Anti-racist minicourses energize the community

Students and faculty work together to design and teach the new courses.

Jennifer Wagner
July 27, 2021
Charlie Coughlin

Charlie Coughlin preps for the minicourse, Where We Live: Racial Residential Segregations, from his carrel in the Class of 1945 Library.

Settled in his day student carrel on the third floor of the Class of 1945 Library, upper Charlie Coughlin taps a computer key to launch his 2 p.m. Zoom class. With each tick of the clock, new faces pop up on his screen until a critical mass of students, a couple of instructors and a doctoral candidate from UC Berkeley have all logged in.

It is the final meeting of Where We Live: Racial Residential Segregations — the minicourse Coughlin has been co-facilitating with Associate Dean of Multicultural Student Affairs Hadley Camilus over winter term. After some welcoming banter and professed sadness that the course is coming to its conclusion, Coughlin presses “play” on an eight-minute PBS NewsHour video clip about the gap between Black and white home ownership.

Residential segregation is a subject Coughlin wasn’t really familiar with a few months ago when he signed up to facilitate the class. He remembers being nervous at the onset. “I had this idea that in order to facilitate this anti-racist class, I had to be an expert,” he says. “I feel like in general people hold back from racial conversations because not only can they be uncomfortable, but they feel like because they don’t know enough about the subject, they should not partake at all. But I think it’s a really important step to understand that even though you’re not an expert, you can still participate and you can still learn about yourself through the conversations.”

Hadley Camilus

This minicourse is one of more than a dozen monthlong classes that were on offer over winter term as part of Exeter’s new anti-racist curriculum. Each minicourse was co-designed and co-taught by students and covered a broad range of intersectional topics, from the racialization of scientific thought to racial health care disparities and anti-oppression in athletics. The goals of Where We Live were to build an understanding of racialized systems of housing segregation, unpack language like “redlining,” “gentrification” and “urban renewal,” and, ultimately, help students think critically about their own community and communities around them.

“These minicourses have really picked up the energy around equity and inclusion that has already been in the air for a long time,” says Stephanie Bramlett, now in her third year as Exeter’s Director of Equity and Inclusion. “What they have allowed us to do is to move the curriculum forward in some ways that are incredibly important. Our curriculum isn’t quite where we want it to be, yet we don’t have to wait in order to connect our students with this material. It is important to provide the history and the context that they need to be working toward their anti-racist goals. … An inclusive school must have an inclusive curriculum.”

Of course, anti-racist work isn’t new to Exeter. Most academic departments have already begun incorporating social justice into their curriculum. “We’re not starting from scratch,” Bramlett says, mentioning a few examples: “At least 50% of the student body have taken part in English 320, which set the groundwork for this work, and the History Department has revamped its U.S. history curriculum to more center the experience of marginalized communities.” But this endeavor is different. “The difference between those spaces and these minicourses is that students get to choose where they would like to go. They get to choose what topic is most salient to them and what areas of their life they’d like to dig into and learn more about what being an anti-racist in that space means,” Bramlett says.

Race and ethnicity is something that I’m still grappling with and learning about. I look at the definitions and sometimes they conflict. I’m doing my own reading to understand the norms and complexities of these terms.”
Associate Dean of Multicultural Student Affairs Hadley Camilus

For Coughlin, the minicourse was an opportunity to reflect on his own neighborhood. “I’ve grown up in New Hampshire in a very white community,” he says. “I think there were two people in my entire elementary school that were not white. I’ve always been curious about how things developed to be that way. Why did this ever happen? Where’s this coming from? Now I’m beginning to understand the reasons behind the way things are.”

When the PBS video ends, Coughlin launches a game of Kahoot that he and Dean Camilus have prepared. The online interactive quiz is part conversation icebreaker, part practical technique to reinforce some of the definitions used in the news clip that may be unfamiliar or unclear. Some of the trickiest terms for the class to parse are “race” and “ethnicity.” When asked, “What collection of terms represents race?” two-thirds of the class choose the correct multiple-choice answer: Asian, American Indian, Black, white. To the statement, “Canadian and Chinese are terms that represent race,” most respond with the correct answer “False.”

