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Community Forum on Diversity and Belonging Addresses Equity and Action Steps

Community Forum on Diversity and Belonging Addresses Equity and Action Steps 

By Sarah E. Murphy 

 Henry St. Julien pointing in front of PowerPoint PresentationFalmouth Public Schools recently hosted a forum for Clipper families, with the goal of continuing the discussion of the district’s equity journey, so that all students in Falmouth Public Schools thrive.

Led by FPS Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Director Henry St. Julien, the February 2 event was hosted by the DEIB steering committee, which includes administration, staff, school committee members, students, and parents. This was the second in a three-part series scheduled for the 2022-2023 school year. The kick-off session was last September; both sessions were in the Hermann Foundation Room of Falmouth Public Library. 

Mr. St. Julien began by noting the significance of the date.

“We purposely chose Groundhog Day for this session because this work is always a cycle,” he said. 

“I’m hoping this is one step closer to breaking that cycle.”

Mr. St. Julien explained that on a larger scale, the event was held to coincide with Black History Month. He referenced the connection between the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, while fighting for the rights of sanitation workers, and the recent death of Tyre Nichols, both in the same city.

“Fifty years later, we’re talking about the same thing,” he said. 

Therefore, Mr. St. Julien shared the DEIB committee’s ultimate goal: to foster an atmosphere in which all students in Falmouth Public School are able to state “Falmouth is My Beloved Community.”  The vision mirrors that of Dr. King, who used the term “beloved community” to encapsulate the Civil Rights Movement - an atmosphere free from discrimination, enabling all to thrive. 

In keeping with that sentiment, he cited the district’s Land Acknowledgement. 

“This is the land of the Wampanoags, so while we’re talking about community, it’s very important that we recognize that,” he said. 

Mr. St. Julien added that cultivating a place where all stakeholders feel valued requires all of its members to actively seek exposure to differences. 

“It’s something we intentionally do, it’s not something that happens. We need to reflect on our community and ask: how does our culture impact others? If you only hang out with your culture, you don’t see others. You don’t see the entire Falmouth,” he said. 

“Who are you hanging out with? Who are you reading? Who are you breaking bread with? Those are all things you need to do.” 

Lawrence School Assistant Principal Derek Zarra began the program with a group activity in which participants were asked to write on an index card a trait they believe they share with a majority of the room, something they share with fifty percent, and something that is unique about themselves. As he picked the cards at random and asked the questions aloud, those who answered yes were asked to stand, illustrating the power of perception versus reality, and internal bias, illustrating that people are often more alike than they might initially assume. 

Mr. Zarra discussed a fundamental need among all human beings in order to thrive - the need to feel safe. 

“When you look around, what boxes are you putting yourself into to make sure you feel safe? Are you suppressing something that’s important in order to feel safe around people you may or may not know in order to feel loved? Are you putting other people in boxes? Are you separating people? What are you putting out there to reach out to other people to say, ‘this is who I am,’” he asked. 

In keeping with the format of the first forum, the evening also included “Sacred Stories,” which showcased two parents of Clipper students, inviting them to offer their experiences on equity in Falmouth Public Schools. 

The segment was introduced by Natalie Kanellopoulos, a member of the DEIB Advisory Committee, who also serves as chair of the Falmouth School Committee. 

“This is their truth and their experience. We are just here to listen and learn,” she said. 

“We’re not here to judge, counter, or challenge their perspective.”

Falmouth High School adjustment counselor Katie Lebherz, also a member of the DEIB committee, thanked the speakers, calling their stories “powerful.” 

Ms. Lebherz shared discussion norms for the next portion of the program, splitting the room into groups to brainstorm.

“Stay engaged, be present, and listen with curiosity, understanding, and compassion,” she said. 

“Speak your truth. Use ‘I’ statements and lead into discomfort to express your thoughts, ideas, and perspectives.” 

She instructed the group to refrain from shame or blame, and naming specific students or educators. She also reminded the group to expect and accept non-closure, for there is no instant solution.

“Let there be more questions than answers, take risks, and accept that much of this work is about changing yourself, not others,” she said. 

Ms. Lebherz ended by stressing the expectation of confidentiality for conversations which she described as “courageous.” 

Topics were twofold: identifying what belonging means to a school community, and what action steps are required to achieve those ideals, while also addressing barriers.

Some of the responses included: a place where everyone feels safe to be their authentic self, where their culture is not only recognized but celebrated, and where they are missed when they’re absent. 

Suggestions for attaining those and other goals included having empathy, listening to make sure others are heard and no child feels less than, and having diversity in regard to the background and experience of administration and staff, in keeping with the belief that representation matters. 

Mr. St. Julien thanked the participants, calling them “equity warriors.” He underscored the imperative need for collaboration when it comes to actualizing a beloved community for all of its members.  

“This is very hard work, so let’s look at our friends and neighbors. We have to do it as a team. I can’t do it alone,” he said. 

The final “My Beloved Community” forum for the 2022-2023 school year will be held in June to coincide with Juneteenth, a commemoration of the day the last enslaved Black Americans were freed, finally enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Sarah E. Murphy