delaying your ability to enact change right now.’ Dr. Stovall went on to describe injustices in Chicago laws that directly impact minorities and those living in low income neighborhoods while also linking those instances to things happening in NYC right now such as Stop and Frisk. I felt empowered to take action after Dr. Stovall’s keynote. By not sugarcoating the system and it’s realities he painted an even more troubling picture of America than the one I already had in my head and put me in the right mindset to continue in the following sessions to further seek ways to take action against the problems they addressed.”
To close the conference, students engaged in an interactive theater performance by New York City’s Theater of the Oppressed: Rapid Response Troupe. The group, made up of veteran actors from TONYC Forum Theatre Troupes, provides short-notice, flexible, targeted, and creative support to grassroots organizers and campaigns. This experimental troupe draws on communities’ and activists’ collective knowledge to attract new audiences to urgent grassroots campaigns and engage those audiences in transformative conversation–while devising new strategies, through improvisation, with which to hold the powerful accountable and demand substantive change.
Additionally, the Office of Service Learning and Civic Engagement welcomed the Brooklyn Friends School Class of 2023 to attend the conference for the first time. Eighth grade students then used the ideas they gathered from the sessions they attended to ultimately identify potential service learning opportunities for members of their grade. This became a starting point for some students to engage in more focused, meaningful efforts related to human trafficking and mass incarceration.
Eighth grade students had an opportunity to comment on the success of this year’s conference in their personal written reflections, in which they shared what they learned, how they were inspired, and what they wish to improve. Words students used to describe the conference included “informational”, “exciting”, and “informative”.
Students shared how they were inspired by the conference to take action:
“It was really interesting, I learned some things I didn’t know.”
“I actually did some more research on some of the stats we talked about during the session on education inequality and it was really interesting how even though I was exposed to a public school setting for a large part of my education and have complained to peers on how there were no air conditioners and how old the books were, I’d never really known how much worse it could’ve have been.”
“What inspired me to take action against sexual harassment was how often I hear women I know speak about how they are sexually harassed multiple times through the day, every day.”
All tenth grade students also reflected on what worked well in their own sessions:
“My group focused on LGBT rights and what worked really well was building a foundation that allowed us to research and understand our topic. What also worked well was giving us a format to help us email potential speakers. What also worked well was assigning us different roles during the conference so we were very organized.”
“What worked well was our communication with our speakers and specifically in our conference session, the turn and talk opportunities helped build our understanding.”
“I think our teamwork was strong. Everyone did their own part in order to make a fantastic whole and it turned out well. Everyone stayed focused on their jobs and we weren’t easily deterred from making the conference enjoyable and inclusive.”
Masai W., one of our tenth grade conference leaders, also created an incredible video of highlights from the conference, including images and inspirational messages from students and guest speakers from the the opening and closing, as well as from some of the workshops that were offered. You can view the video here.
Finally, we extend sincere thanks to all of the conference organizers, participants, guest speakers, guest students, and to our incredible Service Learning and Civic Engagement Office following yet another incredible conference! We look forward to the continued growth and improvement of the connections we have made in order to promote, raise, and inspire students to take action in the future.