Following five years of tradition, Brooks School celebrated its annual Unity Day on Wednesday. The topic of this year’s all-day, single-focused program was gender awareness.
Toward the goal of learning and exploring the ways in which gender expectations shape our society, community and us as individuals, Unity Day’s faculty and student organizers pulled together 35 different hour-long sessions for students in various spots on campus.
“Work that promotes positive school culture can’t always come from a place of reflex,” said organizer Shaunielle McDonald ’94, P’19, director of diversity initiatives and director of community service. “Unity Day is an opportunity to do intentional programming.” And the intention this year was to not only increase understanding of gender identities but “identify ways going forward that we can learn from others to continue to make space for everyone,” she added.
The day began early, at 8:00 a.m., with a moving address in Ashburn Chapel by teacher and writer Alex Myers. The speaker was raised as a girl before he came out as transgender his senior year at Phillips Exeter Academy, where he became the school’s first transgender student. Myers went on to hold the distinction of being the first openly transgender student at Harvard University and today regularly speaks about transgender identity at schools and conferences.
Back-to-back sessions of workshops and panels followed Myers’ talk. During “Man Up and Open Up
," with guest speaker and facilitator Eric Barthold in the Writers Center, students examined society’s idea of what it means to be a “man” and used peer discussions to expand that definition. “Got LGBTQ Rights? Bullying and Harassment” brought GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) attorney Allison Wright to the Lehman Art Center, where students considered students’ legal rights in schools. Meanwhile, in the Dalsemer Room, LGBTQIA alums participated in a panel discussion sharing their coming out process and experiences at Brooks. In the Science Forum, Sex, College and Social Media: A Commonsense Guide to Navigating the Hookup Culture
author Cindy Pierce
addressed the ways in which social and sexual decisions can be based on “what is required to prove one’s masculinity and heterosexuality.
Throughout campus sessions including, “What is Masculinity in the 21st Century?” “The Struggle of Boys in the Modern Classroom,” and “The "ME" Team: Gender Norms in Athletics,” were held challenging students to think about gender in new and deeper ways.
When Brooks School held its first Unity Day in 2012 on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the focus was on "Race & Anti-Racism." Further exploration of the subject followed with subsequent years’ topics: “Identities & Intentions,” “March on Washington/LGBTQ Voices,” and “Equity & Equality.”
Last year’s Unity Day focused on “Awareness & Activism” was the first one not held on MLK Day. “The nature of this day is to always be thinking about identity in some way shape or form,” said McDonald. “But moving off of Martin Luther King Day gives us greater freedom to not necessarily address race or things directly tied to civil rights.” This 2017 celebration “felt like a good moment to talk about the same issues of inequality and systems that disadvantage people, just now through the lens of gender.”
Yet, while the focus shifted slightly this year, one of the important aspects of the tradition remained the same: requiring students to create workshops and empowering them to lead many sessions themselves.
“Unity Day is a great time for students to try on leadership, particularly so with a topic like gender,” said McDonald. “There are students here who have more advanced understanding about gender awareness and expression identity than some of our faculty. So, it’s appropriate that we give them the opportunity to lead in a moment like that. I love watching the students shine, engaging their friends and leading in really inspiring ways.”
Indeed, when asked what was the most meaningful part of Unity Day, Melany Blanco ’18 responded, “Being in an administrative position for the first time. I loved that through that, I could help our community come together and struggle through things that we don’t all necessarily agree on.”
Speaking in Asburn Chapel during the closing moments of Unity Day, Olivia Jarvis ’18 addressed the benefit she felt from both leading and participating in this unique day. “There was not one conversation that I was apart of today that I didn’t learn something new or hears someone’s unique viewpoint,” she said. “In my workshop, which focused on the discontent that comes along with the feminist movement, we talked about the definition of feminism. It was a group of people from all different backgrounds and what touched me is the way that the group worked to wrestle with idea of feminism and what it entails. This coming together of different people to grapple with a problem society is facing is to me what Unity Day is about and made the work that I had put into it worth it.”
Jackie Desautels ’18, for her part, shared her thankfulness that Brooks School makes programs like Unity Day possible. “I think we are fortunate to go to a school that values exploring identity,” she said speaking out in Chapel. “It provides space to express and hear each other, and hopefully develop a broader view of the world.”
Reflecting on the day after activities concluded, organizer McDonald noted that she was “incredibly proud of our school” and thrilled to have students already volunteer to participate in creating next year’s Unity Day program.
“Even as I moved around campus after the sessions, I was peppered with student questions and thoughts about things they’d talked about,” she said. “I had a conversation with a student still really wrestling with the reality of a transgender person and working their mind through the biology versus the gender identification of it. I loved that we had this conversation in the Athletics Center, too. Kids are still thinking through it all and that’s what we want!”
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