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Local High School Students Come Together for Courageous Conversations

December 5, 2018

Local High School Students Come Together for Courageous Conversations

In mid-November, nearly 50 students took part in Courageous Conversations, a daylong arts workshop meant to help high school students discuss how they can bridge divides in their community. Topics included how to foster inclusiveness and keep communities safe.

Tony Keith, a local spoken word poet
and CEHD doctoral student, leads a group of
students to create spoken word poetry
around the prompt, “My voice is…”

It’s a lofty goal. But the students didn’t want to take the easy route.

In late 2017, Meagan Call-Cummings, a professor in George Mason University’s College of Education and Human Development who focuses on participatory action research with youth, began meeting with a teacher and several students at Osbourn Park High School in Manassas. She was invited to conduct research on how to build a stronger sense of community at a school with a student base from a large geographic area.

For a year the group worked together, sending out a school-wide survey, conducting interviews with peers, holding focus groups, and more. They considered another spirit week or an international night but neither seemed as if it would solve real problems—or create meaningful change.

“When we really got down to it, I don't think it had the emphasis on community building that we were hoping to bring,” said Jeffrey Blibo, a senior at Osbourn Park High School who is part of the group.

Students in the Theatre of the Oppressed workshop
create a sculpture of “understanding” using their bodies.

They decided that in order to create change and bring people together, they would need to ask the hard questions. The seed that became Courageous Conversations was planted.

“If we get enough students who don't look like each other or think like each other in the same place, we're going to create the bridges that cross the divide,” Call-Cummings said.

The group continued to meet weekly, working together to figure out how best to bring this idea to life. Eventually, they developed a plan: to express difficult concepts and lesser-heard voices through art. Through a daylong event, including workshops and a public art-and-performance show at night, students would be able to tackle the issues important to them. The date was set: November 10, 2018.

On that day, students from Osbourn as well as Oakton High School, Battlefield High School, Patriot High School, and Potomac High School arrived at Mason’s Science and Technology Campus early in the morning. They took part in workshops on photography and spoken-word poetry in the morning, and following lunch, creative writing and theater of the oppressed in the afternoon.

Students in the Creative Writing workshop draw self
portraits to accompany short stories about their own courage.

During theater of the oppressed, which Call-Cummings led, students could relive formative experiences—and change how they played out.

“You need to act out what was oppressing you, or a problem that you faced in everyday life,” Blibo said. “You need to reinvent the scene so you could be a problem solver in that situation.”

After the workshops, the students spent time working on their exhibits. It was a chance to show the broader community what they had learned and a chance for the community to hear the voices of the students—particularly marginalized ones.

“Everyone has something to say,” Blibo said. “Even if you're not listening, they still have an opinion on what goes on in their life. If we take the time to listen, if we take the time to collaborate together, we can come up with solutions to the problems.”

In the evening, parents, professors, and community members saw artwork on the walls and took in live performances, many of which highlighted situations that were as poignant as they were simple. They used Post-It notes to leave comments next to the static art. It was a chance to interact with the artists.

“I was going through them today,” Call-Cummings said. “One said, ‘we hear you.’”

The event ended, but the Courageous Conversations group continues. It hopes to bring more voices into the fold by sending a video of the event around Osbourn Park High School.

Outside Osbourn Park, the group is growing, too.

Students from other schools who attended the event have started their own Courageous Conversations clubs—to Call-Cummings’s surprise.

“We never said that,” she said. “We never said, ‘make your own clubs.’ They independently thought of it.”

Watch a video of the event here.

A student in the Spoken Word Poetry workshop reads aloud a
draft of the poetry she wrote for the prompt, “My voice is…”

Students create posters responding to the prompt, “Who
are you?” and “Who do you want to be?”