New Equity group announces virtual forum for discussion of nationwide protests and shares plans to build a more inclusive THHS

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Since the #NotMyTownsend movement’s allegations of discrimination and bigotry at Townsend Harris first appeared in April, the THHS “Equity and Access group” has appeared prominently in discussions of how to address these allegations at the school. This weekend, the group sent a letter to the school following the protests that began after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. The group has invited school members to join them in an open virtual discussion tomorrow. Given the growing role of the group in the school, The Classic spoke to the group’s founders, who shared its background, goals, and current plans.

The Equity and Access group was an initiative started by Assistant Principal of Pupil Personnel Services Veronica York, Assistant Principal of Instructional Support Georgia Brandeis, and Guidance Counselors Rondell McClary and Jessica Graf. According to Ms. York and Ms. Brandeis, in a jointly written email to The Classic from May, the group also incorporates students who were “recommended by the adults involved and …by other students.”

According to Ms. York and Ms. Brandeis, the Equity and Access group works to foster a more inclusive school environment. They explained the intention behind forming the group, “was to start having deeper conversations about the experiences that students are having in the building and [to gather] information and data so that we make a plan going forward.”

Member of the equity and access team and Junior SLT Ali Boivab believes that the team has “been fruitful in discussing and identifying key issues in [the] school atmosphere that might hinder students, especially those from underprivileged demographics, from attaining their full potential.”  He explained that due to the pandemic and relative newness of the group, the team was not able to begin working on many of the plans they discussed to resolve those issues. However, they did meet up virtually “to discuss ways [they] can take action even while in lock-down.” 

Though the group formed only this year, Ms. York and Ms. Brandeis shared that it was successful in developing plans for projects to implement when possible. They described some of the group’s accomplishments and goals. 

They said that the group plans to work to diversify the enrollment process through outreach to middle schools. “We have been discussing this as an administrative team and have made attempts in the past, but are working towards implementing another plan for next year that would include students,” the two wrote. 

Ms. York and Ms. Brandeis said another major initiative that is under way now is a plan to update curriculum and class offerings. They said, “Elective offerings reflect some of the discussions we had at [Equity & Access] meetings. In our elective guide we are offering Queer Literature and Film as a Social Force. Of course we have room for growth, but we are proud to be making strides in the right direction.” The team is talking about ways to make sure students study more inclusive writers in the humanities, as well as in other departments like math and science.

Ali commented on the team’s plans to diversify literary offerings in the THHS curriculum: “Another plan that is underway, largely thanks to the relentless effort of Ms. York to bring equity to our school, is the infusion of culturally stimulating literature and classes into our curriculum that will allow students to internalize the joy, pain, dreams of other races and cultures other than their own.” 

Film as a Social Force has run as a tenth grade selective this year and will next year. In the course, English teacher Christine Duffy, who created the course before the Equity and Access group formed, challenges students to examine racism, discrimination, and stereotypical representation in literature and visual media. They work to connect these themes to their own lives and identities. 

“Throughout [one] unit, students are asked to reflect on personal world connections they make to the texts in their journals, class discussions, and seminars,” said Ms. Duffy. “Students sometimes share personal experiences in which they faced prejudice with the class and… it helps the whole class understand new perspectives and experiences, and helps increase empathy.” 

Related to this effort to diversify curriculum, Ms. York and Ms. Brandeis also wrote that one of their action steps was to increase training for teachers and the student body. They had planned “on having a guest speaker to address our student body on An Innovative Approach to Social-Emotional Learning with a lens on Cultural Responsiveness” so that they could “begin to examine our curriculum, our class offerings, the texts we use, the activities we run, etc..” 

The Classic requested comment from Assistant Principal of Humanities Rafal Olechowski on these plans to diversify texts and curriculum but he did not respond as of Sunday night. 

In addition to middle school outreach and curriculum changes, Ali said the Equity and Access group plans to have a greater visual representation of different backgrounds within the student body through school-wide art projects and murals as well as an upgrade to the Hall of Fame that involves “recognizing our alumni of color and our female alumni by adding them to another Hall of Fame (perhaps digital)… alongside the old one.” 

Sophomore Ngozi Anya joined the group after receiving a personal email invitation asking if she was interested. She was able to work on some things for the group prior to virtual learning. “Some projects we worked on were creating posters to make the school more welcoming and comfortable and to know that they are in a safe environment,” she said. These posters included “multiple communities like [the] LGBTQ+ community and other diverse groups in the school.”

For the following school year, Ali added that the Student Union will be working closely with the Student Equity and Access team to incite change, starting with a new process of “hosting monthly meetings with community organizations such as MSA or Black Excellence to discuss progress pertaining to the matter of equity.” 

Prior to the formation of the group, Ms. Graf reached out to Teaching Tolerance, an organization which provides free resources for schools to support inclusive communities, with a grant proposal in order to improve the school’s “multicultural capacity and anti-bias practices.” She sent out a schoolwide survey so students could anonymously share their own experiences with diversity and cultural representation. The responses were shared with school administrators, which led to the administration’s belief that “students’ concerns about diversity and representation deserved a forum,” leading to the creation of the Equity and Access team. Mr. McClary did not respond to The Classic’s request for comment on his contributions to the group. 

Considering the relatively recent formation of the group, Ms. York and Ms. Brandeis acknowledged that their team intends to continue improving in the upcoming year. They shared, “Next year we will build upon our team to make it more structured and widespread. This was a good start but we are setting the path to move forward.” 

Until then, the team has turned to organizing virtual events to connect with the community in the midst of the pandemic. The group hopes community members will join them on Google Meet tomorrow, Monday, June 1st at 3pm to share their thoughts and feelings concerning recent events. They wrote, “We, too, are outraged and hurting and we want you to know we are here to talk about it.”