The game highlights the complexity of the building blocks of conversation — the language itself. “One of the things that I have to admit to you all,” Camilus says, “is that race and ethnicity is something that I’m still grappling with and learning about. I look at the definitions and sometimes they conflict. For instance, I look at African American as an ethnic category not a racial category, but some would say it’s a racial category and not ethnic. Hispanic and Latinx in a lot of places is not regarded as a racial category. I’m doing my own reading to understand the norms and complexities of these terms. I encourage you to do the same because the definitions are always changing.”

We’re going to be talking about race for a long time, but it’s not always going to be about race. All oppression is interconnected.” 
Director of Equity and Inclusion Stephanie Bramlett

The last 25 minutes of class are reserved for Harkness discussion. It’s an opportunity for students to hear and consider multiple perspectives, expand one another’s capacity to understand and talk about social justice issues, and learn the tools to work toward a more just society. Before the discussion begins in earnest, Coughlin refers the group to the list of established norms he has posted in the group chat. They include: “Treat the candidness of others as a gift,” “Honor confidentiality,” “Suspend judgment of yourself and others,” “Lean into discomfort” and “Be fully present.”

The conversation is open and deep. When asked, “Why do you think laws alone haven’t solved the housing issue in this country?” one student says, “Systematic racism is built into us just as much as it is in the institutions. We are a product of that. … It’s something that must continually be fought against.” Another participant adds that there needs to be enforcement and the desire for enforcement and grassroots efforts to change how we view housing, how we view credit as ways of gaining social and economic capital.

As the class draws to a close, Camilus offers some final food for thought: “What are the consequences of growing up in a homogenous community and what can you do about that at PEA? Are there opportunities for you to immerse yourself in spaces where you’re not with the people with whom you identify to learn about them? Is the only learning you’ve committed to in the classroom or are you willing to join a club? Are you willing to get yourself in places where you aren’t as comfortable so you can challenge your own preconceived notions or simply to learn about other people? A small way to make a difference is to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to look for more opportunities to educate myself.’ I put that challenge before all of you.”

I think it’s a really important step to understand that even though you’re not an expert, you can still participate and you can still learn about yourself through the conversations.”
Charlie Coughlin '22

Where We Live and the rest of the winter term minicourses were just one part of a yearlong initiative that began with the introduction of a new, anti-racist block to the academic schedule in September. “These 45 minutes of dedicated time to talk about anti-racism did not exist before,” Bramlett says. “Five years ago, it would have been unheard of because there’s no possible way that we could change the schedule to do that. But we can do hard things. We did it.”

In the fall, the time was used to share the approaches that various departments, student groups and community leaders were taking in advancing anti-racist work across campus. “What was missing — and it was just painfully obvious to all of us — was the interaction,” Bramlett says. “You can’t have a meaningful conversation with a thousand people at the same time. Webinars allowed students to interact with the folks on the screen. But they weren’t really getting to talk to each other.”

In November 2020, a student-faculty design team began working on the winter and spring curriculum to allow for peer-to-peer interactions. Once the course topics were approved, training began to help the student-facilitators develop the skills they needed to engender a safe and inclusive environment for the group and to frame the discussion. Each facilitator attended two training sessions on anti-oppressive facilitation, read scholarly articles, learned new vocabulary, and worked to understand the difference between opinion and informed knowledge.

Other schools are addressing topics of diversity and inclusion, but in different ways. For some, it’s a distribution requirement. Certain courses are marked as DEI and every student has to take one course to graduate. Exeter’s program is built off one Bramlett started before coming to the Academy called Community Conversations. “We would amend the whole upper school schedule once a month for peer-led community conversations,” she says. “There’s a way that peers can lead other peers that is so different from hearing from an adult.”

In the spring, the anti-racist block evolved again and took on an increased focus on action. The term kicked off with a 21-day Racial Equity Habit Challenge. The challenge was based on the idea that it takes 21 days to form a habit. In this case, the hope was that students would make a habit of looking for opportunities to promote racial equity.

Of course, the work will not end with the school year, and Bramlett looks to the future and what next year’s program might look like. “Iterations are very important to equity and inclusion work,” she says. “Saying OK, this is going well, let’s keep doing more of that, and this is what’s not going well, let’s stop that and replace it with one of the strategies that are going well. That is part of the growth. That is part of the journey. One of the ways that oppression shows up in an organization is to put it out there and to have it be perfect. … We’re going to be talking about race for a long time, but it’s not always going to be about race. All oppression is interconnected. … My hope is that we will institutionalize carving out the time and space for the conversations that are important in our community.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the summer 2021 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

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