No one knew what was in store for them when they stepped inside Memorial Hall for a Living in Community (LINC) day of programming on a sunny April morning, and that was the point.
Just the night before, heads of house let students select pink, green, and blue wrist bands at random to wear the following day. The next morning, the colors students selected on a whim proved to be more powerful than just a decoration on their arm. Blue bands could enter through one door, but green bands had to wait. As Fourth Former Izzy Geneve discovered, those with pink bands couldn’t use the bathroom in Mem Hall, nor could they eat their lunches in Raffini Commons at the Community Center later in the day.
“When I tried to go into the room, a peer enforcer told me I wasn’t allowed to be there,” said Geneve, a member of the varsity soccer and track teams. “I took a step back. I was like, ‘What do you mean?’”
“It’s not exactly the same as it was back then,” she said of the Civil Rights Movement, “but you can understand what kids our age went through. You are seen as lesser, and therefore you can’t share the same experiences as the people around you.”
These deliberate actions were part of a day-long immersion into social justice, which included the screening of the documentary The Passage at St. Augustine: The 1964 Black Lives Matter Movement that Transformed America, about the little known civil rights protests held in the Florida city in the early 1960s, a Q&A session with the filmmaker, Clennon L. King, an SPS Voices student panel, and small group discussions.
The programming was crafted by Fourth Former Emily Abbruzzese and a coalition of students who have taken part in the annual Social Justice Leadership Institute, which St. Paul’s School hosts May 13 and 14, as well as the Student Diversity Leadership Conference held by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).
King, a former broadcast and print journalist, brought the conversation full circle connecting the struggles shown on screen to present day.
Race, King told the School community, “is a conversation America is hard pressed to have.”
Abbruzzese and her peers didn’t shy away from that discussion. During the SPS Voices segment, 12 students of color and mixed race shared their experiences.
“Please don’t come up to me and touch my hair,” commented one panel member. Another student commanded, “Don’t ask me for an N-word pass. You cannot say it.”
Sixth Former Peter Coppedge was moved by his schoolmates’ candor. “The most meaningful part of the day for me was the SPS Voices segment because it offered insight on the individual experiences of students who have been affected by racial and cultural issues,” he said. “Having students share their stories is a great way to highlight different issues present both in our community and beyond in a captivating way. It allows students to understand, empathize, relate with their peers.”
The conversation didn’t stop at the end of the day. When Abbruzzese went to practice for the School’s hip-hop dance group Funkdafied, the first 20 minutes of their hour-long session was filled with discussions about the stories shared earlier.
“That was unplanned,” said Abbruzzese. “It happened at dinner. It happened in theatre class just now. It sparked conversations that we don’t have outside of specific days or classes.”
“I’m grateful that our School allowed us to say what we wanted and understand it,” she said.