Upper School Dean of Students
Over the summer I had the opportunity to work alongside some of my colleagues to collectively develop a new course. Students who are in the 10th grade would be required to complete the course in order to graduate from AOA and it would involve students taking a deeper and meaningful look at the core values of the school: Community, Creativity, Diversity, Global Awareness, and Leadership.
I was tasked with developing the sessions involving the core value of Community, which was awesome because I love any opportunity to engage students in discussions about the topic. During my research I came across a story about a local entrepreneur and community advocate by the name of Brandon E. Chrostowski. The article profiled Mr. Chrostowski and an establishment located in Shaker Square by the name of EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute. Mr. Chrostowski opened the restaurant in 2007 and the organization offers formerly incarcerated adults free culinary arts and hospitality management training over a six month period. Students “graduate” with state licensure as well. As part of EDWINS mission it states that they “strongly believe in second chances and strive toward making this a reality.” To me this is a prime example of community. It not only offers a service, but it embraces all members of the community. I LOVE IT!
Back to the Core Values course…
As I prepared for the sessions I tried to focus on how to build community. A necessary skill for young people to develop. This led me to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an advocate of equality through non-violent methods that King often spoke of building community. His vision was the idea of what he termed the “Beloved Community.” In King’s eyes, to achieve the beloved community it required three things. First, it has to be all inclusive and can not be exclusionary. This is a cool notion because it can apply to others and yourself. Secondly, the differences of members have to be embraced. This is something that gets overlooked sometimes because we tend to think about a community as being comprised of people that are similar to us. Lastly, Dr. King mentioned that we need to work for justice for ourselves and every member of the beloved community. EDWINS seems to embody these 3 things.
In the most recent session of our series on community I showed the students a short clip of a TEDx talk that was given by Doug Shipman who is currently the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta, Georgia. During the talk he discusses the “secret to creating the beloved community” and builds upon King’s ideas. The students were soon discussing ideas of Shipman’s interpretations and they identified four main points that are excellent examples for building community.
First, Shipman mentions that engagement is key to building (beloved) community. Our activity in the session was to make an action plan of how to become more engaged with the school community. One of my favorite plans was that a group of students discussed the creation of a “sharing station” in which students can utilize an honor system to lend materials, help, offer friendship or give advice to fellow students in need.
Another thing that Shipman mentioned was that you can’t consume to build community. It’s not a numbers game, rather, it involves something that King describes as “qualitative change within our souls.” This implies that we must be willing to accept change within ourselves.
The last two ideas were also important lessons for the students to receive. Engagement needs to be ongoing. Community building is always evolving and requires a commitment to fostering the necessary attention for progress. The last lesson from Shipman was that sometimes community building has to occur on other peoples’ “turf”. Through discussion the students came to realize that sometimes you have to go outside of where you are comfortable to embrace the differences of others. Once you are able to do this, it becomes easier to build towards the beloved community. After examining Shipman’s points, I asked students to identify communities that they felt they belonged to within the school and the results were not all that surprising. The constant theme is that students seemed to be aware of what communities they belonged to, however, most of them fell into a very “comfortable” place. This meant that students needed a little nudge in the direction of going outside their comfort zone to other peoples’ “turf”.
To get the students out of their comfort zone I had them stand up and make a circle in the middle of the room. We then participated in an activity that is called “Appreciation, Apology, Aha”. The concept is rather simple. Each person shares an appreciation for someone in the class or can apologize to the class for something or shares an “aha” moment in which they came to a realization about something. After each person shares, the group snaps their fingers to show an acceptance of the person. It truly helps to build community because it offers a way of immediate engagement and cultivates a sense of support, which is the first function of community. I have also implemented this into each one of my classes because it keeps the engagement ongoing (one of Shipman’s ideas to help build community).
In the first session of our series on Community we set up a late night talk show, sort of like The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. I was the host and our guest was a guy named Jeremy Langham. He is an active community builder and the current Vice President of Engagement and Organizational Capacity at Passages Inc. in Cleveland. He also serves on the board of trustees for EDWINS. During the Q & A period a student raised their hand and asked Jeremy how to get involved in Community and he said something that I thought was pretty profound. “Embrace your weirdness and authenticity and allow that to be your path toward what your community is”. So in a nutshell, if you want to build community you can do so in these ways. Find your community. Go out and find where you feel a sense of belonging. You can also create your own! Embrace the differences that you encounter. Think about the beloved community for this one. Most importantly…...Engage in it.