November 24, 2017

‘Waking Up White’ author to discuss diversity with freshmen

By Max Tracey ’19, News Editor

Irving talked with high school parents and teachers last year. She will share her message with freshmen on Step-Up Day. Photo courtesy of Olivia Gieger '17.

As a result of the recent acts of racism and anti-semitism at the high school, faculty members alongside World of Wellesley (WOW) sought to help heal the community by celebrating diversity.  To begin to spark those conversations on diversity, Debby Irving, author of Waking Up White, will speak to the freshman class on Step-Up Day, Wednesday, Oct. 19, to discuss the role race plays in society, and to discuss how to find meaning in one’s identity.  

Michelle Chalmers, President of WOW, has great anticipation for the talk.  “We thought it would be vital for the freshmen to be able to engage in the conversation and really build a foundation of language [for the conversations on diversity]” she said.  “Debby is going to engage in her story… and how she understood her whiteness, what she believed would be true [about race] and what she learned to actually be true.”  

Waking Up White describes Irving’s experience growing up and trying to find meaning in her race and identity.  She gave a local TED-Talk on her story, and also shared her story with town residents, students, parents, and faculty last year at the high school and facilitated town-wide discussion about her book and these ideas of race.

This year, guidance counselor Ms. Cindy Hurley helped plan the event for freshmen.  She hopes this talk will provoke students to have more open conversations around race.  “[Irving] talks about her own journey, discovering her own identity, and her racial identity, so I think that is just a really good learning tool for other students,” Hurley said.  

She said she was pleased with how the high school has handled race-related issues over the past year. “In every place, there’s going to be issues.  I respect that in Wellesley that we’re not pretending that we don’t [have issues],” she said.  “We’re not saying, ‘Oh, everything’s fine,’ but there’s always room for discussion and growth.”

Chalmers agrees with Hurley.  “As much as we want to have a conversation that we’re all the same, and that we’re ‘colorblind,’ and that we all… have equal opportunity and access… [it] just isn’t the truth,” she said.

The discussion on race and identity is necessary for students, according to Chalmers.  “We need to understand our racial identity and… what that looks like for ourselves as a foundation to… really engage around those conversations,” Chalmers said.  

A graduate of the high school, Chalmers felt prepared in most aspects for future life with one exception.  “Coming out of Wellesley High School, I felt prepared to go to college.  I felt prepared with academics and the rigor… and do what I need to do to be successful in college,” she said.  “But what I didn’t have coming out of Wellesley High School was the understanding of human diversity”

The increase of exposure to the world, Hurley believes, is a way to prepare a young adult for a successful future. “I think diversity isn’t just sort of racial diversity, or economic diversity, or religious.  It is also the choices that we make, and in our interests,” she said. “The more exposure we get to different people and different ideas, it’s more enriching for our lives.”

As Irving’s Community Events Coordinator, Chalmers has a close connection to the author  and has familiarity with her discussions.  She has learned through this role that discussing race is “vital” and is something that parents and teachers should engage in earlier on in a student’s life.   

High school freshmen are a fitting audience for Chalmers’ belief of starting diversity awareness early.  The event planners for the talk chose for only freshmen hear her story since upperclassmen have other plans for Step-Up Day.  

The talk will go from 9:00-10:30, and the juniors and seniors from the Journeys program will follow up with freshmen in Advisory for a half-hour discussion on Irving’s talk.  

Chalmers hopes the discussion on diversity starts earlier in future years, in order to benefit the community.  “By the time you’re in 9th grade, you [are] able to become change-makers, and… stand up to all forms of injustice.”

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