Editor’s note: The opinions below are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.
By Sarah Williams
Last weekend I attended a two-day Sites of Conscience training, where religious and political leaders in the Morristown community came together to discuss local racial and economic issues.
My parents informed me that Sites of Conscience is a program that works to connect past struggles to today’s movements for human rights.
Therefore, I wanted to attend one of the workshops to hear different perspectives on racial and economic issues. In my school, economic status creates a divide between blacks and whites, and I saw this training as the perfect opportunity to share my experiences.
On Friday, the group gathered in the Fellowship Hall at Bethel A.M.E. Church and had an open dialogue about how to address uncomfortable situations.
Friday dinner, slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin
People shared their experiences of feeling isolated because they held a different opinion from others. Once I got comfortable, I shared one of my personal experiences at my school, Morristown-Beard.
I explained how being an African-American female at a predominantly white school makes me feel alone sometimes, because I tend to be the only person of color in the classroom and hold a different viewpoint than everyone else.
However, I explained that after going to private school for most of my life, I’ve learned that in order to have a productive argument, one must find common ground.
So, whenever an issue arises in class, I shared how I always try to make sure everyone is starting in the same place to avoid defensive debates. This idea of a “common ground” also was carried into day two of the Sites of Conscience training.
The second day started off with a short lesson on how to lead discussions in the community by addressing four different aspects: Community Bonding, Sharing Diversity of Experiences, Exploring Perspectives Beyond Our Own Experiences, and Synthesizing and Bringing Closure.
We then split into groups and carried out mini discussions incorporating the four steps. The group I decided to join focused on microaggressions in schools.
Eight people, all differing in age, sat together and slowly puzzled through this issue. First, we simply talked about what microaggressions are and whether or not we see them in our daily lives.
We defined microaggressions as statements or actions that result in unintentional discrimination.
As the conversation progressed, we discussed how the demographic of the community plays a role in the classroom.
One example that was given was that if a black student from a poor area is invited to the house of a white student in a wealthier community, it can quickly become uncomfortable.
I shared how when I first came to Morristown-Beard, many of my friends were wealthier than me, and when I went to their homes, I felt out of place. They were living at such higher standards that I became embarrassed about where I came from and did not want them to see my house.
While I have grown out of this discomfort, it was not until I got to know my wealthier friends on a personal level that I was able to move past our economic differences.
My group agreed that this type of tension and discomfort follows students into school. A divide is created between the rich and the poor.
‘Sites of Conscience’ training, slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin
However, this divide does not just affect who is friends with whom; it affects what classes a student chooses to take.
One lady from the Morris School District explained that when she talks to black students about taking AP level courses, their response tends to be “no” — not because it is too challenging, but because it’s too “white.”
While my group’s intention was to discuss microaggressions, the conversation grew into something larger.
We discovered that the reason the majority of students taking rigorous courses are white might not be because they are smarter or because they are the majority, but rather because African-Americans do not feel comfortable being the only black people in their class. We learned the demographic of a community has larger effects that are not seen at first glance.
After participating in the Sites of Conscience Training, I was able to see the viewpoints of diverse people. I learned the main reason people have disagreements is because they are basing their arguments on completely different experiences, and someone must take initiative in the conversation and find a common ground in order to have a productive conversation.
This is definitely a program I want to attend again in the future, and I encourage everyone to do the same. Addressing the racial and economic problems in your community is crucial for making change.
Sarah Williams is a junior at the Morristown-Beard School, and a member of the Bethel A.M.E. Church. The Sites of Conscience training sessions were part of Bethel’s year-long celebration of its 175th anniversary in Morristown.