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Mascoma High Holds First Intersectionality Day

  • Students walk through the halls while on a break during Intersectionality Day on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in Canaan, N.H. The school held workshops and different activities to teach students about acceptance and intersectionality. The school describes "intersectionality" as the intersections of the many components that make up a person's identity, such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation and more. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • April Ellis, a 10th-grader at Mascoma Valley Regional High School, pins on a suicide prevention ribbon with Hanna Cook, also a 10th-grader at Mascoma, during Intersectionality Day on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, at the high school in Canaan, N.H. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Students take part in a Beginning Yoga class during Intersectionality Day on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in Canaan, N.H. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2017

Mid-morning Wednesday, when other high schoolers in the Upper Valley were busy solving algebra equations and taking vocab quizzes, students at Mascoma Valley Regional High School were unpacking the kinds of questions that many adults would be hard-pressed to ask, much less answer. They were also making tortillas, pounding on drums, bouncing basketballs and making artwork to the sound of John Mayer’s Waiting on the World to Change.

These and other activities were part of Intersectionality Day, a day-long event at Mascoma High School meant to give students the chance to explore such weighty topics as race, class, gender and sexuality, as well as the importance of self-care. Though these subjects aren’t often taught in schools, learning how to discuss them is a fundamental part of students’ education in the 21st century, said Julie Hogue, the mental health clinician at Mascoma High School whom colleagues described as the organizing muscle behind the day’s 28 workshops, of which each student could choose four.

“Intersectionality,” or the idea that different social identities can overlap to create a particular experience of discrimination, is a term that’s been around for a while — it was first coined in 1989 by the theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw — but for many people, it’s brand new, Hogue said. Hogue only learned the word six months ago, but it wasn’t long before she started imagining what an entire school day dedicated to the theme of intersectionality might look like.

“I was thinking about how lately, there’s just a little bit too much hatred in the news for me,” said Hogue in a recent phone conversation from her office, the week prior to Intersectionality Day. “It made me want to bring the community together to make all of us think about each other, and make room for each other.”

While some workshops were designed with the more textbook definition of intersectionality in mind, such as “Healthy Masculinity,” “From Cinderella to Malala: Depictions of Females in Film” and “Labels are for Jars,” others were dedicated to more tangential activities, so students could opt out of fraught discussions if they wished, while still engaging with the larger theme of mental and physical well-being, such as “Self-Care,” “Journey Drumming” and “Beginning Yoga.”

Math teacher Steve Stebbins, who was also the school’s photographer for the day, thought the breadth of workshops was an aspect of Intersectionality Day that may have been overlooked by the handful of parents who contacted the school with complaints about some workshops’ subject matter.

“I mean, the complaining part’s not rare,” he said. “Someone is usually upset about something.” He thinks some parents may have had a skewed understanding of what the day’s activities would entail — specifically that the workshops would be forcing an LGBTQ “agenda” onto students without parental consent, he said.

Neither Stebbins nor the Valley News was permitted to enter the workshops: Administrators expressed concern that students would be uncomfortable discussing sensitive subjects with a reporter and photographer present. But interviews with students between sessions and at lunch suggested an overall positive reaction to the day’s activities.

Dominic Orsino, 15, was pleasantly surprised by the nuanced approach that his workshop instructors had taken.

“I thought it was going to be this like, hippie-dippie, everyone’s-the-same kind of thing,” he said, waggling his fingers in the air and rolling his eyes. “But it turns out, it’s more about how we’re all different, and what that all means, which is much better.”

Orsino had deliberately signed up for workshops that had to do with racial issues, including “Immigration: Stories and Struggles,” “Implicit Bias & Racism” and “Race and Ethnicity in Science Fiction,” because he thinks these conversations are long overdue.

“We don’t have the greatest history with race,” he said, citing a racial incident in Canaan in 1835, when a short-lived school called Noyes Academy opened its doors to all students, regardless of race. Town residents demolished the school, and replaced it with the all-white Canaan Union Academy.

But overcoming racism isn’t only about learning from the mistakes of the past — it’s also about learning from the present, and looking beyond.

“It turns out science fiction actually lends itself really well to conversations about race and challenging people’s beliefs about race,” Orsino said. The workshop included an introduction to Afrofuturism, an ideological and artistic movement that imbues black culture and history with futuristic and fantastical themes.

Students who attend the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center, but take morning classes at Mascoma High School, were able to participate in the first workshop slot before heading to the Hartford campus. Among these students were Haleigh Grose and Robbie Corkin, who sat in the cafeteria after their workshops ended, listening to hard rock music on a large orange radio.

