Several student facilitators recalled feeling taken aback by what they heard, from the enumeration of stereotypes to the personal stories that defied those stereotypes.
Even students who say little but who listen closely begin forming bonds across different cliques, said Aashna Narang, a senior. Some of her close friends would probably not be her friends were it not for the Speak-Out, she said.
The program has evolved over its history of at least 20 years. Marjorie Mitlin, a social worker at Sharon High School and co-advisor for the program, said that years ago the discussions were more issue-based. Students would come up with a list of problems to talk about, whittle it down to a manageable number, and then spend the day evaluating the problems and talking about solutions.
Today, the program aims more at breaking through the veneer students carry. An outline of the day’s curriculum prompts leaders to ask students whether they feel obligated to maintain an image for the school community, their friends, or themselves, and whether they believe others expect certain things of them based on perception. They talk about the “authentic self,” the benefits of having it, how to bring it out in others, and how it can help the school.
One of the most challenging parts of the day, Mitlin said, comes when students address the prompt “If you really knew me, you would know this.” She said it gives them more empathy to see that underneath the surface, everyone has a three-dimensional life.
As the day comes to a close, students return to the full group and relay some of what they have uncovered. Leaders try to emphasize that they are part of a single school community.
“It’s great,” Mitlin said. “It really has an effect on the climate and culture of the school.”
Although the long-term effect of the program is hard to quantify, students take surveys before and after the program that ask them to describe the school climate. Positive words such as “friendly” and “accepting” appear in the surveys more frequently after the program, she said.
Mitlin, who is also involved in the Sharon Pluralism Network, said the organization is planning a Community Speak-Out event for adults in the Sharon community in May.
As diversity grows in Sharon, people from different backgrounds tend to stick together, but the community’s willingness to accept people from different cultures may be what drew them there in the first place, she said.
Jennette Barnes can be reached at email@example.com.