Grose, 16, had taken the workshop “Self-Care,” which was meant to help students understand what it means to practice self-care, and how to apply it to their individual needs. She said she signed up for that particular workshop because thinks she needs to start treating herself more kindly, but doesn’t quite know where to start.

“I don’t care for myself very well,” she said. “Poor self-image.”

Prior to the workshop, she had seen introversion and extroversion as black-and-white personality traits. Now, she said, she understands how a person can experience a combination of these traits, and how their self-care needs can differ accordingly.

“Like for me, I’m vocal about things,” she said, “But also if it were up to me, I would never see another person. I just mostly like to be left alone.”

Corkin, 17, had taken a workshop called “Where We Come From and Why it Matters,” which posed the question of how people are treated differently based on factors out of their control.

One activity in the workshop left a particularly strong impression on Corkin. Students stood side-by-side along a straight line, and were asked to step forward or backward in response to statements about privilege — such as “My parents have held down a consistent job throughout my life,” and “I have never had to worry about where I’m sleeping.”

At the end of the activity, Corkin noticed how his peers were distributed across the room. “I was the only one standing behind the privilege line,” he said, referencing the initial line that served as every student’s starting point.

Though this observation made him feel self-conscious in the moment, it also got him thinking about the extent to which his life had been shaped by other peoples’ choices — even people from centuries ago, like his ancestors who had been forced aboard the Mayflower to serve as crew members, he said.

“So were they like slaves?” asked Grose. “Or did they get paid?”

Corkin considered this. “I think they were basically slaves.”

“But the white people version of slaves,” Grose said.

“Valid point,” said Corkin. “Valid point.”

Hogue believes such peer-to-peer conversations about privilege, and the lack of it, can help students learn from each other how to become more thoughtful, well-informed citizens of the world. Figuring out how to talk about sensitive social subjects can take time, she said, and stressed that students must be given the benefit of the doubt as they find their footing in these dialogues.

In the interest of bringing in people who have been active in these dialogues for a while, Hogue enlisted the help of her child, Kelsie, who also helped with the planning and development of Intersectionality Day. The 25-year-old singer-producer, who goes by the stage name Sir Babygirl, is non-binary — a gender identity that means someone is neither exclusively male, nor exclusively female — and bisexual, two identities that can make it harder to be taken seriously in many fields, including the music and entertainment industries. Kelsie uses the pronouns she/her/hers and they/them/theirs, though also has more masculine-feeling days: When it comes to gender and pronouns, Kelsie’s view is, “Why choose just one?”

Kelsie graduated from Hanover High School, which has a reputation for being more progressive than many other schools in the Upper Valley, and had been discussing with Julie Hogue earlier this year about how to “spread the love” to Mascoma High School students who may be struggling with big questions about who they are, and what they believe.

In the spirit of making these questions safer for students to explore, Kelsie and Mascoma High School graduate Hannah Hoffman co-led a workshop called “GIRLSESH,” which provided a space for girls and non-binary people to empower themselves, and each other, through performance-based creative expression.

“It was amazing,” said Kelsie. Though neither of the morning “GIRLSESH” workshops had any students who identified themselves as non-binary, Kelsie’s primary goal was to communicate the message that all genders are equally valid. It wasn’t until meeting other non-binary people in college that Kelsie came to accept and embrace this identity, “but not everybody gets to go to college … so we want to plant the seed of awareness now that says, ‘you’re OK.’ ”

While most of Mascoma High School’s roughly 350 students have not personally faced discrimination based on skin color, sexual orientation or gender expression, there are some students — like some in the Intersectionality Club — who may have something to teach their peers, Hogue said.

These students include 17-year-old Mia Velez, who in several workshops shared her experiences as a young woman of color in such a racially homogenous community, and 16-year-old Riley Griffin, who led a workshop called “GSRM (Gender, Sexual, Romantic Minority) 101.” Griffin also works at the New Hampshire Teen Institute, a Manchester-based youth organization that was part of the collaborative effort behind Intersectionality Day.

Hogue expressed relief at the positive impression Intersectionality Day seemed to make on students, even those who went into workshops feeling indifferent or even skeptical.

“Nobody complained,” she said. “The next day, I had kids come up to me (who) said they were hesitant about the workshops. They didn’t understand what was going to happen in them. But you know what? They said it ended up being neat. And a lot of them said to me that they just felt like they had a lot to think about at the end of the day.”

It seems to her that not everybody — and certainly not everybody at Mascoma Valley Regional High School — is willing to wait on the world to change.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.